As the summer after high school graduation fades, incoming freshmen await the start of college with some universal questions: Am I choosing the right major? Can I handle the workload? Will I get along with my roommate? But for John Robinson, determined to succeed in his first taste of living away from home, there was an important additional hurdle: can I learn to fasten my pants on my own before classes start in the fall? Fortunately, Robinson was able to solve the dilemma with the help of a seamstress friend and some variations on Velcro® fasteners.
Robinson was born a congenital amputee. His arms end at his elbows, without hands. His lower legs are attached to his hips, without knees, and he stands threefoot-nine as an adult. A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Robinson has two decades of sales experience in media and has won numerous accolades as a top-billing account executive. Married with three children, he enjoys being an “arms-on” dad, volunteering at his daughter’s school and coaching his younger son’s soccer team.
In his new memoir, Get Off Your Knees: A Story of Faith, Courage, and Determination, Robinson talks in a straightforward, personal voice about growing up with his disability. He shares the intimate details of his life and philosophy, including an early discovery that the best solutions of doctors and other experts often aren’t that helpful, and the awareness that his best resource is frequently his own ingenuity.
Recounting the humorous and the painful, the upbeat and the maddening, Robinson explores a common dialectic experienced by people living with a disability: the experience of being just like everybody else, but also not like anybody else, at the same time.
There are a few things I’ve come to accept regarding my physical disability: (1) I’m never again going to ride a roller coaster (once is enough), (2) I’ll never be taller than my children again, and (3) I’m going to make quite a first impression on people. In the latter case, I will do everything in my power to make you forget this initial impression. You see, the most important skill I’ve acquired as a person with a disability is that I am keenly aware of my first impression and how it might affect others.
Generally, that first impression of me causes shock, awe, or surprise, and that’s not what I want people to remember. I want them to remember me for the person I am on the inside, not just what they see on the outside. It’s not easy to do, especially in the sales world, where first impressions are everything. But if I can get a potential client to put aside what I look like and at least think about who I am on the inside (educated, responsible, hardworking, funny, very knowledgeable about the TV industry), it’s ultimately to his benefit.
I have spent a lifetime trying to overcome and block out people’s first impressions of me, but there have been some memorable failures. In 1998 I flew to Norfolk, Virginia, to interview for a sales job with an NBC affiliate. The sales manager was to pick me up at the airport, but had no idea what I looked like, other than that I would be wearing a shirt and tie. I chose not to reveal my physical disability to him beforehand because I didn’t think I had to; after all, would someone who is African-American be expected to tell a potential employer she is black?
When I arrived at the airport, the guy walked right past me. I knew it was him, and I was certain he knew who I was because we were the only two people at the airport dressed for business. I chased him down and said, “Are you looking for John Robinson? I’m John.” He immediately did a double take. There was an uncomfortable silence, and I could see that he was embarrassed. The interview might as well have ended right there, because I could tell by his reaction he was uncomfortable with me, and I didn’t want to work with someone who was more concerned with how I looked than whether I was a good salesperson. I did learn a few valuable lessons from this experience, however. From that point on, I made sure to tell people in advance about my outward appearance, even though I didn’t think it was necessary or appropriate. The experience taught me that I should be comfortable enough to say, “Hey, I have a physical disability, and you should know it.” Invariably, what happens is the potential employer or client says it doesn’t matter, but whether it does or it does not, at least he knows. It shouldn’t be important, but to an older generation that may be less accepting or educated about these physical differences, it might be.
That point brings me to the second lesson: it is my responsibility to come prepared for whatever reaction people have toward me. If I can sense someone is uneasy, I’ve got to do my best in those first few minutes to make him feel more comfortable. The unfortunate part about the Norfolk experience was that I wasn’t concerned at all about first impressions or what I’d say during the interview process. I was supremely confident I could do the job. I was more worried about getting on and off the plane, how I was going to carry my bag, and whether I could find a suitable bathroom to use at the airport. It never crossed my mind that the sales manager might have a problem with my appearance. I wasn’t ready for that kind of response, nor was I capable of defusing the situation.
It’s not easy to make people forget their first impressions of you when you stand less than four feet tall and when they can’t see you when you’re standing on the other side of their desks. To overcome that obstacle, I try to get them to talk about themselves as quickly as possible, which shifts the attention away from me. I might try to interject a little humor or find some common ground with that person. For example, if I see that he has a Syracuse diploma on his wall, I’ll find out right away if he is a sports fan and get his take on the Oranges’ new football coach or their most recent basketball game. Maybe she has a Cleveland Browns banner on her wall, in which case I’ll make sure to poke fun at her for my Pittsburgh Steelers’ most recent demolition of her team. What you can’t do is have a negative reaction or no reaction at all, because it will just make the person feel even more uncomfortable. In the sales world, you have to put the client at ease, and humor is one way to break the ice and get the client to engage you in conversation. Usually, people are so surprised by how I look that they immediately let their guards down and become more curious about me. Once I get them interested in me, then I have the opening I need to start talking about them and what their needs are.
There are two kinds of reactions I see when people first get a look at me: either they’re surprised and embarrassed and just want to get on with business, or they smile right through, at which point we both can laugh a little bit. I have to read people and see how uncomfortable they are through their initial reactions toward me. One thing that has helped is my interaction with kids. When kids meet me, they have the most unfi ltered reactions: “Why do you look so funny?” “Why are you so short?” Where are your hands?” Kids will say anything, whereas their parents will bite their tongues. Parents might think these questions privately, but they’ve been taught not to speak them. Some kids addressing me have embarrassed their parents to the point that they are pulled away from me or, even worse, screamed at! I immediately tell the parents that questions are okay. Kids see eye to eye with me, so they can’t understand why their parents would get angry at them. Their reactions are normal and honest, and they probably reflect the same response adults have toward me. Let’s face it, when a child sees me in the grocery store and says, “See, that guy has no hands,” she is right.
Learning how to deal with children has helped me better manage my first impressions with adults. I answer the kids’ questions, make light of the fact that I am different, and try to be as positive as possible. It’s the same thing I do with adults. That doesn’t mean I’m always perfect. My wife, Andrea, likes to remind me that in one very angry moment I said to an especially obnoxious child, “It’s because I didn’t eat my vegetables.” That one had the child’s parents laughing while he cringed. It was one of my better jokes, but it’s one that I try to keep under wraps now.
Once I get beyond the initial first impression, I still have to make a sale. I have to sell my abilities to the potential employer or client and convince him that I do have something to offer his business. Before I got my fi rst sales job with WSTM-NBC3 in Syracuse in 1994, I interviewed with about twenty other stations. I had the degree and the know-how to get any one of those jobs, but I didn’t have enough job experience for it to be the tipping point. They could all cite my lack of experience for not hiring me, although I’m sure if I were able-bodied I would have landed one of them.
Eventually, what it came down to at WSTM is that I really wanted to sell for them and I found somebody I could connect with, someone who looked beyond my appearance and bought into the fact that I was a viable candidate. Still, even after I told the sales manager I’d work for the station at 100 percent commission, he had to convince his boss that I was someone worthy of hiring.
His boss’s chief concern was, “How do we fire this guy if it doesn’t work out?” Fortunately, they gambled on me.
I had all of the things they needed in a salesperson: I was eager to work, I was willing to make sales calls, I was memorable (more on that subject later), and I could talk about television as a product. During the interview, the sales manager who hired me, Bob Eckel, said, “Sell me this coffee mug.” Instead of saying, “Here’s a mug—it’s white and it’s durable,” I said, “Here’s something that will get your morning off to a great start.” It was exactly what he wanted to hear because he didn’t want me selling the mug; he wanted me selling the coffee that was in the mug. That’s what all owners want. They advertise with you because they want more patrons to walk into their stores or places of business. They don’t care as much about the actual advertisement as they do about the number of people who see it.
I was willing to accept WSTM’s offer of a 100 percent commission job with no existing accounts because I believed in myself enough that if someone were willing to take a chance on me, I’d take a chance on him. Sometimes you have to make some concessions in order to get what you want; the payoff will come later. It’s all about looking at obstacles as opportunities. Put yourself in the shoes of the employer and ask yourself, “Why do I take a chance on you?” In today’s economic climate, there are a lot of people looking for work and not a lot of jobs to be had. The demand far outweighs the supply. If you have a physical disability, the odds are stacked even more heavily against you. Seventy percent of all people with disabilities are unemployed!
If you are among that 70 percent, or if you’re part of the growing national unemployment rate, keep plugging away. If you get an interview, make the best first impression possible under the circumstances. Don’t walk in there with a defeatist attitude or a “the world owes you” attitude. Tell the employer what you have to offer and why you can make a difference for him. If you’re a wounded veteran coming back from Iraq without an arm or leg, you need to think about what you have to offer society, not what you can’t do. You have the kind of technical training and discipline that few other people have; you matter to some employer. Conveying that idea to the person sitting across the table or desk from you is all that really matters. It’s how you get someone to forget that awkward first impression.
Of course, if you are a person with a disability, the first impression can work either for or against you. I said earlier that one advantage to being as short and funnylooking as I am is that I am memorable. People are always going to remember me for how I look. And in my business, where first impressions are critical, that fact is a huge plus. There’s a reason pharmaceutical companies hire young, attractive people (mostly women) in sales: they want you to remember who’s doing the selling. If a TV station has a sales staff of eight people, you can bet at least two of them will turn a few heads. It’s part of the world we live in.
Look at some of the advertisements you see on television. You’ve got these local car dealerships screaming into your sets, trying to set themselves apart from their competition with the loudest, most outrageous promotion they can come up with. Why? Because it’s memorable! Readers in the New York metropolitan area probably remember those Crazy Eddie electronic-store ads from the 1970s and ‘80s with the frenetic lead character screaming, “His prices are insane!” Those ads were widely popular and helped the chain earn more than 300 million dollars in sales.
The television industry is no different from the real world: we’re all trying to stand out and be noticed. If you’re dating someone new, what do you do? You wear your best clothes, look nice, and try to smell good. It’s your way of marketing your best qualities by highlighting your differences. In the sales world, my physical disability is what allows me to set myself apart from my peers. My disability is louder than any commercial or gimmick. But once I have the recognition, I still must provide substance. Just like the attractive salesperson with the million-dollar smile, I’ve got to be able to back it up. I can’t just go in there looking the way I do and say, “Listen to me.” I have to say, “I’m John Robinson. I’m here to talk to you about something specific to your business, and here’s why you need to listen to me. I can help grow your business. I can drive traffic to your store. I can enhance your image in the community.”
I have to produce that much more, because as the earlier example from Norfolk shows, being memorable isn’t always a one-way ticket to the promised land. Whether you’re a person with a disability like me or a war veteran, burn victim, or short in stature, that first impression is something you have to nail. It can be an opportunity for you, but only if you’re keenly aware of how that first encounter may affect other people. You must be prepared to show them that you’re much more than just what they see on the outside, or on a piece of paper. Find out what it is you have to offer, whether it’s a job you’re seeking or a relationship you’re trying to further along and, like the maniac in the Crazy Eddie commercials, be passionate.