Thomas Jefferson’s Canons of Conduct

This past fall, my wife and I took our children and my mother-in-law to Charlottesville, VA.  We went to Carter’s Mountain to go apple picking.  After spending the morning picking apples, we ate lunch at Michie Tavern which is at the base of Carter’s Mountain.  After lunch, we made an impromptu decision to tour the grounds of Monticello.  Monticello was the home of Thomas Jefferson.  In the gift shop, there was a poster that listed Thomas Jefferson’s Canons of Conduct. 

Thomas Jefferson often took the time to advise his children and his grandchildren on matters of personal conduct.  He sent what is known as the Canons of Conduct to a number of people through the years.  This list of axioms for personal behavior was a curated list ways to live your life.  Some of these appear to have been his own thoughts, while others may have been derived from classical or literary sources.  The official list was from a letter he sent to John Spear Smith.  John was married to Cary Ann Nicholas, the daughter of Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas.  Here are the Canons of Conduct

  1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today
  2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself
  3. Never spend your money before you have it
  4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you
  5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold
  6. We never repent of having eaten too little
  7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened
  9. Take things always by their smooth handle
  10. When angry, count to ten, before you speak, if very angry, a hundred.

I think each of these can be applied to your life as a sales professional.

Never put off til tomorrow what you can do today: Any good professional has a to-do list.  Maybe you use a technology tool to help keep track, maybe you use Pen and Paper.  Regardless you always have things you can be doing.  Get it done today!  Do not wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes with its own list of things to do.
Never trouble another for what you can do yourself: My first boss always said to bring him solutions, not problems. I am thankful for his approach because it forced me to think of ways I can solve the problem myself.  I may need approval to get it done, but at least I thought of a potential solution. The more self-sufficient you are, the more you do for yourself, the more valuable you become to your organization. 
Never spend your money before you have it: This has two different meanings for sales professionals.  First, as I mentioned in my book, you need to have a strong budget and only spend what you have.  Second, a sales deal is not done until the ink is on paper and everything has taken place that is required for you to get paid commission.  Do not spend that money, do not mentally cash that check until you have completed everything.
Never buy what you don’t want, because it is cheap. It will not be dear to you: The valuable lesson here is around how you price the product.  Offering a discount to get the deal will cheapen your product in the eyes of the buyer.  The best example is how Sirius XM radio does their pricing.  They tell you the retail price is something close to $15.00 per month.  They will then offer you a deal that prices the product out at around $4-$5 per month for 5 or 6 months.  After that period the normal rate of $15.00 per month kicks in.  I always negotiate it down to the $4 per month range because, to me, the product has been cheapened down to that price.  
Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold: I have not done any scientific research but I think that a sense of pride is important in being a great sales professional.  You need pride in your company, product or service and yourself.  But Jefferson thought there was an amount of pride that was too much.  Having too much pride can hurt your ability to be empathetic, to listen and be a good salesperson. If you go that far down the pride continuum, it will hurt you more than anything else could.
We never repent of having eaten too little: I mentioned in another post about how to travel without getting fat.  If you ever visit Monticello and take the guided tour, you will see that Jefferson designed the house to allow for entertaining.  Entertaining would mean eating.  Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins and I think Jefferson was trying to point out that eating too little is not a bad thing.  When you travel and entertain your prospects, focus on good food but do not try and eat the most food.  For example, you can enjoy a good 6oz filet just as much as the 10oz version or the Tomahawk steak that is also on the menu. 
Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly: There are not many sales professionals that say they really love prospecting and cold calling.  But it is something that we have to do.  Prospecting is about having the right mindset and this is what Jefferson is hitting on.  Do you willingly schedule time to prospect into your calendar or are you forced to prospect because your company tells you to, because your pipeline is dry or because of some other reason?  If you accept that you have to prospect and do it willingly, you will start to view it as less troubling and less of a pain in the butt.
How much pain has cost us, the evils that which have never happened: This one took some thinking, it seems almost like a tongue twister or a riddle.  But what he is talking about is how much time do you spend worrying about something that you have no control over and happens in the future.  The perfect example I can think of is the weather.  I live in Southeastern Virginia near the beach.  Each year we will at some point during the year face the likelihood of a hurricane hitting our coast.  The local media will start talking about a hurricane about 2 weeks before it is scheduled to make landfall.  During that time it could weaken, move out to sea, change paths or hit us.  I see many of my friends frantically preparing for a hurricane that may not hit us, they go out and buy tons of water and bread, they monitor the news for 2 weeks straight worrying about a storm that may never hit us.  I try to get them to relax until about 5 days out, that is when the cone of certainty starts to get more accurate.  Are there things in your sales world that are outside your control and way off in the future.  Do not let those things that have never happened to impact you in a negative way.
Take things always by their smooth handle: A smooth handle is not going to hurt you.  A rough handle has the chance to splinter and hurt you.  Within each sales opportunity, you need to look for the smooth handle.  This could be the right person, the right reasons for them to buy and why they would want to buy.  If you reach for the rough end, you a putting your opportunity at risk.
When angry, count to ten, before you speak, if very angry a hundred: Customers, prospects, managers, and co-workers can do things to upset you.  Before you respond, follow Jefferson’s advice and count to ten.  

Jefferson did a lot of things in his life but from my studies, I don’t think he was ever a salesperson, but I think his Cannons of Conduct would have been a good start to the first ever sales book.  Let me know if you think any of these should be modified.

We could not figure out what he was looking at.

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