Above and Beyond

Sometime before I was born, my mother sold shoes in a department store. And so, as we’d hit up the back-to-school sales every August, she would begin her refrain. “No one knows how to sell shoes these days!”

Up and down the aisles, in and out of stores, she repeated her mantra as my sister and I trailed behind her. Each of us was hard to fit—my sister a 5W, myself a 6N—and she was unrelenting. A power-shopper if there ever was one, she zigzagged us back and forth across town until we finally collapsed in the back seat long after sunset.

The sellers committed various transgressions, most of which involved trying to fit the foot to the shoe, rather than the shoe to the foot. They offered all manner of padding and inserts in their attempts to transform ill-fitting glass slippers into gloves. My mother never fell for any of it.

I can hear her now: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, for God’s sake, DON’T wear it.” (Helpful advice for any number of situations, in addition to shoes.)

Even worse than the inserts, however, was the seller who offered nothing. After carefully examining every shoe in the store, making our selections, and requesting our sizes, we would wait on the bench in hopeful anticipation. Eventually, the harried salesperson would emerge from the back room, offering only a shrug and, “Sorry, we don’t have it in your size.”

On the way out, my mother would give us a lesson not only in selling shoes but in choosing to go above and beyond for your fellow human being. First of all, she said, you must never return from the back room empty-handed or even with a single pair of shoes. Instead, whether the customer’s requested shoe is in stock or not, you should return with multiple suggestions to match her size, her style, and her life. The first shoe rarely fits, so you’ll want to place some options immediately at her disposal. Give her a sense of abundance, but not overwhelm. Pay attention to what she really wants, not just what she says she wants. And if, after all, nothing fits, blame the shoes, never the foot.

Finally, if you already know from the start that you’ve got nothing that will properly suit her needs, don’t waste her time. Give her the name of a store where she can find it, and offer her directions for getting there too.

Although I’ve never sold shoes, I’ve often thought of this advice as a roadmap for working and living and interacting with others. It’s not about working extra long hours or trying to take on more than is humanly possible. It’s about seeking small, everyday opportunities to delight, surprise, and genuinely help the strangers and intimates we encounter.