“Be well-liked,” booms Wendell Pierce at the stalls in London’s Piccadilly Theatre. He is there playing Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, the salesman explaining to his boys how to make it big. With swagger, a suitcase of merchandise in the back of a Chevy, a road map of New England and a bunch of good values, you can do anything — you can be the American dream.
I was sitting in the theatre a few weeks ago, absorbed in the drama of mid-century US commerce, the frailty of ego and failed dreams, when a rat of a thought crossed my mind: “Joy, you should add that recent thing you did to your LinkedIn profile — talk yourself up.” Hey, where did that come from? This show has had five-star reviews. Now is not the time to be thinking about self-aggrandisement on a business networking site.
But it hung around. Death of a Salesman might have been written in the 1940s, but it is a show for the age of LinkedIn. Loman is full of mantras made to be hashtagged: “#createpersonalinterest”, “#makeanimpression”. If the phrases “personal branding” and “business intelligence” had existed, they’d be in his lexicon. What he cannot discuss with his boys is failure. And on LinkedIn there’s no such thing.
If you don’t recall the play, the title will tell you this does not go well. In the margins, Loman’s wife queries his boasts about his $1,200 sales, whittles him down to the real number — $200 — and realises his commission will barely cover the repairs and repayments on the refrigerator and vacuum cleaner. Theirs is a hire-purchase life. The salesman’s oxygen is success. His wife, knowing he’s on the edge, worries that failure will mean self-administered monoxide from the Chevy’s exhaust.
These days LinkedIn is full of futurists, optimists, connectivists, enthusiasts. It is an endless scroll around two main themes — “you could be doing better if only . . . ”, with tips on innovation and inspiration; and “look how well I’ve done”, accompanied by a photograph of someone on stage giving a speech or receiving an award, designed to make us envious. There’s no one in the margins saying, “Hey bud, I’ve just checked your company’s last balance sheet and things aren’t looking so good. Need any help?”
Back home after the show, I searched “LinkedIn” and “Death of a Salesman” with half an idea that some business person might have opened up online to say they felt for Willy or felt like him. The first thing served up was LinkedIn’s own “content desk” writer asking the question: “Could social selling have saved Willy Loman?”
Answer? He need not have died, says the writer, if he’d used different selling techniques. He shouldn’t have relied on charm alone. One has to demonstrate expertise. The best social sellers “showcase their understanding of their products — and how they intersect with a particular customer’s pain points”. His loneliness on the road would be alleviated by joining online networks, and “if Willy Loman were willing to change his ways [LinkedIn’s Social Selling Index] would provide the ideal support for helping him to do so.”
So there you have it: had he just got LinkedIn, Miller needn’t have bothered to write the play and Marilyn might never have noticed him.
I suppose posts about 5am meditation and enhancing your pitch deck may be the way to become #well-liked. It may also be the way to a Willy Loman style-madness. Behind the big talk there must be lots of people worn down by long hours, stagnant sales, hidden anxiety about failure and with the added burden of having always to be buoyant on LinkedIn.
I found another article on Willy Loman. Its writer identified his desire to die a great man of commerce as misguided. The thing Loman had really enjoyed and done well was building the stoop outside his house, and the porch and the cellar. “Had Willy followed his strengths and become a carpenter he would have been far more successful than being a mediocre salesman,” he wrote. In other words, Willy was destined to be a lesser mortal than these sales and management gods. It could have been “Life of a Handyman”.
There’s not much carpentry on LinkedIn but there are a few construction industry award ceremonies. Of course, if you choose this alternative life yourself, like Willy’s eldest son Biff, who wants to be a rancher, that’s fine. But to be told to pick up tools?
Willy Loman never wanted to be his father, who carved flutes and travelled in a wagon. Instead he admired the next step up: a distinguished salesman in velvet slippers who made his sales calls by telephone.
And here is the segregation of LinkedIn: success and failure can’t mix. If you can’t hack this space for the successful, go elsewhere. This particular post was written in 2017 by a man in “commercial, financial and portfolio management”, and I presume he set out with good intentions. But giving advice often boxes people in rather than liberating them.
It has been 70 years since the first performance of Death of a Salesman. That rat thought I had in the theatre has infested us all. Self-promotion and patronising advice are in, truth is out. So Miller’s tragedy about failure was itself a failure. We learnt nothing. Being #well-liked is what drives all online social networks. Not quite what Miller had in mind when he wrote the line.
Follow Joy on Twitter @joy_lo_dico