The Immigrant’s Self Image: the thermostat of your success…

I often think of how wonderful the change is that I have experienced since immigrating.
I look at my income, at the fine things that I can buy, at the vacations that I can enjoy with my family and at the amazing business that we are growing and that gives us the financial conditions to afford all this “stuff”, and I still can´t believe that this is all really happening to me.
It is all good and I am super grateful for it, but in spite of everything, that is not what excites me the most about what has changed in my life.
The most wonderful and important thing that changed and that it is still constantly changing is my “self-image”; what I think about myself! In my first five years of being an Immigrant, this self-image was literally turned inside out, and even now keeps changing, or to be more precise, keeps stretching.
Despite the fact that this was the change which basically allowed all the other tangible changes to happen, it is the one that I struggle the most to explain to others.
When other immigrants ask me, after a speaking engagement or through messages, how I was able to sell my kitchen cabinet refacing service to strangers with my very poor knowledge of English, they are usually looking for a special formula, a trick, a particular technique. They expect a list of steps or a manual about “How to Sell Successfully without Knowing the Language!”
I don’t have it: I wouldn’t know where to begin. It is not what I said or the order of the points I made that helped me to convince customers to write a cheque and commit to a job of $10, 15, or $30,000 : I am sure that sales experts could put together a step-by-step list of how to become more efficient when selling something to a prospective client, which could be applied even if you have a communications handicap, but certainly not me. I am very spontaneous, even when I sell.
I started my business while still working full-time at a window factory. I registered the name of the company, but I had no idea of how I was going to get customers. I knew that I was going to provide a kitchen cabinet refacing service, which was something quite new in the Greater Toronto Area, so I felt that aiming at such a narrow niche, where almost nobody was operating, meant that I had the entire market to myself: on paper, I was a winner already!
The fact that my slice of the market was so narrow, so specific and so new required something that I had not thought about before: intense consumer education! Most people had no idea of what kitchen cabinet refacing was, and my challenge was to educate them before selling to them, and all this needed to happen with my limited English skills! Quite discouraging, eh? It was, it really was…
I remember investing all the money that we didn’t have [maxed-out credit card…] in a Yellow Pages ad. It was going to be printed in the famous, now obsolete, big yellow phone book that everyone used to have in their phone cabinet. An investment that would buy exposure for one full year.
The ad started working: I was receiving an average of two calls per day, and while working all day at the factory, I was booking appointments for the evenings. At five PM, I would rush home, have a quick dinner with my wife and leave to visit my potential customers for an estimate… and usually I would come back after an hour or two, empty-handed and with my head hanging down.
This went on for several months. It must have been roughly somewhere between my 50th and 60th appointment when I finally got my first job: it was at Mrs. Maloney’s residence in Burlington, Ontario. I will always remember this lady: she didn’t seem like the friendliest person in the world, but she was my very first customer and she will always have a special place in my heart. She trusted this Italian Immigrant who could hardly speak English with her money and her kitchen project.
It was pretty funny because I would literally sweat to explain the procedure, how the job was going to go and the advantages of refacing versus getting a brand new kitchen, using my limited vocabulary, wrong words and mispronunciations. Annoyed, she would say: “Ok, let me see if I understood…”, repeating what I told her in real English! It is funny to remember it all now, but it was draining at the time.
At my 5th estimate, an elderly man in his 80’s with a strong English accent received me in his house, but only allowed me to speak for five minutes and then literally showed me the door, saying: “How can you expect me to hire your service when I don’t even understand you?” Yes, I got kicked out, and yes, it was humiliating. On the inside, my soul was bleeding: until that point in my life, nobody had ever made me feel so small, not even a few years earlier during my mandatory Italian army service, when I had gone through a lot of “purposely inflicted” psychological abuse from my superiors during military training.
After the victorious Mrs. Maloney estimate, things didn’t suddenly change for the better. It took at least two years until I was able to secure enough jobs to keep myself busy for two weekends per month, but very slowly, things improved. I was definitely still far from being able to leave my full-time job, and I didn’t have the courage to do that anyway. I remember thinking, “It is better to only have this much business instead of having a lucky wave with kitchen work every day, quitting my full-time job, and then running out of work after a few months…”
I now know that with that thinking I was sabotaging my own growth and delaying the success of Techno Kitchen Refacing. The problem was not the language anymore – I was convincing myself that the language was the problem, but it wasn’t (or at least it wasn’t the main problem).
Everything in our life is related to our self-image; to what we believe about ourselves!
The picture about myself that I was holding in my mind was of a poor immigrant struggling to learn English, from whom nobody would feel comfortable buying a service worth thousands of dollars; so basically, according to my self-image, it was a miracle that I had managed to get those few jobs at all.
The picture I was holding was also of this immigrant that belonged to a family in Italy where nobody had ever been successful at even trying to start a business. I believed that, like the rest of my family, I belonged to the group of human beings that have been put in this world just to be employees.
I saw myself as always struggling for money and not living in abundance. I couldn’t picture myself living in abundance because nobody in the circle of people I knew was like that, and the only wealthy ones that I knew where not even nice people; that’s why I couldn’t see myself making a lot of money, because I was afraid I was going to be like those not-so-nice people I knew.
Like most Immigrants, we immigrate to reach specific goals, and for some of us those goals are so big that they become wonderful dreams; we want them with all our hearts, we are ready to work hard and sweat blood for them! All the good intentions are there, but sadly, once we start to encounter obstacles, we become “realistic”, our shoulders droop, our breathing becomes shallow and we just let our circumstances and other people define our lives and our possibilities.
Do you know what being “realistic” means? Validating and empowering the image we have of ourselves and believing in the bombarding, negative self-talk that happens when we think about who we are. Please know that when people ask you to be “realistic”, they are unknowingly asking you to be the same person you were when you left your homeland, nothing better! Do you know why they are doing so? Because that is the image you have projected to them so far; they perceive what we believe about ourselves, no more and no less.
Is that the reason you went through all the pain of leaving loved ones and the effort of adapting to a new culture? Wasn’t it really to discover how great you really are? Wasn’t it to make a positive difference for all the people you meet? Wasn’t it to fully enjoy what this life has to offer?
How did I change my self-image?
– When, instead of seeing myself as a cowardly guy who wasn’t able to overcome the obstacles of making it in Italy, I started to see myself as a courageous man for leaving my loved ones and my country and starting a new life in North America, that’s how I changed my self-image.
– When, instead of seeing myself as a stubborn, closed-minded little man, I started to see myself as a smart man for giving myself and my future family the possibility of getting better opportunities, and as being open-mind to multiculturalism in a North American country, that’s how I changed my self-image.
– When, instead of seeing myself as a needy little guy always in search of convenient circumstances, always worried about being taken advantage of, and convinced that he was born unlucky, I started to see myself as someone that had a lot to give, a lot to enjoy and with unlimited potential, and that’s how I changed my self-image.
– And the list can go on and on….

In 2007, I was grossing around $150,000 with Techno Kitchen Refacing, with $90,000 expenses and working insane hours between installations and numerous estimates. When I stopped seeing myself as the insecure guy who didn’t know who he was and had never achieved anything important, when I stopped seeing myself as having a perennial fear of failure, and instead I started seeing, talking and feeling like an entrepreneur, everything shifted around. In two years, I had two employees, a showroom, and even if I hadn’t started to live a fancy life yet, my gross volume went up to $400,000 yearly.

Please understand; “Nobody has it easier than the Immigrant when it is about changing his/her self-image; nobody (or very few) will challenge your new you, because in your new country nobody (or very few) really knew your old you”.

Stay awake,