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Challenging Willy Loman: It Is Not Who You Know but What You Know

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Photo of Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock from the 1966 television presentation of Death of a Salesman. The program was rebroadcast in March 1967.

Photo of Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock from the 1966 television presentation of Death of a Salesman. The program was rebroadcast in March 1967.

The multiple award winning play “Death of a Salesman” written in 1949 by Arthur Miller is considered to be a powerful indictment of human reasoning when it comes to succeeding in life. What is often asked about the play is, why did Willy Loman have the mindset that he had, and was there any way it could have been changed to prevent his committing suicide? Willy's mindset was one created in a fantasy, believing that if he worked hard at being well liked, he could get anywhere he wanted to in business and life in general. In his mind, Willy is more concerned with being other-directed instead of inner-directed; the practice of passively influencing people through his being well liked, his only hope in life. The only problem with Willy's way of thinking is that he wound up a broken man, having only two friends, one being a neighbor, and influencing nobody, least of all himself. Such thinking immediately brings to mind Dale Carnegie's “How to win friends and influence people” published in 1936, and while this book is nowhere mentioned in Miller's play, almost presumes that at some point during his lifetime, Willy Loman read this popular book, yet misunderstood its premise.

As a 63 year-old traveling salesman, Willy clearly knows the business, even though times have changed, and with time, comes new methods of selling. Unable to get by on his personality as a salesman, Willy's sales skills are mediocre, nothing to make him stand out from the rest of the crowd, much less a higher position with the company he works for. His boss finds Willy to be incompetent and fires him, although Willy feels the real reason he is fired is because of his age, an early sign of his delusional way of thinking. But being fired is not the only problem Willy has; his relationship with his entire family is strained. His wife Linda tries to be supportive of him on the surface but when she looks objectively at him, realizes what is actually taking place, and being the good wife that she is, remains silent about it. Willy's two sons, Biff and Happy, also have a problem with their father's destructive mindset, most of it rubbing off on Biff, possibly because he is the older of the two boys. Biff is unable to live up to his father's expectations and the hot air pumped into him on a daily basis. The boy would prefer to have a job in the great outdoors, preferably out West, but his insecurity tells him to please his father instead. Willy of course could not possibly allow Biff to get the training needed for his dream job; ironically, Biff is the only Loman son who understands why his father is a failure at work and as a family man. In Willy's eyes, Biff is too good to be working outdoors and should in fact follow in his father's footsteps, being the astute businessman that he claims to be. Willy constantly reiterates to his wife and sons that his dreams will become reality, his climb up the career ladder in business happen, and compete effectively with his successful neighbor and friends, Charley and Bernard.

Charley made it to the top by working hard, not by trying to be well liked. Charley even offers Willy a job with his firm when the latter is fired, and of course Willy refuses, thinking that by accepting a job, would mean he cannot get anywhere on his own. Charley's son Bernard is a lawyer and makes good money, while Willy's sons are not making much of themselves simply because their father won't let them work at it. Biff is told that he is “too good” to be working hard (he failed math in high school), thus falling back onto the fantasy mindset being instilled into him. Naturally, Willy is jealous of Charley and Bernard, their success in life at business and family, the latter being secure in themselves, while Willy's perpetual insecurity only creates further rifts along the way. Charley sincerely cares about Willy, even loans him money to help pay the bills, in addition to giving him advice on getting back on the job. Willy would have none of it, stubborn as he is, and is left to wallow in his delusional fantasy land where success comes by hoping instead of doing. The only problem with hoping is that Willy ends up influencing no one and having only two friends show up at his gravesite after he commits suicide. When his wife Linda sees the two friends she wonders to herself, what happened to all those friends Willy claimed to have? Friends at work, friends he claimed he could influence by being well liked?

Willy Lohman never learned that it is not “who you know” but rather “what you know” in order to get ahead in life. It is no secret that many companies seek out and keep employees who are willing to grow on the job, learn and develop new skills in order to stay ahead with the times. Dreaming big means nothing unless one actually takes action to make success happen, and it is not by “making connections” either. As delusional as Willy is about thinking that being well liked will get him anywhere he wants to go in life, what he is really doing is sabotaging any potential he has at developing the practical skills he needed to stay in business.

It can be argued that Willy Loman lacked the sensible selfishness that his neighbors Charley and Bernard had, but that is possiby due to the fact that the word “selfishness” has so many negative connotations attached to it. Ironically, while “How to win friends and influence people” came out in 1936, “The Art of Selfishness” by David Seabury was published one year later in 1937 – the latter epitomizing the character analysis for Charley and Bernard. Both were books were very popular when they were first released, and would go on to numerous reprints. “Death of a Salesman” might remain a vague reminder of a reading requirement for a high school English class, but its message about success in life remains as strong as it did when the play first came out, a play worth re-reading as an adult. Remember it is what you know for getting ahead, not who you know.

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