At first glance, Ben Buckwalter’s life looks like your typical rags to riches story. The 26-year-old St. Louis entrepreneur dresses sharp, drives a couple of fancy foreign-made cars, and rarely visits the town he grew up in. He has a thriving career as a sales trainer and consultant, and brought home his first million at the ripe age of 25. It sounds like a crash course in the American Dream, but this wasn’t always the case.
Ben took some pretty crappy jobs on his way up, and he thinks you should too.
Just a few short years ago, Ben Buckwalter was shoveling landscaping dirt and annoying strangers on the phone. His first job was a grunt gig at a gardening business. Day in, day out, he moved soil around in the hot sun while avoiding jabs from his demonstrative supervisor.
“I’ve never been good at manual labor,” says Ben. “In fact, I hated it – probably because I was so terrible at it. And after high school, I became desperate to find out how people were making money without breaking their backs.”
In Quincy, Illinois, where the average salary is around $26,000 a year, this might have been as good as it gets for a college dropout like Ben Buckwalter. Wake up early. Work all day in the heat. Get yelled at. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
“At that moment in time, I was only thinking of survival, I suppose. Not really even thinking I could thrive,” he says. In his conservative Midwest town, most people kept their heads down and worked hard just to get by. “The best-case scenario for the average person in the area would be working at a factory job,” says Ben, noting that $15-25 an hour is considered “making it” in Quincy.
“I learned that there was no way in hell I was settling for my life to be that,” he says of the dead-end garden center job. “I hated it. I hated the way the managers talked to me. They were so demeaning and truly made it clear you were a grunt that was replaceable.”
The hard work and hazing he took there could have been pretty crippling for Ben. Shoveling topsoil couldn’t be the only path for a small-town kid with ADHD, but from where he was standing, his options looked pretty narrow. “I wasn’t good at school,” he says, “so I felt kind of depressed thinking about what my future was going to be.” Growing up with ADHD, he had always struggled to stay on task and hadn’t found anything that could keep him engaged all day. Until he started his first sales job.
“It almost felt like a game to me,” he says. “I was getting instant gratification for my efforts, and it was happening over and over,” he remembers. “A rush of dopamine 10 times a day.” Ben was closing sales and was putting his intrinsic tenacity to good work. “For the first time in my life, it was like ADHD was working in my favor,” he says. “Sales was the first thing that kept me stimulated all day long.”
Working in a drab insurance call center isn’t exactly a dream job for most people, but Ben made the best of it. He was galvanized by the experience and didn’t seem to mind the verbal abuse that a special few reserves for telemarketers.
“I was just so thankful to be indoors and under the air conditioning that I was like, “If I can get yelled at sitting indoors in cold air versus being yelled at outside in the heat shoveling dirt, I would take that any day.’”
Ben also knew that shoveling faster didn’t equate to more money, but in sales, his earnings were directly linked to his performance. He was paying his dues and honing his craft at the call center and starting to plan for the future. He caught a lot of flack from friends who found out he wanted to own his own business and was constantly being told to “be realistic.”
“I think the reality is whatever you want it to be,” he counters. He thinks people use the word realistic when they really mean “fit in,” “do what you’re told,” and “be thankful for what you have.”
“When you are in a position in life where you don’t have anything, it just really makes taking risks and going all in very attractive. I didn’t have a car. I was a college drop out,” he says. “But I am thankful for this. It drove me to take risks the average person would not take because I truly didn’t have anything to lose.”
“It was either: I try this and fail and work at a factory, or don’t do anything and still work at a factory.” For Ben Buckwalter, starting at the bottom wasn’t exactly a choice, but the skills and perspectives he gained there have made him who he is today. “It taught me grit, humility, empathy, perseverance. Basically every good characteristic about me was derived from working towards success and building a business.”
“You know when people say, ‘I’ve built a business?’ Well, I think business built me,” says Ben Buckwalter. “I was a young, immature, naive teenager when I first started my journey, and every level of success required me to evolve. If I wanted to be a leader, I had to be worth following.”
And leading he is. He’s teaching others the sales techniques he discovered the hard way, surrounding himself with ambitious people, and always looking for ways to level up.
“I want to be the poorest person in the room with the fewest accomplishments,” he says. “This is how I stay inspired and push myself to see what more I am capable of.”
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