Through no virtue of my own and entirely as a result of either luck or divine intervention,* I have had for years a very nice, well compensated job. Strangely enough, I am also the embodiment of exactly the feature set most loathed in today’s youth: lazy, undisciplined, unfocused, hedonistic.
So, how does that work? Shouldn’t I be stocking shelves somewhere, or out of work entirely? Aren’t focus, drive, and hard work the formula for success?
Here’s a story about my father. I believe such stories are common among successful people, however success is counted. Such stories are also common among tragically sad people. This particular story is shared among me and my brothers and sisters, each of whom can be successful and tragically sad, often at the same time.
My father grew up on a huge farm in Oklahoma as one of the younger of 14 children. When he was 13, the Great Depression bankrupted his father, they lost almost all the farm, keeping only a few acres around the family home.
My grandfather had a mean streak which, in his despair, was unleashed against his wife my grandmother. My father, who at the time was probably the oldest son still at home, was able to throw his father out of the house for the sake (and physical safety) of his mother. This story was told only once in my dad’s old age to one of my older brothers.
So, here was young man with shattered dreams and more sadness than a kid ought to have. Before the Great Depression, he would ride a horse out on the several thousand acres of his father’s farm. Some of his older brothers and sisters went to college – in the 1920’s! He dreamed how he was going to do the same and escape the farm.
Then, after all was lost, he found himself digging coal to make a few bucks – some of which was used to pay down debts rung up by older siblings. He did finally manage to escape home and farm via the CCC. He toured the West over the next few years as a camp clerk – he had somehow managed to learn office skill in his desperation to escape farming.
So, he meets my mom in California, gets married, converts to Catholicism (mom was a cradle Catholic of East Texas Czech stock – that’s another story) and raises a family of 5 boys and 4 girls.
At the age of 45, after 25 years of experience in the sheet metal fabrication field, he started his own company – and here’s where I enter the story. I was 5 at the time. Dad was a maniac worker by all accounts. 70 or 80 hour weeks were the norm. He early on established his marketing strategy: we’re not the cheapest, just the best. It’s right the first time, and delivered on schedule. This requires a high level of planning, discipline and focus. These were my dad’s strengths.
Working for my dad was no fun. My older brothers both had to work for him. In his mind, he wasn’t asking much – it’s not like they had dig coal in an Oklahoma winter or anything. In my brothers’ minds, dad had these incredible expectations, while at the same time showing very little appreciation of their efforts. And dad’s bitterness and yes, violence, sometimes boiled over on his sons. Great damage was done.
By the time I’d gotten old enough to help out – at 12, I started sweeping floors and cleaning up on weekends – dad had mellowed considerably. But he was still not much fun to work for.
And here’s the point of all this: from my father, I learned a few things about work:
– the amount of time you spend cleaning up is trivial compared to the time you’ll spend looking for stuff and climbing over stuff if you don’t. Not cleaning up is not an option.
– Whenever you put something down, put it where it will next be needed. Making someone else move something because you were too lazy or clueless to put it where the next guy would need it is unacceptable.
– you’ll always make more money thinking than with physical labor, but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
– the guy doing work always has the right of way – get out of his way.
– when the horn sounds, you are at your station ready to work, or you are late. You’re done with your cup of coffee. Late is unacceptable.
– measure twice, cut once.
– From the customer’s point of view, having what they need when they need it is worth a lot of money. Do that, and charge for it.
– always ask: is there money in it? This isn’t a charity, here.
I have discovered that even the semi-random and intermittent application of these principles by a lazy smart guy yields fabulous results in the world of business. If I were not a philosophically inclined introvert and had a little ambition, I’d be running something by now.
My older brothers, who in the normal course of things could have inherited and run the business, both fled at their earliest opportunity. In my senior year of high school, dad had a massive heart attack, underwent quadruple bypass surgery and was told by the doctor to sell his company and retire – at age 59 – or die. It took him a couple years, but he complied.
The doctor was right. The heart attack was all but inevitable. The day before, some welder had (incompetently) warped an expensive electrical cabinet – if you’re not careful, the welding process will heat the entire piece and twist it and ruin it. My father knew all the tricks – in a fury, he worked late into the evening with a blow torch, a bucket of water and a sledge hammer, artfully straightening the cabinet back out, salvaging thousands of dollars of work.
He then went home and almost died.
I went away to college. My older brothers moved far away, as did my 4 sisters and one younger brother. (score: one brother, the youngest, never moved far away.) A coupe eventually moved back to Southern California. All but a couple eventually made peace/called a truce with mom and dad, who lived into their late 80s.
So, I balance gratitude with an abiding sense of deep sadness, mostly for the sake of my siblings, who each have their own sad and even tragic tales to tell. I got it easy, and got a wonderful spouse and beautiful children. Most didn’t get that.
A couple more things I learned that dad probably didn’t even know he was teaching: do not fear doing things yourself. Fix something? Build something? Dad always assumed we could just do it. He built a house and ran a grocery store and learned meat cutting – and that seemed normal to us. He always let us use his tools so long as we put them back when finished. He showed us how to use them. I started using hammers and saws when I was 5.
These lessons dwarf anything I learned in school. I suspect this is true of most people.
(This post is the current leader in the ‘start one place, end up someplace completely different’ sweepstakes. But hey, it’s just a blog.)
* I choose the latter – God gave me wonderful children, saw that I would most likely stress myself into a permanent state of clinical depression if I had to scramble for money my whole life, and so He found me a job where my talents can shine and my many flaws can be hidden. There are miracles involved, here.