As with most major life lessons, it has been many years of gradual recognition that have allowed me to finally begin to understand the full impact of growing up in a family-owned small business. As with most other major life events or conditions, the lessons I thought I was learning at the time often evolved into far more complicated, interesting and often surprising set of realizations once my own life experiences started adding layers of nuance to what often seemed like the very straight-forward life lessons of a child.
Background: for my entire life, my father has been self-employed. In fact, even when he was working for someone else (a condition that was particularly valuable as a single father raising two teenage daughters after my mother died), he still continued to maintain some degree of “side businesses.” For the most part, though, my Dad was The Egg Man. In point of fact, he was The Egg, Butter and Cheese Man, but that was always too long to bother with. Our family business was wholesale food distribution. And though that business model took on many different permutations over the years (variations on product lines: juices, chips, Hispanic groceries, spices, etc.), that was always at the heart of the business — even during the times that we also owned an organic grocery store, a restaurant, and other ventures.
Lesson #1 – Everything Starts and Ends with Ownership
This might be a good place to start with what is probably the biggest and most significant lesson of all: ownership — and not in the “if I own the business then I can do whatever I want!” kind of way, but in terms of a recognition that we would sink or swim together, and there was no role too small or insignificant for anyone. If you see something that needs to be done, then do it: don’t wait to be asked, and don’t balk if you are.
You will notice that when I refer to the various enterprises that paid the bills as I was growing up, I never refer to them as “my father’s business,” like most kid’s would refer to “my father’s job.” When you grow up in a family owned business, it is “our business.” My first jobs were all for the family business: if I needed cash, I would work for my mother in the office; once I could drive, I had a route I on Saturdays delivering products and making collections; once I was in college, if we were short-handed at the restaurant, then it was just natural that I’d drop what I was doing to run over and help out. As a teenager, even when my friends worked at pizzerias or video stores, it never occurred to me to find a job that was not part of the family business.
I remember being little — probably 7 or 8 — and one night, while being tucked into bed, I asked my Dad if, when I grew up, I could “work in the office.” Ironically, while the office work was mostly bookkeeping in those days (which I now know I can’t stand), in reality what I thought I was asking for was to run the business.
Of course, as we get older, our perspective changes. And what seemed like a good idea to an 8-year-old Daddy’s Girl, seems a little less appealing to a teenager whose weekly income fluctuated radically based on the volume of business my customers were doing and who watched her father work 6-7 days per week for years without a single day off — no such thing as “sick days” and if there were any plans for a vacation they involved three things:
- Working like crazy before you leave to make up for being gone
- Bracing yourself for the fact that while you are gone, all hell is guaranteed to break loose
- Working like crazy once you get back to make up for being gone
Being at the mercy of completely uncontrollable market conditions was not something I enjoyed and watching my father never get a break was a lifestyle choice that horrified me, and so over time, I found myself gravitating more and more towards the “stability” of working for someone else, in a non-sales environment.
Lesson #2 – Everything is “Sales”
It would take years before I would truly understand that, no matter how far ‘down stream’ I might find myself from the sales process, in the end, EVERYTHING is ultimately sales-driven. I was well into my career, at the first job I’d ever had where I was (supposedly) completely insulated from “the sales process” before it became inescapably clear to me that, whether you are actively involved in the sales process or not, business is about sales and it’s just part of what you have to be good at in order to be successful.
Whether you are selling products, services, ideas or your own skills, the person who doesn’t know how to sell is the person who really will always be strictly at the mercy of uncontrollable market conditions. And no matter how much you may dislike it, sales is a necessary evil if you want any degree of control over your professional life and well-being.
Lesson #3 – “Stability” is Only a Mental Security Blanket, Not a Real One
Of course, this is the lesson that was the least predictable 30 years ago. Back then, the professional Holy Grail was still often to find a company after college and stay there for life, retiring with a gold watch and a pension. As the Information Age has dismantled Industrial Age paradigms, letting go of this antiquated notion was truly the most difficult for me (and I am clearly not alone in that regard, since these types of old school notions are still often the points of contention for unions, and industries — like the auto makers — whose business practices reflect a way of thinking that we have long-since out-grown).
The reason 9/11 was able to so thoroughly shock the American public was not because it was something that could never have happened before, but because it changed our AWARENESS about a situation that we got used to thinking about in a very specific and limited way. The same is true of job security: the truth is, “job security” hasn’t truly existed in ages. The difference now is that it is finally no longer a fact we can chose to ignore, no matter how hard some groups still try. The Information Age doesn’t work that way, and one of the lessons that we should have learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union is that, no matter how noble a goal it might be to ensure that everyone has a job (and that, clearly, it’s better for society to have as many people working as possible), eliminating performance-based incentives is ultimately disadvantageous to any environment.
As any athlete will tell you: you always perform best against someone who is at least as good as you are — if not better! Competition has value, and systems that completely insulate someone from that hurt everyone in the end, just like systems that assume that business always knows best and will always do what is best for the people and that there is no place for government regulation. Both extremes are equally destructive.
It is interesting to see how my view on life and work has come full circle over time.
- I wanted to have the luxury to be able to take time off or be sick without having to worry about work — and yet I rarely take vacation or sick days, and when I do, I still spend the entire time thinking about work and sneaking off to check my email. (There are no words for how much my husband hates this habit.)
- I didn’t want my own efforts to be the end-all/be-all of the success of a business, and yet I continue to put myself in startup environments specifically because I crave that degree of influence in any environment.
- I didn’t want to be like Dad, who would stay up until 2:00 a.m. each night at the dining room table dealing with paperwork, only to find that is the only way I know how to work and as long as I am doing it for someone else’s company, my efforts are contributing to their bottom line, instead of mine.
- I wanted the security of leaving my employment to a faceless “company.” And then it became impossible for me to ignore that companies are made up of people, and none of them are “faceless.” In the end, a person somewhere makes a choice that impacts my life. And if my entire life is based around the assumption that they are going to make choices in my best interest, then I’m setting myself up for disaster.
- I wanted well-paid stability, so I went into IT… which will continue to experience over-seas out-sourcing as economic conditions make local IT investment too expensive to be a priority.
- I didn’t want to be in sales, and yet I am now constantly in the process of “selling” my skills to people — bosses, clients, potential employers, recruiters, etc.
In the end, what I realized is that I was raised to run my own business, whether I necessarily “want” to or not. And even when I’m NOT actually doing that, I still have the work habits of someone who approaches her day that way, and no amount of lectures on “taking some time off” or “work-life balance” can change the fact that this is who I am. I may still want more stability than we always had when I was growing up, but now I understand the part that matters most: working for someone else doesn’t give you that stability, it just allows you to delude yourself into thinking you have it. If denial is your bag, then maybe that’s ok. But personally, I like to have my bases covered better than that. I’d prefer to work for myself, with full awareness that I need to have back-up plans in place, rather than work for someone else, assuming I will be fine, and then find myself shocked and unprepared when someone else pulls the rug out from under me.
I am absolutely positive that these were not lessons my parents set out to teach me. And given that they had no way of knowing how the Information Age was going to change the world of work, like all other parents they had to hope that the things I grew up absorbing would serve me well no matter what I did. So I am very grateful to my both of my parents, but especially my Dad. My parents still own their own business, though it is now in a completely different industry. It is impossible not to notice a huge difference in my father now that he is in his 60′s versus when he was in his 30′s: they still work long hours and are still at times over-stretched, but they take vacations now, and he doesn’t get up before dawn anymore, and his sense of urgency has shifted into something more consistent.
I can only hope that, like him, over time, I will find ways to get better, smarter and more selective so that I can maximize the opportunities that present themselves without constantly second-guessing how much easier or better life might have been if I had elected a more ‘conventional’ path.