I grew up poor – the US version of poor. We never missed a meal but a few times it was only because we had a successful hunt. Suffice it to say that when we interacted with others, they always had more than us. More stuff, nicer houses and cars and toys. We weren’t unhappy kids – my brothers and I – but we were unable to do some things we wanted to do, things others took for granted. Perhaps the best description of how I felt about our childhood is a southern US expression: we made do.
My first job was pulling tobacco at age 11 for $1/hour (I was probably overpaid). It was hard work. A few years later, in my mid-teens, I got a couple jobs that were less-physically taxing. I played sax in a country and bluegrass band on Saturday night and worked on a farm / orchard during warmer months. It worked out because most of the people who came to the dances on wintry Saturdays did not show up for the Saturday dance when it was warm out.
I made decent money for a teenager. But never enough to get everything I wanted and definitely not enough to support myself.
And then my girlfriend got pregnant. And my Mom and Dad separated. And I turned 18. During the same 10 day period in July 1981. Six weeks after I had graduated high school.
I tried to get a job and found one working in a textile mill. I was still able to play music on Saturday nights to supplement our income. My new wife was still a senior in high school. Three days after I joined the National Guard I was fired from my job at the mill. I wasn’t scheduled to leave for Basic Training until summer, after the baby was due. I tried to get a job driving a feed truck for a local granary, but one of the guys in my National Guard unit worked there and told them I had just signed up and would be leaving for Basic Training soon, so they didn’t hire me. I understand. The law said (and still says) they had to hold my position open for me while I was gone and give it back to me when I returned. They didn’t want to go through the disruption of hiring me, then hiring someone else for a few months while I was away at training, and then letting that person go when I returned. The law meant well, but it kept me from getting a job I really needed.
I ended up working at the stockyard mucking stalls. You may have seen an episode of Dirty Jobs featuring this kind of work. I would clean out the stalls with a Bobcat, push the manure to the end of the market, load it with a larger bucket loader onto a manure spreader. Then I would drive the spreader out to the fields and pastures and use it to fertilize the fields. I started during the winter months, but as Spring sprung pollen filled the air. My allergies made me miserable every day at work. I couldn’t quit work because our daughter was born and there were even more expenses.
Things picked up some when I went to Basic Training. I was getting paid more and all my meals were provided by the Army. I sent almost my entire paycheck home. But then I came back from Basic Training and had to find more work for six months before I went to Advanced Individual Training (AIT). I went back to playing music and working at the stockyard until that time. When I got out of AIT it was summertime. I found some work doing construction and still played music on the weekends to make ends meet. When the construction work slowed, I looked for a new job and found one – but again, it paid barely enough to survive and there was no money to do fun stuff.
I once applied for a job at the post office. I’d heard they would hire veterans and people with military backgrounds. I didn’t even get a letter telling me “better luck next time.” Maybe it got lost in the mail.
You might read this and think “Wow, things were hard for you.” They were, but that wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was that people were always saying stupid things to me like, “You should go to college” and “Keep working hard, it will pay off one day.” That was the last thing I needed to hear. I didn’t have money to go to college, so why waste my time going to the admissions office to see if I could attend? That was worse than a waste of my time, it would take up time the admissions office people would use helping people with some kind of chance in life. And working hard? I’d been doing that half my life. A lot of good that did. It wasn’t making the food stamps go away. I would have been happy to make $10,000 / year. These jerks were talking like I could make $25,000. Yeah… right.
It was me against the man. My score was a big ol’ goose egg and the man kept wracking up points he’d never even use. I was never going to get ahead. Life sucked.
Everything I wrote in Part 1 is accurate. But it is not true. First, it is written from an extremely narrow, selfish perspective – it’s all me, my, I. Second, all the responsibility is pushed to others. It was never my fault. “My girlfriend got pregnant” is probably the most telling indicator. “I couldn’t quit work because our daughter was born and there were even more expenses.” Accurate? Yep. True? Not by a long shot. Third, The advice I dismissed was not only accurate, it was true.
So what was true?
- I started in life with a couple strikes against me, this is true. But it was nothing like real and actual poverty. I’ve seen poverty and I was living the dream by comparison. Our father tried his best (he started with a few more strikes against him). Our mother surrounded us with love and understanding. We had a good childhood.
- I got my girlfriend pregnant.
- I didn’t learn to manage money.
- I refused to listen to good advice.
There was “a man” messing with my life, alright. His name was Andy Leonard. And he wasn’t as much of a man as he was a punk disguised as a man.
I went to community college. It took me six years to complete an Associates of Applied Science degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. But months before I completed that degree, I had started to realize my problem was me. I started my own business within months. It was hard because I still didn’t understand how money worked. But that business grew and kept us fed and watered for several years.
When the economy shifted, I went back to work – but not at the stockyard. This time I was actually recruited by people who wanted to pay me to be a consultant. I struggled mightily while running my first business. But I survived and I learned hard lessons – mostly about myself, but also about how to communicate and sell and ship.
It turns out those skills are worth something in every field of endeavor. Especially consulting.
I changed jobs a few more times, learning new things as I did. One important thing I learned: At a minimum, work is me trading my time, energy, and knowledge for money. I bring something to the table – something to trade. My employer brings something to the table – something to trade. I am not selling my soul, I am trading time for money. I am not a slave, I am an employee. I stopped seeing employment as a contest and started seeing it as a balance-scale. I was willing to give on this point if I could get that point. Often, the thing I wanted didn’t even matter to my employer and they were happy to make the trade.
Truth is, I’m still learning to manage money. It’s like learning anything else – it takes time, patience, and practice.
Think about the stuff you do not like – the obstacles – in your life and career. Everyone has obstacles in their lives (some of them are real). It’s rare that you find yourself in possession of the means and opportunity to swiftly destroy an obstacle in your life; most of them must be worn down by time and persistence (Exhibit A: Many lottery winners are bankrupt within a few years of winning…). Ask yourself: How much of that stuff requires my acceptance, agreement, and / or participation to continue? You may be surprised at the answer to that question.
Think about who “the man” is in your life and career. How are you responding to the obstacles you identified earlier? If some of the obstacles require your “help” (acceptance, agreement, and / or participation) to continue, you know how to manage that, right? Stop helping them! What about the other obstacles? One of two things is going to happen:
- The obstacles will stop you.
- You will overcome the obstacles.
There’s no middle. There’s no stasis. Things are going to change, and they will either get better or worse. For things to get better, you have to overcome entropy. You are not on a level playing field. Life is not fair.
Are you going to continue to blame others or are you going to start taking responsibility for your actions?
Are you going to ignore good advice or are you adult enough to admit you are sometimes wrong and do not know everything?
Are you going to keep losing points to “the man” or are you going to change?