Lessons I Learned From My Father, Lessons I'd
Teach My Child
Lessons My Father Taught Me
As a child, I remember my father always waking
very early, quietly putting on his clothes, and
going off to work. To arrive in time to open his
tiny clothing store at 8:30, he needed to leave our
apartment at 7. After all, he had to take the Q17A
bus to Jamaica Ave. where he took the BMT train to
Elder Ave. in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. The last leg
was a six-block, rain-snow-or shine walk through a
neighborhood much of which truly smelled like a
dumpster. Lesson not taught but learned: It is very
important to work. No excuses.
Starting when I was 12, I would, on some
Saturdays, go to my father's store to help out. My
job: set up the outside clothing display: shirts
sitting on sawhorse tables, jackets hanging from
the awning. Then for the rest of the day, I'd watch
to be sure no one stole anything-a 12-year-old
security guard. Not only was I a most callow guard,
I received the world's shortest training course:
"Respect but suspect." It was enough. A few times
each day, I'd notice someone looking suspicious-for
example, rapid-fire looks alternating between me
and a piece of clothing. I learned how to look the
person in the eye, smile and say, "May I help you?"
Usually that worked, but occasionally, the
good-for-nothing would grab something and race off.
The first time, I raced after the thief and my
father yelled, "Martin, stop! It's not worth it."
Lesson learned: safety is more important than
After ten years of my father's three-hour public
transit commute, he saved up enough money to buy
his first car, a 1953 Chevy--he wouldn't buy one
until he could afford to pay for it without a loan.
Lesson not taught but learned: only buy what you
can afford. There are thousands of businesses,
especially those run from a home office, that
require only a small investment. Before considering
high-cost businesses such as bricks-and-mortar
stores that normally require large loans, be sure
you've checked out small-investment
My avoidance of debt extends to my personal
life. I only charge on my credit card what I can
afford to pay off in full the first month. When I
hear about people being "over their head in debt,"
I have little sympathy. Rarely do people go into
debt to pay for basic food, clothing and shelter.
They go into debt because they choose to buy
non-essential things even though they can't afford
them. And if they can't afford them before interest
is added, they certainly can't afterwards.
Non-essential "things" just aren't that important.
Contentment comes from achievement and from
relationships, far less so from "things." Many
small businesses run into trouble because their
owners spend excessively on personal items instead
of on growing their businesses.
Lessons I Would Teach My Child
Besides the work lessons my father taught me,
I'd teach my child a few others.
1. Think twice about following long-shot dreams.
Most career guides say, "Do what you love and the
money will follow." They're filled with stories of
starving artists who no longer starve, aspiring
novelists or actors who no long have to aspire.
These books don't tell you that for every person
who achieves a long-shot dream career, there are
dozens who don't: talented artists who still
starve, terrific actors who still wait tables. I
have a friend-I'll call her Rachel--who pursued her
dream of being a writer. She did so for ten years,
and now at age 40, she's in a Section 8 welfare
apartment, flat broke and bitter. She deeply wishes
she had a career that paid the bills. Now, she's
trying to land a decent-paying job, but as a
40-year old just entering the workforce, she's only
getting offers for McJobs.
Here's the advice I'd give my child. If you
believe your life will feel empty unless you pursue
a long-shot career, then do it, and do it full
time, because there are a million others who are
willing to work 70 hours a week to achieve the same
dream. The key to avoiding ending up like Rachel is
to give it a fixed amount of time-say one year.
Circle that date in red on your calendar. If, by
the time you reach that red circle, you don't have
clear signs you're going to make a living from this
career, the odds are great you never will. A
Princeton Review study found that 90% of people who
call themselves professional artists earn less than
$1,000 a year from their art! Fact is, society is
willing to pay very few professional artists,
performers, and writers a living wage.
If you can imagine having a good life without
that long-shot career, please make it an after-work
activity. The key to achieving your long-shot dream
is to not insist that you get paid for it. That
allows you to keep doing what you love while
ensuring you don't end up like Rachel.
Fact is, there are plenty of unhappy artists,
writers and actors, and plenty of happy plumbers,
managers, and small business owners. For most
people, career happiness comes from doing something
they're good at, working ethically, having
co-workers who appreciate them, and making a
If my child had a good mind and was not a
procrastinator, I'd encourage her or him to be
self-employed. Here's what I'd say:
Work for someone else and chances are they'll
want to keep most of the profit for themselves and
pay you the least they can get away with. They're
usually not afraid of your quitting-there's always
a desperate person willing to work for low wages.
So it's tough to earn a good living when someone
else is deciding how much you should earn. I want
you to be the person deciding how much you should
Unfortunately, many businesses fail within a few
years, and I want you to succeed. So, here are some
ideas you might consider:
Sell a service, not a product. A service
business generally costs much less to start and to
keep running. For example, I'm a career counselor.
My start-up costs, especially because I chose to
work in a home office, were tiny. Compare that with
owning even a modest business like a greeting card
shop. That requires thousands of dollars of
inventory, rent, etc. Another advantage of service
businesses is high profit margin: there's no cost
of goods, so you keep most of the dollars you take
Those advantages are crucial because nearly
every business owner makes mistakes, especially in
the beginning. If your costs are low and profit
margins high, you can afford to make mistakes
without their bankrupting you. For example, with
most service businesses, if your first marketing
strategy fails, it's no disaster. You simply try
something else. But if you're paying thousands of
dollars a month on inventory, rent, etc., and your
first marketing effort fails, you may quickly run
out of money, and thud, you're out of business.
Don't Waste Your Time Getting Technical
Expertise. Unless you love the thought of a
lifetime of learning techno-minutiae, don't bother
getting technical expertise. It takes years, it's
boring, and requires you to keep learning esoterica
all your life. You can always hire technical
expertise; you learn how to run a business. That's
a skill that will never go out of style, it's more
fun than learning endless arcana, is learnable by
most people, and opens the door to big bucks. In
contrast, most technical types work long hours to
earn just a moderate wage.
How should you learn business? Volunteer or work
for successful businesspeople. Don't try learning
it in school. If those professors were such good
businesspeople, they'd probably be running a
business, not teaching school. Remember, most
professors are hired based on how well they do
theoretical research, not how good a businessperson
Spend most of your time marketing. No matter how
good your service or product, you'll have a hard
time succeeding unless you spend a lot of time
Try to get free exposure by:
$$$ Sending press releases to local media.
$$$ Being interviewed on a talk show. Especially
on small stations, getting on the air is easier
than you may think.
$$$ Posting flyers where your target customers
will see them. If I were looking for new clients, I
might post flyers near a college's career center
Want more from your career center?
I pick up where career centers leave off.
$$$ Writing an article for a trade publication
or having someone else write one about your
business. My favorite clients are doctors, so I
might write a piece for the local medical society's
newsletter called, "When Doctors Need a Career
$$$ Giving talks at conventions and trade shows
attended by your target audience.
$$$ Figuring out a category of businessperson
could you cross-refer with: "I'll send you mine if
you'll send me yours." In my case, I'd target
psychotherapists. I'd attend a local conference of
shrinks, and during the breaks, chat with people
until I found someone to whom we both felt we could
honorably refer clients.
$$$ Making a list of people who could most
benefit you. Ask nothing of them. Get together
socially, send them an article they might find
interesting, etc. Only after you've done a few such
things for or with them, can you gently start to
call in some chits.
Although I have many years of schooling, the
lessons I learned from my father and from
successful businesspeople have had the greatest
impact on me. Are there any lessons you especially
want to remember? Any you want to pass on to your
© 2007, Marty
* * *
Nemko holds a PhD from the University of
California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in
Berkeleys Graduate School of Education. He is
the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco
Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With
Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in
(NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on
400+ of his published writings are available free
on that website and is a co-editor of
Careers for Dummies.
and author of The All-in-One College Guide.
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