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 money.

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 alternatives.

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 reasonable living.

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 earn.

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 in.

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 they are.

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 marketing.

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 saying,

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 Transplant".

$$$ 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 children?

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s 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 Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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