01 Dec A Portrait of Resilience
What I have written on these pages I haven’t told anyone completely, and while I write them for you, I also write this for me. What I’ve figured out at age 38 is I wouldn’t trade any of my life experiences for anything, nor am I looking for any sympathy, because experience has made me who I am and given me the grit, perseverance and knowledge that I can handle ANY situation. I am so incredibly grateful to have gone through it all. However, if there are one or two lessons you can pick up from my life story, I would love to hear what you learned about yourself while reading this. If it is italicized, I have annotated my life with my current thoughts.
The Early Years
“I told your father that if he was late on his rent again, you were to get out, so get out!” He slurred, sweating, with bits of spittle dropping from his mouth. He shut off the gas, but I knew how to turn it back on. I was 13 years old, and I vowed then never to be in that position when I grew up. The gas was the easy part. Electricity was a whole different matter. But I learned quickly that a 6-volt battery hooked up to a lantern bulb via wire provided enough light to read by. And that was good enough by me.
I can’t tell you much else about my childhood, because I don’t remember it. My first steady memories are around age 11. I remember that we moved around often. My father was allergic to work. Maybe that’s an unfair statement. He could get a job; he just wasn’t any good at keeping one. His temper flared up whenever someone at work pissed him off, and he would “flip his top” whenever that happened. (He was known as FlipTop Guinea in his bartending days.)
I found out years later that his Dad died when he was 3 months old and his Mom is still very much a mystery today. My search continues to find out what happened after my Grandfather’s passing. At least my parents were still alive.
We didn’t starve, but in true poor childhood fashion, we had WIC and food stamps. Around this time, my parents divorced, and I decided to move in with my father. One thing was clear: my father wasn’t going to support us, because for him, holding onto a job was like trying to hold water in his bare hands.
Middle School Dropout
At age 14, with three months left in the 8th grade, I dropped out of school to get a job. It was still tough to find a job, but there were always places that didn’t ask too many questions, even in 1995 Indiana. So I was paid $5 an hour on a contract basis to tag dry cleaning. It wasn’t glamorous, but when I received my first paycheck of $400, it was more money than I had seen in my life. I split the bills with my father, and we even had enough money to pay for rent and food. Life was good for a while, but Flip-Top was getting restless. He found himself a girlfriend and wanted to move to Alabama.
Me, being 15, and my father, still on a pedestal to me, moved yet again to a place I didn’t know, and gave up what little security I had in a job. During this time, my love for books flourished. When I dropped out of school, I couldn’t exactly walk around town due to truancy laws. But I lived in the library, and checked out tons of books and paperback novels. I worked the night shift, came home, slept, and spent the early evenings at the library or reading at home.
Moving Out, Retail, GED
When I was 16, my sister visited me from Florida. She had a completely different experience after our parents divorced, but that story is hers to tell. She asked me what I was going to do with my life. I don’t remember what I told her, but her question said enough: I needed to go back to school. I couldn’t take the GED until 17 in Alabama. In the meantime, Flip-Top decided he had enough of Alabama and it was time to move to Tennessee. I hugged him and told him this is where I get off the nomadic, crazy life. I moved out, worked and prepared for the GED. If I give you the impression I’m angry with my father, you would’ve been right 10 years ago. Today I’ve come to accept that he did the best he could with the faculties he possessed.
Around this time, I realized a few things about myself: I was reasonably intelligent, and, more importantly, I had an insatiable work ethic motivated by my current predicament. Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala. offered night classes to study for the GED. I worked during the day and attended class at night.
On November 13, 1997, I took and passed the GED with flying colors and immediately enrolled in Wallace Community College. I also learned another thing about myself: I’d do anything for a scholarship. No, really, anything. I wore an ugly red blazer and showed potential students around the campus. It really wasn’t a bad gig for a scholarship.
Rack Room Shoes, Office Depot, and Management
I took whatever jobs I could get while focusing on getting through community college. At 18, I graduated with an Associate’s degree and moved to Montgomery, Alabama to attend Auburn University. I became a frontend supervisor for Kirkland’s, a store that sold mirrors, candelabras and other items to beautify the home. After the manager and assistant manager were jointly fired, I became the de facto manager. I was promised the job of assistant manager. But after two months of working 16-hour days, the regional manager brought in both a new manager and an assistant, leaving me in the same position I was before.
I went four doors down in the mall to a place called Rack Room Shoes. I applied for the assistant manager job and the manager, Stan, told me, “Well, the job pays $6 an hour.”
I replied, “For an assistant manager?”
He looked at me and said, “Oh, well that’s a different story.”
I got the job on the spot and worked there for about a year. I was then recruited by another shoe company, Shoe Carnival, and both my manager and Regional Manager, Allan, said if I stayed I would have my own store within six months. At 19 years old, I became store manager of Rack Room Shoes.
Managing both the store and my college career took some juggling. I lined up my college classes on two different days from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then I worked the other five days a week. After a year of this, Allan came into my store and said, “You have to work Mondays, not your assistant manager. If you don’t work Mondays, I’m going to fire you.”
To me, it wasn’t even a choice: college vs. Rack Room Shoes. I left Rack Room three months later and took a step down to become technology associate at Office Depot. I took a whopping pay cut of $1,000 a year.
Within six months, I was offered the role of customer service manager. Again, I went back into management, this time on the night shift. Trustworthiness goes a long way; i.e., don’t be a dick.
I graduated from Auburn with a degree in history in 2001, packed up my life in a U-Haul and drove 2,000 miles to the beaches and lights of California. After graduating from law school in California, I worked in a small firm doing alternative non-bank lending and left that firm to start my own. I thought this could be either the best or worst decision in my life. So far it’s proved to be one of the best.
Rules for Success I’ve Learned
I’ve had a crazy life so far, and I’m enjoying it so much today. Along the way, I’ve learned certain principles of my life. I take no credit for any of these rules, as I’m sure I’ve stolen them from somewhere, but they have proven true for me and occupy my life.
1. Don’t believe your own bullshit…You may have closed that last deal and are making a shitload of money. Are you sure it’s because of your own efforts? Doubtful. We’ve all been helped somewhere, including me. Just because I had a challenging childhood doesn’t mean I didn’t have help along the way. I have stumbled many times in my adult life, and someone has always held out his or her hand to pick me up. So have you.
2. …and most of it is bullshit. See #1 above. Honestly, how much of your life has been intentional? Did you intend to do something? I’ve prepared myself for many eventualities, but a lot of it is still luck.
3. Innovation trumps hard work every day of the week. Don’t have electricity? Wire up a 6-volt battery to a lantern so you have light to read. Don’t have books? Get a library card. Can’t watch TV? Do you really need to anyway? Many people work their asses off and are still no closer to their own goals than they were 10 years ago. What are you doing to innovate? What obstacles in your life have you not overcome? How can you overcome them?
4. Don’t ask and ye shall receive; ask and it shall be denied. Are you stuck just being a loan originator? Do you want more? Are you showing your broker you want and deserve more? You are? Are you sure? If so, maybe you’re not in the right place and need to find another job that recognizes your talents. If you ask for that promotion, though, chances are you won’t get it. Ask not for the promotion but what you can do to
5. Stay Hungry, Stay Humble. This really should be higher on the list as it is so relevant, and I see this so often. You are making a lot of money and you think it’ll last forever, but it doesn’t and you lose it all. Whatever you’re doing and innovating, whether you see it or not, someone is on your heels. Keep growing, keep going, keep striving and be humble. None of us knows everything. Keep learning.
6. Make Sure You Suck Every Day. I know; this is where I lost you. But if you don’t do something that absolutely scares or embarrasses you or makes you cringe, you will NOT grow. If you haven’t looked back on your past and cringed, you missed out. Start causing yourself embarrassment NOW.
7. Take that Chance; Do it NOW. Tomorrow is too late. I was really attracted to a woman when I was younger. We used to have a lot of fun together as friends, even eating dinner and driving around. I wanted to ask her out but was so embarrassed and insecure that I never did. After Flip-Top moved me to Alabama, she wrote me a letter which remains etched on my soul. She included a 3-dollar bill and among other things asked why I never asked her out. Crazy, right? All I had to do was ask her out and we would’ve dated, but because I was insecure about myself, I didn’t and missed out on that chance. The only chances you’ll ever miss are the ones you didn’t take. Don’t ever let that girl, that job, that option slip through your fingers.
My life has been a series of ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think a large part of who I am is made up of the things I learned as a child. Remember, you too can shine light anywhere in the world with two strips of wire, a 6-volt battery and a lantern light. Here’s to your success.