What Is the American Dream? Part Two

Last month I gave my insights regarding a ProPublica article about how people over 50 won’t be the decision maker when they leave their job.  (Update, IBM is in the midst of a lawsuit for firing up to 100,000 people, targeting older workers. And there seems to be damaging testimony supporting the lawsuit’s premise.) A past American Dreams was to get a job at a large company, work there for 40-45 years, and retire with a gold watch and a pension. But no more, for most people.

I may be dating myself, but I remember in one college class a discussion about how another American Dream was to start a business and sell it to Sears. In those days, Sears was dominant and bought a lot of small businesses. However, a lot of those acquisitions were after Sears became the firm’s top (by far) customer and had the supplier “over the barrel.”

So, what is the American Dream these days? Actually, it should be “dreams” not “dream” as there are many versions. In early 2019 the New York Times had an opinion piece titled, “The American Dream is Alive and Well” with the sub-title of, “Most people in this country say that they are living it – but what they mean by the phrase might surprise you.”

The opening is, “I am pleased to report that the American Dream is alive and well for an overwhelming majority of Americans.” Here’s some interesting statistics:

  • Only 16% said to achieve the American Dream you have to be wealthy.
  • Only 45% said it means having a better quality of life than your parents.
  • And only 49% said it entails having a successful career.

Most interesting, 84% of Republicans and independents and 88% of Democrats said freedom was essential to it and less than 20% in either party believe becoming wealthy is essential. Many said it is experiences, not a lot of money, that bring happiness. With my clients, business ownership tops the list of desired experiences (and then getting out of business for their next great adventure in life).

Overall, all races, all levels of income, and all generations (from under 22 to over 70) are optimistic at an over 70% level. Also interesting is the Times published this during the Trump administration, which hates the Times.

Let’s move on to a Fast Company article titled, “We make $325,000 a year and don’t feel we have enough.” Catchy title but a bit misleading. Three case studies about people making $97,000 (Canadian), $171,000, and $325,000 show close similarities. 

The lowest income couple saves or has “leftover” funds of 12-20% (and a lot of Canadian safety net taxes), the other two have 30-40%. So, when the highest income couple says they feel they don’t have enough it’s because $125,000 is going to some form of savings or investment. Not bad. 

So, what’s my point, or points? Here are three:

  • It’s not as bad as the headlines – and things haven’t been as bad (or as good) as the headlines forever. Realize there are always pockets of people in a tough position no matter how good times are. But publicizing the positive doesn’t sell papers, get clicks, or get viewers. Then factor in social media, which magnifies everything and makes people think things are bad on a macro level. But when they discuss their own situation, i.e. the micro level, we get the results shown in the Times study.
  • We have different objectives – I’m guessing this hasn’t changed too much over the years and now it’s easier to collect information and publicize it so we have a lot more data and therefore insights. Different people strive for different things like money, power, prestige, spirituality, low stress, material goods, etc. No right or wrong and I applaud those who use our safety nets as a helping hand up to achieve their version of the American Dream.
  • Business ownership – as per above, for many, and this includes all of my clients, owning a business is the experience they want. It can include financial benefits but also provides the experiences many want. Those experiences include being successful, helping customers, providing jobs, being creative, and more. As in part one of this two-part newsletter, page one of my book Buying A Business That Makes You Rich, there are numerous reasons besides money people want to buy/own a business.

Conclusion

There is still opportunity everywhere. While it’s not for everybody, business ownership is the vehicle many want to maximize that opportunity, have the experiences they desire, and have a fulfilling life.

The Best Lessons are From Dogs

I recently read Dave Barry’s latest book, Lessons From Lucy; The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog. It’s funny, as one would expect from Dave Barry, insightful, poignant, and not exactly what I expected from him.

I’m not going to “steal his thunder” and give away all his lessons. Read the book (it’s a fast read and extremely entertaining). I will share one lesson, because it’s one of the few mantras I have in my business.

Don’t stop having fun. (And if you have stopped, start having fun again.)

On page one of my book, Buying A Business That Makes You Rich, I state that in addition to all the reasons people have for wanting their own business, fun needs to be at the top of the list. The same goes for a job, yet too many people slog through their days, collecting a paycheck (sometimes a very good paycheck) but not building a career or a lot of happiness.

It’s even more important in our personal lives (to have fun). We can’t go through life like the Puritans, feeling we have to suffer on earth to have everlasting life. But considering most of us spend 25-35% of our adult lives “on the job,” it’s crucial to be doing something you like if not love.

And guess what, when you’re having fun it carries over to your co-workers, customers, family members, and others, and, increases productivity. There’s a lot of money spent on advisors helping employees, and owners, get to the point of enjoying what they do and doing their jobs better. It’s often called culture and it’s a lot easier to destroy a culture than build a great one, which is one reason for all the experts providing great advice.

“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Galileo Galilei 

Stereotypes Can Be Deadly

We were having a cup of coffee and some breakfast at a great little coffee shop-bakery-café in Bozeman, MT before going on a hike. Next to us were three ladies, also dressed for a day in the outdoors. and I couldn’t help but overhear one of them say:

“People from cities really don’t understand the environment. And getting off the ship on an Alaska cruise to spend two hours in shops looking at tchotchkes isn’t getting into the environment.”

A stereotype of city people and I’ll admit many city people aren’t all that knowledgeable about the outdoors. Our fishing guide, who we use every summer, loves to tell (everybody) about the lady from New York city who asked (when seeing a minnow put on a hook), “Do fish really eat other fish?” *Realize fishing guides love to tell the same stories and jokes no matter how many times you’ve heard them, so we just pretend they’re new.*

But knowledge and caring are two different things. Most people, city or rural, don’t want chemicals dumped in their water or on their land. Most want to breathe clean air. Very few if any want their local resources, whether a lake or river in the wilderness or the Hudson river in New York, to be like a man-made lake in Novosibirsk, Russia nicknamed the “Siberian Maldives” because of its turquoise color. Unfortunately, the color is a chemical reaction from ash runoff from a power plant’s industrial dump site.**

So what stereotypes do you have? Some I hear include:

  • You can’t buy this business because you don’t have direct industry experience. (False, very false and tied to the misnomer “Nobody else can run my business because it’s so special.”)
  • I’m starting an advisory business but don’t have any references or testimonials. (Sure you do. You just did the work for another company.)
  • My business can’t grow. (Yes it can, maybe it’s you.)
  • I have to do menial tasks like payroll, HR, reviewing every bid/proposal, etc. (No, owners don’t have to do those things way below their paygrade, you have to trust others and get over being a control freak.)

So, what stereotypes are holding you back from growing, starting a new business, buying one, selling yours and moving on to your next great adventure in life, or anything else?

“Knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Rosa Parks

Stereotypes Can Be Deadly** This lake has become an Instagram phenom and even though people are warned not to go in the water they do. One man who floated on the lake (on a floatie) said, “The next morning, my legs turned slightly red and itched for two days; the water tastes a bit sour, looks like chalk.”

Are You Funny?

I attended an event recently and witnessed one of the speakers do the following:

  • Start out with a joke that fell absolutely flat. Then he explained the joke and guess what, it didn’t get any better.

Then, during his talk he made a couple non-sensical statements, again trying to be funny. One that caught my attention brings up a good lesson on PR. He said he has seen a lot of articles that are really lists, as in, the top 10 things to do, the top 7 things to not do, etc. His “funny” comment was about how the writers must be doing this to get search engine hits.

Well, not really. They’re doing variations of the “Top 10 list” because:

  • PR experts say lists attract people’s attention (they do).
  • The authors want to attract the attention of reporters and if you want to get interviewed or quoted you need to be attractive to reporters (reporters love lists).
  • Negative lists are what capture the most attention, like, “The Seven Traps That Snare Business Buyers and Sellers.” (Reporters especially love things to avoid because they resonate with readers because most people prefer to avoid a mistake over doing something right.)

If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to be. And, when joking about something, make sure you know what the heck you’re talking about.

Networking and Friends

In her March 16, 2019 Wall Street Journal column, Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots, Peggy Noonan wrote about the recent college application scandal. Her emphasis was about how when parents cheat the kids believe cheating is normal and will have regrets doing so.

She told a story about speaking at an Ivy League school and being surprised because the students didn’t want to talk about any subjects or doing high-quality work (to succeed in life0 but about networking. Not networking as we think of it, but as “how can I use other people to benefit me.” She tried to explain it’s about the quality of the work you do and asked them, “Why don’t you just make friends?”

She came away disillusioned and felt the students had been trained to be shallow and see others as commodities.

So, what does that have to do with you and me? We think of networking a way to have a win-win relationship. It’s not taking advantage of others, it is making friends in order to help each other. It’s pretty easy to spot people who care more about themselves than their clients, their referral sources, or anybody else. I look at my referral tracking list and realize the vast majority come from people I consider friends. People with whom I would enjoy having a cup of coffee, a beer, or a meal.

My takeaway from this is if your objective is to get to know others better and understand how you can help them, you’ll end up being rewarded in the long run.

“Do not network. Make friends. Learn about the lives of others.” Peggy Noonan

Developing Versus Developed (Countries)

I’m writing this from the island of Antigua where we’re here on a Rotary service project, “Improving Education Through Technology.” We have 10 Bellevue school district students from the technology program working on computer networks and installing Wi-Fi networks.

There are similarities and differences between Antigua and the US. Some of the similarities include:

It doesn’t matter where you are, people are people. Some are different colors, different sizes, have different customs, etc. But they all (pretty much) care about each other, their country, their friends, and families. We are warmly greeted here by not only the local Rotarians but people at the car rental place, hotel staff, restaurant staff, and others. It’s like we’re old friends.

There’s a lot of growth in both countries. Seattle leads the US in cranes and Antigua has numerous new buildings, businesses, and restaurants since we were here last year, just not as high.

The roads suck in both places and traffic stinks. We saw a bumper sticker here today reading, “Not Drunk, Avoiding Potholes.” Not enough capacity, poor upkeep, limited planning – it seems to be universal – with road construction everywhere.

Some of the differences are:

There’s a lot more respect for leaders and authority here. Imagine this in the US: at a planning meeting Sunday one of the local Rotarians was talking about a meeting we had Monday with the Prime Minister. Even though the Rotarian is in the “other party,” when questioned he said how he would respect what the PM said as he was “my country’s leader.” Imagine a Democrat saying that about Trump or a Trump supporter saying that about a Obama or any future Democrat President.

The US, and especially areas like Seattle, are fortunate to have a lot of growth, capital to grow, and money in general. Things are pretty good all across the country. In Antigua, there’s a lot of impoverishment, menial jobs, and limited opportunity. If some think there’s a huge divide in the US they should check out places like Antigua.

We’re here because there’s a great need. The Ministry of Education has pretty much said they won’t support the primary schools with technology. This includes helping the teachers improve themselves so they can teach better using technology and the many applications now available. The students know more about tech devices and how to use them than most of the teachers – and they want to learn via their devices, not via the old blackboard.

“Human relationships are vast as deserts. They demand all daring.” John Ruskin

It’s what you don’t know that can hurt you

On our recent Rotary service project in Antigua one of the adults with us is a dedicated vegan, which is fine, and it’s because of a combination of allergies and health concerns.

I say dedicated because at one meal he found a little cheese in his salad and had a meltdown, dumping his whole plate of food. The next night pasta was on the menu and after we were done eating, I asked him why he eats pasta. He looked puzzled so I said it’s because most pasta has eggs in it.

His look was priceless, and he avoided pasta the rest of the trip.

We often make assumptions about things, including our customers, our products or services, what the customer wants, what’s important to employees, etc. when we should be asking questions. All my vegan friend had to do was read a pasta package label. We need to ask customers and prospective customers, what’s the objective? Or ask, why? (or why not?) they made certain choices.

Dead or Playing Possum?

In honor of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and other big shopping days, here’s an opinion on the retail industry, trends, and sticking with it.

“What goes around comes around” is an old saying meaning things eventually return to their original value after some sort of cycle (and it’s a hit song by Justin Timberlake).

How long ago was it when every pundit and everybody you spoke with was saying “retail is dead?” Other comments included the Internet passed retailers by, the cost of stores is too high, people don’t want to shop, they want to get a package at their door, etc.

Guess what? A Wall Street Journal headline was, “Retail Stocks Roar Back On Consumer Strength.” The S&P Retail exchange-traded fund was up 16% this year at the time of the article and many major retailer stocks were up 30-50% this year (and are bouncing around like all other stocks). On September 4 The Seattle Times had a business section headline of, “Retail trends drawing shoppers into stores.”

Retailers seem be figuring it out. They took a hit, regrouped, found where they can shine, and appear to be doing so. Some of their tactics are new and some are the same as before including racks of clothes, fitting rooms, private brands, personal assistance (think Nordstrom not Walmart), etc.

Think about this in regard to your business. You can jump onboard with the latest greatest software, marketing program, manufacturing scheme, etc. but I’ll bet there are things you do the same way as before (or come back to them), because they work.

I recently spoke with the owner of a company that bids on jobs. I asked if they used any industry software or ERP system to bid. The answer was no, they use Excel and Access, because it works for them (to me working means the bids are right and they make money on their jobs). I’m not sure how time-efficient it is, but it works.

I remember from a past business life an industry leader talking about a marketing program and saying something like, it worked so well for so long we decided to do something different. If it works, keep doing it, but always look for ways to do it better.

“There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things seem difficult.” Warren Buffett

Somethings are Just Out of Our Control

Two weeks ago, I received a couple positive comments about the memo sent that morning. A few people noticed it was dated September 18 and was the same content as the September 18 memo. So, I investigated.

For background, my process is:

  • Take a recent memo.
  • Delete the content.
  • Paste in the new content, link a different video, and change the date.
  • Send a test message to myself and edit if needed.
  • Schedule it.

First, I went in the Constant Contact system and yes, the memo dated October 9 was the one from three weeks prior. Second, I checked the test message I sent myself, and it was what was supposed to go out October 9. So sometime between the test and the scheduling the system reverted back, with me not having any way to know it.

Normally I would say these things happen because of human error (meaning I screwed up) but my test was correct and I also had my (almost) monthly newsletter scheduled to go out on October 11 and received an email from Constant Contact the next day saying technical issues prevented if from going out (with a lot of apologies in the message). Therefore, my assumption is, their system was at fault.

Things happen and some of them can’t be controlled. We have random acts of kindness and random glitches. You have to roll with the circumstances. The downside was I repeated a message. The upside is people noticed and I get to write this explanation. The old adage, control what you can control is true. Make sure you control enough to be effective.

“Control what you can, confront what you can’t.” (The band) Maine