People always seem surprised to learn that I grew up without money, or at least without much of it. I don’t know for certain if this is the reason why, but it occurs to me that neither of my parents ever had any semblance of what you could call a career. Sure, they worked, both of them, quite hard, and quite often, at an assorted line of jobs strung one after another, to make ends meet. But when you think about the difference between a job and a career … yeah, that was my parents. My mother had a B.A. in English she had earned back in the Philippines, and really did not put it to much use when she got here. My father’s story is also sad: he was accepted to R.I.T., but he and my grandparents did not have the $3,500 to pay for the first year’s tuition, so he never enrolled. I’m not saying it’s sad because college is a necessity; I’m saying it’s sad because he really wanted to go.
In spite of my parents’ lack of clear career paths, or perhaps because of it, what they did have was an entrepreneurial spirit. Over the course of my childhood, they owned a bookstore, a deli and catering business, an appliance store, and probably a few other ventures I’m forgetting, or that I was too young to remember. In addition, my parents engaged in several franchise-type or pyramid style operations. I have vague memories of a house filled with used textbooks, blue-green algae, and other trinkets they were selling on behalf of larger companies. At one point, my father drove a bread delivery truck. Every single one of these businesses went down the drain. Later in life, my mother dabbled in real estate but ended up just not working a whole lot. My father wound up spending several years working in retail for Apple, putting in just enough time to extract a bit of a retirement from it.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think as a child watching those experiences, I ingrained in myself the limiting belief that owning your own business meant that you were destined to remain poor. So I decided pretty early on that I wanted a “normal” job, or a “real” job. I swore I would never start my own business, because statistically most new businesses fail, and I told myself I was too smart to fail. So I did the only appropriate thing I could think of to do in that situation: pursue the higher education I thought I needed to have the career I thought I wanted. So yeah, basically, do the opposite of what my parents did, and boom, success!
Well, not quite. First of all, it was a lot of freaking hard work to have the career I have now. I mean, yes, you get out of a career what you put into it, but I think I was blown away by the sheer amount of labor it took, and still requires, to practice law. I had a somewhat naïve vision of studying hard in school so that I could simply kick back and reap the benefits of a fabulous career later—but they call it work for a reason, right? But more importantly, I am only realizing now, 10 years into said career, that I inherited that entrepreneurial trait from my parents, for better or for worse. I don’t know if I was ever subtly aware of it as a kid, but it’s possible—instead of playing house, I played “go to work.” And I fought it. Because I equated running a small business with eventual failure, I dismissed the idea early on. But now, having held three jobs in my career as a lawyer, before being where I am now as a solo practitioner, I realize how dead inside having a job made me feel. And now, the thought of “just getting a job” somewhere, just for the sake of a steady paycheck, makes my blood run cold.
And about that failure thing: What I did not understand way back then was that failure is a sign of growth. In fact, sometimes failure is necessary in order to grow. The key is to recognize the difference between a stupid, catastrophic failure, and a smart, small, but experience-rich failure. The secret is that the latter isn’t really a failure at all. It’s just a lumpy, odd-looking sort of success.
As I was turning over in my head the recent decisions I have been faced with, I thought to give my father a call. Neither he nor I are really chit-chatty kind of people, so when I am calling him on the phone you know I have something going on. I didn’t really know how to say what I wanted to ask.
“Dad … do you remember all those businesses you and Mom had? Why do you think they all failed?”
I shouldn’t have found his answer surprising. His guess, which is probably right, is that they pursued fun-sounding business ventures without any practical experience or training in the nature of the businesses, or a thorough understanding of the markets for them. They were chock full of great ideas that failed to stay aloft after launch, due to lack of experience, resources and knowledge.
“How do I know I can do this differently? That I’m not making a huge mistake and that disaster is not around the corner?”
The answer: You know how to practice law, you’ve been trained to do it, you’ve had experience in it.
So we talked about this for a while. I disagree with him somewhat: lots of great lawyers don’t know how to run a business, and they really should not be hanging their shingle. Some would-be lawpreneurs will simply be much happier remaining employees of someone else’s firm, or on the more traditional partnership track at a larger firm. I know that’s not me, but with that said, no one’s awarding me an honorary MBA any time soon, either.
But the takeaway from that conversation wasn’t so much to answer the question of whether or not I will succeed. I think it was more to answer this question: Should I be afraid? And the answer, of course, is a resounding no. Being afraid – to run a business, to work for yourself, to live life on your terms – serves nothing and nobody, least of all yourself. While some would argue that fear is a healthy response borne out of one’s instinct toward self-preservation, I am going to take the position here that fear, when it becomes overgrown, tangled up in the garden of your heart’s desire and choking out all the growth beneath it, is detrimental. It’s a weed that needs to ripped out—or perhaps not ripped out, but at least cut down to a reasonable size, to let all the surrounding vegetation breathe.
I recently heard someone say that courage is not the absence of fear, but the control of it. I believe this aphorism to be true.
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