A Life of Lemons, Reinventing Oneself
You can’t fear career change, job change nor reinventing yourself if you want to comfortably read this essay.
Have you ever watched one of those TV commercials promoting a vocation? It begins with a shocking revelation; “ Why are you watching TV now? Why haven’t you gotten off your butt and taken action?” Did you find yourself saying; “glad I’m not in any position like that!” Well, I was just curious, I know I have.
I started working at 17 and am now 52 and back to college working on a new career path. This bodes the question, why? My old career offered international travel working on four continents, considerable responsibility training and managing factory representative firms and dealers, and time spent with movers and shakers in several industries from electronics, to aerospace, to film and television. So why change? The world changed, I am 52 and never earned an MBA. In fact I left high school in the middle of my senior year just because I wanted to work and be on my own. The age alone makes it hard to be rehired; let alone the lack of “letters”. After the last two companies I worked for got gobbled up by multi-national conglomerates my street smarts were no longer looked at as an asset. The skill that opened doors everywhere was now synonymous with “loose cannon”; I was out, my 29 year career over. I remembered a quote from Bill Gates giving a commencement speech at his old high school, paraphrasing here; “See the nerd next to you? Be nice in this new world he’s going to be your boss”. Truer words have never been spoken! The reality of how much of a dinosaur I had become was drilled home at the Employment Development Department; the California state government name for the unemployment office. After a year my savings and severance pay were exhausted and it was time to draw unemployment “benefits”. I then was called into some social workers office for reasons unimaginable. My paperwork was in order and I was spending an honest 40 hours a week beating the pavement looking for a job, any and I bloody well mean any job; this made no sense. Then I heard these unbelievable words: “At your age you will never work again”. While thinking of expletives much more colorful, I think I said something like; really now why is that? Truth be known, over 88% of us old timers never work again according to state statistics! Did I mention that I was 48 then? And isn’t 50 the new 30 or some such pap in pop culture? Well all of this sounds pretty hopeless so far right? If that is what you are reading you missed the alternative title to this essay; “It might not be just what you think it is”. The real question is: Wait … you were an international sales manager and corporate trainer and you dropped out of high school? How’d you get that job? Well I’ll tell ya now.
So it’s 1978 and I am a high school senior approaching graduation. School just isn’t my bag though it should have been. I attended one of the top five ranked high schools in the country in numerical terms of national merit scholars. All my friends were so proud of their accomplishments and I couldn’t give a rip. All I wanted to do was blast tunes, smoke weed, go backpacking, scuba diving and skiing. Rephrased freedom! Also, I thought if we were such hot stuff then the world shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. Furthermore, I would have felt myself a complete hypocrite standing on the dais receiving my diploma surrounded by friends who actually wanted it. My rep was hippy-rebel, albeit a good natured one.
Though my folks had wealth and notoriety in their respective fields, I cut and ran on my own. I loved music and liked science so I took a job at a super high end stereo store down the street from school. The owner figured any kid from my school and coming from a family like mine had to be a good find; proved her wrong. I was almost immediately fired for screwing around on the job; some of my entitled feeling buddies figuring work was no different than hanging out at home imposed themselves on the shops high end demonstration room; a lot. This did not go well and I lacked the nerve to kick them out. The owner handled that issue for me and tossed me out with my buddies; bummer. I went home and thought it through. I don’t know why but somehow I realized that they were wrong and the boss was right. It was then that life lesson number one became clear: Pick your friends well; people judge you by the company you keep. So I picked myself up, tossed of my entitled “friends” and went back to the shop to beg for my job back. Shocker, it worked. Back to stocking and keeping the place tidy.
After a couple of months things were going fine; money in my pocket, cool girl friend and enough free time for hobbies and a few concerts. Then opportunity knocked loudly. Most of the work at this establishment involved custom cabinetry, some structural and electrical engineering and installation of the exotic and highly technical products we sold. Rarely did someone just walk in and buy something; they invested in the entertainment experience in much the same way the well-to-do hire an interior designer to tastefully outfit their home; we worked with a lot of them by the way. So there I was, jeans, polo shirt, shoulder length hair (hey its 1979 alright!) and a hand rolled cigarette hanging out of my face (again hey its 1979) and what do I spy but walk-in clients. Looking expectantly at the owner, she is looking expectantly at her salesman who oddly enough is not looking expectant an all. She asks him why he is not helping the prospective buyers. His response was that they are Japanese and all they ever want is a discount. This is back in the days of what was called “fair trade” or in modern terms price fixing by the factories. Now illegal the intent was to protect small retailers from big stores that could run them out of business by discounting; but I digress. Did I also mention that the salesman was a WWII navy vet who saw a lot of action in the Pacific and as a result became a deluxe racist? Again I digress. So I ask the boss if she minded if I talked to the prospective clients. Sure she said. About twenty minutes later I emerged from the demonstration room, asked permission to do a delivery and hookup of a modestly sized system. She said sure and asked the seminal question in sales; “where’s the money”? I proudly fanned out seventy hundred dollar bills and went to the stock room to get the gear. By the way seven grand in 1979 is more like twenty grand now. After a few hours I returned from the delivery/hookup to find all of my colleagues encircling the bosses’ chair. It reminded me of an 1800’s portrait with a sad looking family standing around a dour looking father. Coming from the high of the first retail sale of my life this was an unexpected and unwelcome scene. Immediately I was grilled on how this could have happened, as though my act was an offence. “Was this just a lay down or did you actually do anything to close the deal?” The salesman was spitting vitriol in the boss’ ear. Taking a quick assessment of this situation it came to me this is what a lynch mob must look like; I’d best think fast. So I responded; “How could you miss this one? Besides everybody that walks through the door wants to buy what we sell!” I had an audience now. Then I mentioned that the family that showed up was Japanese; but I saw things differently than the salesman. First they came in separate cars; he in a Maserati Quattroporte, she in a Mercedes 450 SEL. Second he was wearing Armani, she a traditional kimono plus was accompanied by their child. So big deal said the salesman. I said yes it was. They obviously have the where-with-all for the buy. They are also traditionalists and in a hurry; I guesses you missed the separate cars. In their culture the home is the wife’s domain so she was along to approve the purchase. He wanted to come to the authority to approve his choices in equipment; that means us. The reason I came to ask you boss for permission for the sale and delivery was to satisfy the sensibilities of the new client; cultural protocol after all. The boss said you saw all that? I said how could you not? She then asked me if I wanted the sales job. I said yes. She looked at the salesman and said “you’re fired I don’t want to even imagine how many hundreds of thousands you have lost me over the years”. Did I mention I was 18 at that point and the forlorn salesman was 52? The irony is thick isn’t it? Life lesson number two; keep your eyes and mind open. Life lesson number three, when opportunity knocks open the dang door! Don’t think about it … jump in and sort things out. I had no idea what I was getting into; but the door opened to a career that lasted 29 years generating millions of dollars for thousands of people and showed me a world of experience you can’t buy or study about in any books.
Perhaps the way I took the opportunity then might be frowned upon now; but the takeaway is still the same. Survey the landscape for what opportunities await you. The key is in knowing the landscape. School smarts would not have landed me that first sales position; street smarts did. However my little industry having been absorbed and dissected into a diminished number of subsidiaries extinguished the charm and replaced it with an infusion of business models. I took no joy witnessing the failure of theoreticians applying commodity marketing sensibilities to a boutique industry founded on quirky personalities and engineering genus. Sorry, digressing again. So sit and lament the past right? Of course not instead reapply that street sense to observe and act on how things have changed; that is, adapt to the new landscape. Factoring in my experience set, interests and age perhaps 20% of what was available when I was 30 is possible now. Discouraging right? Again of course it is not, how many jobs do you have or need at once? The biggest difference is now the scholastic letters are necessary to fulfill my goals and interests. The time of this writing finds me working full time in the security industry, go figure, and in college working on a teaching credential where I am having a grand time being twenty to thirty years older that all of my classmates! And yes I am getting mostly all A’s. School is one heck of a lot easier than I remembered. Life lesson number four, past experience greases the wheels to integrating new knowledge. The only reason “you can’t teach and old dog new tricks” is stubbornness probably bourn of resentment for change.
Frankly, I was and still am supersized at how many of my contemporaries have thrown in the towel. Remember that E.D.D. statistic stating that folks my age once let go will never work again? Frankly the whole concept is, wait for the cliché’, un-American. True, I recall from high school American history that many of the Founding Fathers believed that the citizenry, once having succeeded in their first field of choice, should lend their later years to some sort of public service. Politics was recommended as an example for the well-to-do and educated and the postal service for the ones possessing a more simple skill set. Well for me it is elementary school teaching. I like being “dad” and look forward to helping children find their minds and selves. Furthermore my intention is to work for the public school system in a school with a mostly immigrant population, also known as title one here in Los Angeles, where I hope to be of assistance in acclimatizing the parents to the need for their children’s higher education and offering strategies for their success. I am excited for the future, appreciative for the present and positively thrilled to be one of those few people who will ever work again at this ripe old age of 52; oh please!
I was motivated to write this short piece in the hopes that it might motivate anyone who feels trapped or in a rut, but still feels the need to get money fast, regularly.
Perhaps you are one of those “who will never work again”? Look around you there is opportunity everywhere; all you have to do is not filter it out with: outdated strategies, frustration, bitterness and or prejudice. Instead embrace new thinking, research new ideas and then take the initiative to act. You don’t need to be a genius, just ask a lot of questions until you find your way and are clear on what is needed. It doesn’t matter if your goal is a new career or a new investment, the approach is the same: look, think, act, persevere and repeat as often as is necessary! Best wishes to whoever reads this and congratulations in advance on your next success.
Respectfully Submitted, Michael F. Meyers