I worked on the 44th floor in the tallest building in London as an investment banker for the now-defunct Bear Stearns. It was 2001. I was 29 and making money in excess of my contribution, feeling like I was on my way to professional and financial success. Not as a Master of the Universe, but to an early retirement.1 Although the hours at Bear Stearns were long, the work was engaging, and the learning curve was steep. I truly loved it. I was basking in a false sense of success, of accomplishment, and the upward trajectory of my professional life.
Growing up, I never had grand notions of career success. The truth is, I never gave it much thought. I was just presumptuous (read: cocky) enough to assume that success was inevitable. That my reach would exceed my grasp. At the time, I had little appreciation for my humble beginnings, growing up in rural Oklahoma.
On the farm, I benefited immensely from a strong work ethic. I was perhaps 15 years old before I realized my suburban peers did not have a chore list every day during the Summer. They had no chickens to feed, no eggs to gather, no hay to bail and stack in the barn. In the winter, they did not wake up early on school days to chop a hole through the ice on the pond, so the cows could drink, nor bottle feed the calves.2
My chores weren’t that onerous. On an average day, they really didn’t take that long… but they were there. As a kid, I didn’t enjoy them (obviously), but I also didn’t really consider that life could be different. It’s just what I knew.3
It’s healthy for a young teenager to hitch the trailer to the tractor and spend a morning by oneself picking up fallen branches under the pecan trees in advance of the harvest. It gives one time to be physically occupied yet lets the mind roam. It cleared my head and kept me out of trouble. More importantly, it reduced my exposure to trouble because, for at least that day, I was just picking up branches, by myself. And, if I remember correctly, I was wearing my Sony Walkman headphones that I got for Christmas (the old school ones with blue foam padding around the otherwise metal-interior ear pieces), listening to the radio while I worked.
The solitude of working outside on the farm could be therapeutic… but that’s the words of an adult looking back somewhat nostalgically. To my teenager self, doing the work that day (any day) basically sucked. It did not occur to me that through the drudgery of work, I was building character and a work ethic. It’s just what we did. Now, later in life, I can more fully appreciate the lessons learned on the farm, building character the hard way, which inevitably seems to be the only way, as far as I can tell.
- Incidentally, this mentality combined with an entrepreneurial spirit is exactly why Goldman Sachs decided not to hire me on my 5th round interview at their firm in London. They were concerned I would not be around for the long-haul. In all likelihood, they were right.
- I still have nostalgic memories of holding the large, warm milk bottle on those cold Oklahoma winter mornings. The powered milk, mixed with warm water isn’t necessarily a pleasant smell, but the scent conjures up memories of toasty hands in cold, dry air.
- Almost without exception, how parents choose to raise their kids will be normal to the kids… because it’s all they know. It’s not until later in life that we are better able to compare notes and fully realize our blessings and shortfalls.