What do gumball machines, football games, sailboats, cars and law schools have to do with life? Quite a lot it turns out. At least as far as events have unfolded for me.
This article is about the FIVE ESSENTIAL LIFE LESSONS I learned as a kid from age 9 to 16 that have stayed with me all my life and served me well in everything I’ve done.
1. LEVERAGE – FIND IT – USE IT
When I was nine years old I started my first two businesses. Two businesses, my father taught me to never do anything small so two businesses. I had no intention of doing any of this. Stuff just happened to me and one day I was an entrepreneur.
Here’s what happened.
One day my father brought a gumball machine home and set it up on the kitchen table. We never ate in the kitchen as we took all our meals in the dining room, so the gumball machine had a private spot of its own. I was thrilled. Put in a penny, turn the knob and out would come a delicious brightly colored gumball. Yum.
The next morning I carried my new gumball machine to school. It was show and tell day and for once I had something entertaining to show and tell about. Shockingly my presentation was a smashing success. People got out their pennies and bought gum from my machine right there on the spot. I was thrilled. And later that afternoon a number of my little school chums came to my house armed with more pennies to buy more gum. I was in business. I reloaded my gumball machine and kept it all polished and shiny.
Now it just so happened that we lived across the street from my school and in those days all the kids were sent home for lunch. So my gumball business was busy twice day, at lunchtime and after school. I was making pennies and being popular too.
PENNIES OR DOLLARS
It wasn’t long before it occurred to me that although my business was thriving I was only making pennies. It took a hundred of them to make a dollar. But what if I were selling gumball machines instead of gumballs one by one? What if dad could bring home more gumball machines that I could sell to me existing customers and then supply them with boxes of gumballs when they ran out? Now I could make dollars instead of pennies.
Well that’s what happened. I asked my dad if he would bring home two more gumball machines. He asked me what I planned to do with them and I told him. We had quit a little discussion about it. The next day my dad brought home two more. And I sold them. Then I got more and sold those too. I never knew where they came from, but I knew how to sell them. And the boxes of gumballs for the machines came in the mail from Philadelphia I think.
So my second enterprise – I had a vending machine dealership, that’s what my dad told me I was doing.
My mother opened a savings account for me at the local bank and I added to it regularly. I was nine, had two small businesses and my fortune was steadily growing.
THE LESSON OF LEVERAGE
Selling gumball machines for dollars beats selling gumballs for pennies. Why work for pennies when you can work for dollars. Dollars are better. Go for the big return, especially if the work effort is the same or less.
Much later in life I came to appreciate another form of leverage. Why work five days a week if you can figure out how to earn just as much working three days a week and enjoy four day weekends? Yes, more money – less work, that’s better, much better. Leverage is good.
2. PLANNING IS CONTINUOUS
I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. I don’t recommend it. I don’t think you should ever visit South Bend or even fly over it on your way to somewhere else. There’s nothing there, just a few motels and a mannequin factory. The place is a hell hole, especially in the freezing cold winters and in the stemming humid summers.
However there is one thing. Notre Dame University is in South Bend. And they have a football team. We had season tickets to the football games and went to all of them, even in the freezing winter months. Dad would buy a couple of bags of hot peanuts from the concession stand and in we’d go.
Our seats were in the end zone, two rows from the top, not great but we were in the stadium. And Norte Dame Football games were terrific. I still remember some of the players like Paul Hornung, who later played for the Green Bay Packers, Ralph Guglielomi who went on to play for the Washington Redskins and three other teams, and John Mazer who became the head coach of the New England Patriots.
I was in the third grade and very new to football back then, so I didn’t know much about how the game was played.
Right away I noticed that the players on the offense held a little meeting between every play. They gathered themselves into sort of a circle and leaned into to it, sometimes with their arms around each other’s shoulders. I learned was circle was called a huddle. The individual players would “huddle up” and talk for a bit, just a few seconds, and when they were through talking, sometimes they’d clap their hands together, shout something encouraging and then line up for the next play.
My dad told me that the purpose of the huddle was to assess the current situation, plan what to do in the next play and assign tasks to the individual players. I thought that was neat. I mean when a lot is riding on results of something you are about to do, why not pause and assess what’s going on, then plan before taking action, especially when there’s a bunch of really big guys who are determined to stop you from doing whatever you wish to accomplish – like advance a football down the field towards to end zone.
The football players would huddle up between every play whether they were ahead or behind, didn’t matter. plan they would always do.
About this same time I learned to play the board game called Chess and realized that to win that game it was imperative to look ahead and plan ahead. Strategy mattered, another form of planning.
THE LESSON – ALWAYS BE PLANNING
No matter what you are doing life or in your career, take time to huddle, to assess, to think, to talk things over with peers and associates and partners, then decide what to do next and how to keep getting better – then boldly implement planned for action. And never stop planning, even if you are way behind in whatever it is you are endeavoring to do. You nearly always can get better, if you plan well and enough.
There’s a pattern to planning, a rhythm almost. PDCA: You PLAN, then you DO, then you CHECK to see what happened then you ACT and then you repeat. And you can do this forever.
3. START WELL – STAY FOCUSED – IT’S A CHOICE
My uncle Bill and Aunt Virginia came to me one day and asked if I would crew for them in their sailboat races for the season. The Borough family had two cottages on a place called Diamond Lake in southern Michigan. I was 13 years old at the time and I said yes.
Bill and Ginny had been sailing for years in several types of boats and were experienced racers. Once I was onboard with the idea, the three of us raced at Diamond Lake and other lakes in Michigan and Indiana. Most every Sunday morning during the summer months we were on the water. And we won a lot, most of the time in fact. There was a reason for that.
Bill and Ginny knew that if we were able to win the start, then if we made no significant mistakes we would win. It so much easier to get out ahead at the start of a sailboat race than it is to catch up from behind. So true in many other places too of course.
One of my jobs on the boat was to count down the minutes and seconds left before the starting gun announcing the official start would be fired. I had a stop watch for this. While I was calling out the time, Uncle Bill would be tactfully steering the boat so as to be in just the right spot the moment the gun went off. This was not easy because the skippers on the other boats were trying to do the same thing. They too wanted to get the most advantageous start so they could have a good change as winning. But Uncle Bill was really good at this. Most every time we won the start we won the race. And I still have a couple of trophies to prove this.
It was also important to keep your focus on what’s going on around you. One day my uncle somehow misplaced his focus and he fell overboard. Aunt Ginny and I were stunned. She turned the boat around and we went back and picked him up. But we lost that race. Focus matters just like starting right.
I took this start well lesson to high school. Whenever a book report or a term paper was assigned to my class I stared it immediately and finished it as fast as I could. Many of my school chums waited until the last minute to get started and suffered the consequences. Better to get a good start to win.
Be alert and pointed in the right direction at the right time.
THE LESSON – START WELL, KEEP YOUR FOCUS AND FINISH WELL.
4. KNOW WHAT YOU NEED & WHAT YOU WANT
There is a huge difference between needs and wants.
I define NEEDS as goods, products and services that are required to sustain life. We NEED food, clothing, shelter and health.
I define WANTS as goods, products and services that are not necessary but that we desire or wish we had. We need a car or a truck to get us around but we don’t need a Ferrari. We need a warm coat but not a mink. We need a wrist watch but not a Rolex.
And NEEDS are more in the realm of the intellectual while WANTS are more in the realm of the emotional.
Some day in the week I turned 16 years old I took and passed my driver’s license test and got a my first license. This was a really big day for me. Now I could go places on my own, whenever I wanted and not need to wait to be driven by an available adult.
Since age 14 I had been working in my father’s office after school and during the summer time as a medical laboratory technician running blood tests and such.
My dad was a physician, a psychiatrist and a neurologist. Dad never did anything small so he had two medical specialties and practiced medicine for a time in four states simultaneously, had an airplane.
In his South Bend practice he kept the psychiatric units in both hospitals full and also had a second location where he did electroshock therapy. In his main office, in addition to conducting psychotherapy interviews in the psychiatry realm, he kept an EEG machine running too. That was the neurology side of his practice. He employed four nurses, a receptionist/office manager and a bookkeeper and me, the lab tech. He practiced what he called volume medicine. Dad did a lot, worked seven days a week.
I was paid to do my job, and since I had no need for money while living at home, and knowing that one day I would need money to buy a car, I saved most of what I earned. A few days after the blessed day when I had my driving license, with checkbook in hand I went car shopping.
Now it just so happened that the Studebaker automobile factory was in South Bend. It was our major industry. And there were lots and lots of used Studies around and for sale. Many were affordable, no that’s not right, many were cheap.
So I bought one, a 1953 Studebaker Champion. I paid $475 dollars for it. My first car, the car I needed. I put a radio in it and had it repainted a nice two tone white over green. My Studie had a V8 engine and a three speed column shift. Working the clutch was tricky for me but I eventually mastered it. However this was not the car I wanted. It was common, mundane and not that fun to drive.
So I bought another car, a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette with a full race cam, two four barrel carburetors and loud mufflers. The Vette cost me $2,750 most of my money at the time. But I didn’t care. I really wanted that Corvette. I was black with red interior. It came with a three speed transmission but I changed that. Put in a four speed – now I had exactly what I WANTED – and yes, the fabulous positive emotions were all there big time with the Vette.
Boy oh boy was that car fun to drive. I kept it for years and wish I still had it. In fact the only mistake I admit to ever making in life was when I sold that first Corvette.
I’ve owned two other Corvettes since then but nothing was so liberating nor gave me such joy as the ‘57.
THE LESSON – GO HARD FOR WHAT YOU WANT, THERE’S JOY IN THAT.
5. INSANITY – AVOID IT
As mentioned previously, my dad was a psychiatrist and Notre Dame University is located in South Bend. There was law school there.
Twice a year my dad would go on campus to lecture at the law school. The academic dean wanted him to talk about insanity – the medical and legal definitions and such. Law students need to know and understand how insanity might matter to them for that time when they might be prosecuting or defending someone possibly suffering from mental illness.
On a couple of occasions I went with my dad when he delivered these lectures to at the Norte Dame Law School. The place was amazing.
Dad boiled insanity down to simple language. I’ll paraphrase from a term paper I wrote on this in high school. “Some people are nuts. They have no idea of what they are doing. They have delusions and/or hallucinations running wild in their heads that prevent them from thinking straight. Therefore, they are not responsible for consequences of their behavior. They are mentally ill. They are insane.
Their insanity might be a permanent condition or it might be a temporary one. The causes are multifaceted. They might have an organic brain disorder. They might be severely impaired in response to a one time severe emotional traumatic life experience. Some recover and some do not.”
As I was writing my term paper I came upon another definition of insanity, one from Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviors and expecting different outcomes.” I liked this better than my dad’s psychiatric definition. It seemed to have a much wider application.
Indeed continuing to do things that do not work while expecting different results is insane. Yet, we see people around us doing this all the time.
Millions of business owners do this, especially with their marketing. A simple SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) nearly always reveals problems with what do you think – marketing, that’s what.
Here’s the situation, the business owner knows that his marketing does not produce the financial results he wants. He has engaged in his current marketing activity long enough and thoroughly enough to know for sure that it is fatally flawed. Yet, he keeps trying it over and over and over. This is unproductive, futile, useless and pointless. To get better results the business owner must do something different. Since he’s stuck and feeling resourceless, he ought to huddle-up with helpful advisors and figure out his best to change his behavior, then do that and see what happens, break the cycle of insanity.
So why do we see this not changing behavior situation so often?
Because people strenuously resist change, even when change they must do get better results. Weird human nature but there it is folks.
THE LESSON – AVOID INSANITY AT ALL COSTS. RESISTING NECESSARY CHANGE IS NUTS.
Leverage all that you do for bigger returns and greater happiness. Keep planning and improving what you do. Start well, keep your focus and never give up. Differentiate between needs and wants. Go for wants there’s more fun there. If what you’re doing isn’t working, it is insane not to change. Avoid insanity at all costs.