(Listen to this post, here.)
I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to bet that my 14-year-old son Jonathan will never have a “real job.” Last week was a perfect example of why not.
We were up in beautiful Burlington, Vermont for a couple of days, visiting Champlain College. My wife Linda is an independent college counselor (she doesn’t have a real job either) and while she toured the campus and met with mucky mucks during the day, Jonathan, my 17-year-old daughter Emily and I explored the area.
The morning of our first day there, we strolled over to Church street, a four-block-long shopping area that’s closed to vehicular traffic. You know what I’m talking about – it’s the kind of spot where the jugglers, musicians and artists set up shop, in the hope of attracting tourists like us.
Jonathan took one look and immediately ran back to the car to get his guitar.
15 minutes later he was standing in front of a coffee shop, guitar case open, singing away.
45 minutes after that, he had $24 in his pocket and an invitation from the manager of a local restaurant to come and play on Wednesday nights.
I’m no Milton Friedman, but I’m pretty sure that works out to a minimum wage-crushing $32.00 an hour. Not bad for any kind of work; even better when you consider that he does the same thing for free every day at home (Jonathan I mean; I have no idea what Milton Friedman does).
Now let’s talk about you. And, in particular, how different Jon’s approach to working as a solo professional is from the way you and I tend to see the world. Three things stand out:
- He didn’t wait for outside approval.Prior to last November, Jon had never even picked up a guitar. And while he believes he can sing, it’s not because anyone in authority has ever told him so. Yet there he was, standing on the street, leaving it to “the market” to decide what he was worth.How long do you think it would take you and me to do the same thing? How many lessons would we need? How many music degrees and/or certifications would we first acquire? How many experts would need to assure us that we were good enough to perform in public?
- He was willing to make mistakes and learn along the way.Actually, that’s not quite true. It never even occurred to Jon that there was any preplanning required. His guitar case kept flopping closed in the wind; his guitar was initially out of tune; we even learned the following day that playing without a permit is illegal.Most solo professionals, by contrast, spend way too much time “setting the table.” We plan the web site, we plan the social media strategy, we plan the plan.Nothing wrong with planning. But Jon has already figured out that nobody drops dollar bills in your case until they hear some music.
- He knew he had nothing to lose.About 10 minutes into Jon’s performance, I realized that I had been worrying about all the things that might go wrong. Were we too close to the keyboard player up the block? Would any of the dollar bills fly up and out of the case? Was he smiling and saying “thank you” to the people who gave him money?But wait, my paranoia got even worse than that. When a woman came up to me, asked if I was his dad, and identified herself as a local restaurant manager, my first thought was that she was about to complain!
This just seems to be the way adults think – we’re more worried about possible failure than we are energized by possible success.
In solo-professional-marketing-land, however – and this is really good news – the opposite of success isn’t failure … it’s anonymity.
A crappy newsletter doesn’t cause outrage, it just means people don’t notice. A convoluted explanation of what you do doesn’t result in laughter, it results in your being forgotten before you even finish talking.
But so what? If something doesn’t work, try something different – until it does. Mistakes are rarely noticed, let alone fatal.
Here’s the bottom line. I spent the first 40 years of my life learning how to follow the pack, follow the rules and mostly get in my own way. I’ve spend the last 13 learning how not to.
Granted, I’m still not as savvy as your typical 14-year-old.
Love this story – it really hits home, both as an entrepreneur and a mom. We want our kids (and ourselves to fly), but you really can’t if you are looking down instead of at the horizon. Thanks for the reminder. And congrats to Jonathan!
Hello Laura! Thank you. I like the horizon/flying metaphor. Very, very true.
several mos ago, I mysteriously stopped getting the newsletter. I tried to subscribe again, with each of my email addresses, nothing worked. I thought Id ‘lost” you, which would be too bad, since I enjoy it. Then, yesterday, there you were again. I don’t think it was anything Id done, but if you’d done something at your end, you should know that at least one fan is back on the list.
Ken! Great to have you back. Nothing changed on my end (that I know of) but with email it’s often a mystery. I find gmail accounts are relatively stable in my ability to deliver, so if the problem arises again, I’d recommend using that if you have it. Michael
lovely post, Michael. Hits home for me and some others I know. Well done to you and Linda for allowing/giving Jonathan to have the confidence to do his own thing.
Thanks Walter. Keeping one’s hands off the children as they do their own thing seems like the hardest part! Getting better every day, I hope.
Your son is very unique. He sings and stays in tune. No, he will never follow the regular job routine. Looks like you guys produced a winner. Just love it!!!
Thanks Yvonne. He’s the third in a series (collect them all). Funny thing is, neither Linda nor I know hardly anything about music. Good thing it doesn’t seem to matter!
Thanks Alexandre! Yes, very fun to watch it all unfold.
I liked you son, but wondered how he made $24 in forty-five minutes. After phoning a musician friend of mines who was sent to watch the video, the reason became clear. Your son has the same style as Bob Dylan. Everyone has heard of him. My musician friend played one of Bob Dylan’s hits, and your son is playing three of the four chords from the song. Tell you son to keep plucking cause his future is on its way.
Thanks Yvonne! I will tell him. And as for the $$, it probably doesn’t hurt that while he’s 14, he looks like he’s 12. I suspect that the oddness of a “little kid” playing on the street worked in his favor as well!
Hi Michael – this is so true. May I use this as a post on my blog ? if yes what blurb shall I put at the bottom about you and links etc.
Yes and thank you. Please just shoot me an email and we can talk about the specifics: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi Michael and Gillian: What type of blog do you have Gillian, and what is the address?
This one started a bit slow, so I almost stopped reading. Glad I stuck with it.
It reminded me of a time when I was a Copy Chief at an ad agency and a fledgling copywriter came in and sat down asking, “How do I write a TV commercial?” It was then that it hit me that I’d never asked that question. My first TV commercial was for a major tire company. The Creative Director dropped the docket on my desk and I wrote it. The next day he called me into his office to tell me that it was great! Fantastic idea! However, it was 3 minutes long so he knew I’d just run it by him to get approval and that I’d cut it down to 60 seconds. Turns out, 60 seconds is one page 8 1/2″ by 11″ double spaced. Never looked back.
As someone pointed out later, I was fortunate enough to be too dumb to know I shouldn’t be able to do it.
P. S. I suggest you close up shop and spend all your time promoting your son’s career. Justin Beiber is over the hill now and Jonathan Katz could be the next teen heart-throb.
Great story about the tires. And believe me, Don, my long term plan is to ride the coattails of all three of my children!
As you might know, I’ve been self-employed for 13 years now. It took me a while to learn that bringing a sense of adventure and playfulness to my work is not only fun, but powerful. It drives forward momentum. I’m happy for your son — he’s already on that path. 🙂
Thanks Steve! And yes, totally agree. I wonder how long it will be before my kids realize I’m following their lead now!
Aye, so true. Especially stings for perfectionists like me.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson (I think) said:
“Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.”
I’m good at dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but no $$ is made until the thing (whatever it is) launches. Props to Jonathan for reminding us adults what really works.
Thanks Sunni, glad it hit the spot for you!
I’m late to this post party, but love this one. This is brilliant: the opposite of success isn’t failure … it’s anonymity.
Children are such a great “in” to business/prof. stories – is your son getting a salary? 🙂
Yes, you are late, Abby, but we don’t penalize for tardiness (poor penmanship is another story). My son’s salary includes lots of food!