The Self Made Man

There is a myth that many small business owners like to propagate and believe.  They know the truth or at

least they did once but somewhere along the line they were able to convince themselves that they really

are self made men.  I knew of a man once.  He was the owner of a small but productive roofing company.  

He had a crew of laborers some skilled some not so much.  He had leased half a small building and an

adjacent yard to store his supplies, trucks and equipment.  He had a dirty little office above the warehouse

and a secretary in a room down below.  She was one of those one woman offices.  The only female

amongst a group of blue collar men.  She had a thick skin and a just get it done manner about her that

allowed her to put up with the rough environment and even joke with the workers.  In time the hardest part

of her job was dealing with the attitude and arrogance of the owner and his son in law who had married the

owner’s daughter a decade earlier when he had a job of his own before he had fallen on hard times.  His

wife went to her father and now the son in law was the number two guy being groomed by the dad to take

over.  He was pretty much bidding his time till the old man slipped on something so he could push him off

to a home.  The son in law was ready to be free to take over.  The relationship between the two was

actually pretty good as they where very much alike and it was only when the younger got that hungry look

in his eyes or he was less then humble and submitting to the big dog that there was  a problem.  You see

the son in law was given to the occasional period of self honesty that he had not made it in the world.  He

had failed and now he lived by the leave of his father-in-law.  A man who had employed him, put him in

charge in his absence and even bought (no not cosigned, or put a down on but bought) him a house.  The

title of which of course was in his wife’s (the daughter’s) name.  And all he had to do is keep his tail

between his legs for a few more years and play lap dog to the big dog.

It was an interesting environment and on occasion when I was in the area I would drop by and bring lunch

for the office girl.  She was funny and told a good story for sure.  Our conversations were mostly harsh and

would swing from old movies to politics and the weather but some of my favorite stories were just the

common happens and political intrigue within the fifteen or so people that made up the roofing company.   

A laborer not showing up for work at 4:30 in the morning because they had been out all night drinking.  

The fights between the lead roofer and the owner that would end with both of them pissed off and

occasionally the lead roofer getting fired only to be hired back a day later because he don’t know better to

find a new job and the owner depended on him to keep the rest of the workers most of which were his

cousins or brothers or friend’s in line.  It was an interesting little soap opera and a fun way to divert an

hour at lunch as I continued to gain perspective on the various work places and the interactions between

people.  Now and then I would see their company sign in a local yard advertising the work they just did or

were about to do.  It was odd to me that I never saw them doing the work.  The signs where there before or

after but in over four years I never saw a sign and a house with workers on the roof.  I did see the owner

proudly driving through the various neighborhoods in his big white roofing truck with black metal racks over

the bed, a load of some sort of shingle or tile in the back, and big custom lettered signs on the doors of the

truck advertising his name and the company.  It was always the same he had a look of arrogant pride and

busied irritation on his face as he was heading off in a hurry to the nearest fast food joint or to a park for a

nap before he would unexpectedly pull up to a job site to yell at his workers and tell them how they were

screwing up.

It was amazing to hear the office girl go on about the company as if they were all loonies or characters in

an old black and white cartoon.  She would always have a tuff word about the owner.

I said, “Well at least he provides a job for you.”

She said, “Yeah a job.  More like a punishment.”

I said, “At least you’re getting by.”

And she said, “Just … getting by. That’s how he does it.  He gives you just enough to get by…. No enough

to get ahead… not enough to squeak a small saving to build on… just enough to live from paycheck to

paycheck.  It’s called job security.  He is secure that you won’t leave because you can’t afford to.”

I said, “That’s pretty harsh.” “Not harsh enough.”

She said, “The damn little Nazis keeps you under his boot because it makes him feel taller.”

  Wow, I thought and then I thought well maybe she’s right.  Not in the mean way but its common in world

history and he would not be the first to gain a bit of power and enjoy using it.  The quickest way to feel big

is to make others feel small.  I mean, if your only three feet tall.  It would be easier to make others craw on

there knees then to grow two feet.  Of course you cold just stand on a box but who needs a box when you

have employees near by to stand on.  My mind does tend to ramble and when in a poor mood it has as a

dark sense of humor.  Oh, come on… don’t act smug… everyone thinks it’s funny when someone else is

hurt or repressed just look at how well Americans funniest home videos did.  Remember, it’s only funny if it’

s not you. But I digress…..

So I said, “OK, but should he not have a sense of pride a feeling of having done better then most?  Maybe

even of being better then most or at least some.  He has gotten here from the bottom and being a self man

is something, at least he’s a jerk who had to work his way up and might just be a product of that effort.  He

might have a reason.”

To which she laughed, “Self made man?  He’s not a self made man … that is unless you call a rebellious

son you failed in everything he tried and then come home to daddy with his tail between his legs a self

made man.”

“Wow.” again I said, “Ok.  What was the story?”

She told me how one day when he was in a particularly bad mood and angry at his good for nothing son in

law he relayed how he got into the roofing business.  It seems that his father had been stationed out in

California during WWII and when he got out of the service he stayed.  It was much smaller back then… of

course LA was bustling but most of Orange County was open and considered remote… the same with

most of the valley on the other side of LA.  His dad had gotten a job working for a roofer and learned the

trade.  In time with a decent wage and a little help from his GI benefits he bought a truck and some

equipment.  He started out free lance and in a few years had a decent little business servicing the fringe

areas of the valley and Orange County.  His father bought himself a house in Orange County got married

and had a couple, of kids.  The owner grew up in a stable environment in the rapidly developing OC and

pretty much got whatever he wanted.

His old school dad encouraged him and tried to coax him into the business.  Forcing him to work summers

with him.  The owner reluctantly did it but hated it and looked down on the crews and probably didn’t think

much of his dad.  His dad of course sent him to college in an attempt to develop the next generation.  

Maybe give him the advantage needed to take over the business and grow it into something bigger.  But

after going to college and getting a taste of a cleaner life the last thing the owner wanted was to go back

and work on a hot roof with a smelly kettle of tar and a group of lower class laborers.  So to his father’s

disappointment the owner left to pursuer his own interests.  A string of fly by night ventures and

harebrained schemes followed and his father was always there with the funds from the dirty business of

roofing to keep his son from failing and to set him back on his feet time and again.  A number of years later

the owner was married and with a kid on the way and had failed again.  This time the father getting on in

years pushed his son into the business one more time; this time with the excuse that he was getting ill and

just needed his son to help out until he was better.  Reluctantly the owner did it.  A couple of years later

the father didn’t get better he pasted away.  The son was now the owner.

Fast forward two decades and the story turns into a stirring tell of how he begged his father to give him a

chance, how he would eagerly work the summer trying to learn all he could.  How he had developed

several strong profitable businesses after college that would have made him a lot more money but when

his dad got sick he gave them all up to help out and take over the family business which of course he

made into what it was today.  This is where reality gets lost over time and in self delusion as a way to wrap

your nut around it and allow you to reconcile the disjoined aspects of your life and behavior in order to

allow you to live with yourself (to get your nut around it).  You don’t have to face your actions and behavior

truthfully.  You don’t have to deal with it.  You just make up a new reality.

The Point:

The image of a self made man that most business owners have is more self delusion or revisionist history

then reality.  It is possible still and hopefully always will be in America to start with little or nothing and make

it to the top but it is rare to do this without at least some and most likely lots of help from others.

The Lesson:

Take the stories of heroic effort and determined self reliance against impossible odds to victory and

success with extreme skepticism.  Those type of stories can generally demotivate and make you feel

inadequate.  If you feel as if you are not as good, strong, or capable as the owner, your boss, or even the

next guy then you will be more likely to give up and that is the only way to loose and fail.

The Brutal Truth:

It is all a big act.  The big guys are as insecure as you are and are looking for admiration and approval just

like you.  Remember no one does it alone so if you need help take it.