I have been resisting asking my six-year boy what he wants to be when he grows up because I don’t want him to know yet. But at some point, I’m going to have to ask and here’s what I’m going to ask him:
“What kind of business do you want to own when you grow up?”
We all try to do the best for our kids but we may unwittingly give bullshit advice to them because we simply don’t know any better. Most of us follow a path that seems to make the most sense because it makes the most sense to most people; school, job, retirement, line-dancing.
One reason to work for somebody is you don’t want to run the gauntlet that is creating, promoting, and operating your own business. It’s a bloody grind and “Man! I have so much free time and control over my life!” said exactly no-one who ever started their own business (at least not in the beginning). Another reason is the opportunity to see things that you might never get to see as a small business owner. But unless you’re a sheikh or your dad owns a chain of Cinnabons, there are really only two options you have to not be a bum; work for somebody or work for yourself. (And if you work for yourself, do what I failed to do – create a system that can scale otherwise you don’t own a business. You own a job.)
Knowing those two alternatives, why do most well-meaning parents try to do everything they can to equip their kids for the former and not the latter? Why do most parents encourage their kids to obtain the skills and aptitudes to become good, employable workers instead of the skills and aptitudes to become good, profitable employers? Why do we encourage kids to follow rules instead of encouraging kids to question if the rules can be improved? Almost all ideas and processes can be improved but the guy who follows them without question will not be the guy who will improve them.
Most large businesses (except corporate spin-offs) started off as small businesses. And most small businesses started off as an idea; an idea by one or a couple of dudes not any more talented, intelligent or socially connected as you are. The only difference is they started. Some do extremely well. Some do well. Many fail. But each one will have a better story to tell than some guy who has never tried.
Is it impressive that you’re an executive in a large company? Sure it is. But is it more impressive than an owner of a small one? I guess that depends if where you are is where you intended to be. And in most cases, it’s only the business owner that can answer yes.
When I think about the conversation I’m going to have with my son in a few years, I am not going to tell him that all people are equal in the workplace (…because they are not. Some are really hardworking and work for their own personal success while some are lazy as ____ and will work only as hard as necessary to avoid getting canned). I’m not going to tell him that he can do absolutely anything he wants to (…because that’s really not true at all – there will be stuff he will absolutely suck at). And I’m not going to tell him to do everything he can to make himself more employable because I want him think like an employer. (What can I sell? Who can I get to sell it? What is the margin?) He’ll probably fail his first time and then he and his old man will have something else in common besides dimples and not being tall.
When I think about the conversation I am going to have with my son, I will tell him that making money is easy but making money happily every day is not. I will tell him that everything is completely in his control and there is no such thing as ‘too-far-down’ any path and change can happen in an instant. I will tell him to think about creating a job rather than finding a job and I will tell him that his career goal is not a title but a feeling that his work gives him. But…I will also tell him that I only know what I’ve seen and it’s nothing compared to all that there is to see. I will tell him that if any adult tells him that he has to do ‘A’ to get ‘B’, always ask the adult if he’s ever seen ‘C’. If he hasn’t, thank him for his good intentions and know that he only knows half the story.
Most importantly, I will tell him that no matter what I did, I always worked for myself and for my specific goals. I will tell him that by doing my best to attain my goals, the customer or company who hired me benefited the most while they had me.
And then we’ll go toss a ball and read Adam Smith at bedtime.