February 27, 2014

Lessons I Learned While Working Are Still Working

I spent 36 years in one industry before retiring over thirteen years ago. It was an exciting and rewarding career that allowed me to interact with some of the big names in the music and radio business. I got to live the rock and roll lifestyle for a dozen years as a DJ at Top 40 radio stations. Eventually, I moved from performer to consultant and researcher and spent the next 26 years on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And, yes, the George Clooney movie of a few years ago about frequent fliers is quite accurate. I have one of those 1,000,000 mile cards from Delta.

Over the course of three and a half decades what did I learn then that is helping me now?  I didn't really appreciate it at the time, but a solid foundation was being built. Here are some lessons I learned that continue to influence me today.

Being in the right place at the right time can make a huge difference. My career was moving forward very slowly and I was having doubts about the lifestyle of a DJ. Long hours, low pay, and living with the constant risk of being fired because of low ratings lead to a stressful life. 

Just then my brother happened to write a complementary article about the radio station I was programming while he was in town for my wedding. That article was seen by someone at the top radio consulting company. They had an opening and I got it. Instantly my life and career were on a path that would allow me to own my own consulting and research business a few years later, enjoy financial stability, and retire early. All because of one article, in one small newsletter, seen by one person, at exactly the right time. I would never have even been on their radar without that event.


Being at the right place at the right time is something you really can't control. But, if you are alert enough to recognize that opportunity, grab it. Some may call this luck and that may play a part. But, if you are not sensitive to the big chance when it presents itself being lucky won't help. Train yourself to look at situations with a fresh eye. When others see a problem, do you sense an opening?

Paying your dues. To break into radio at the age of 15, I started as a janitor at a tiny radio station in suburban Boston. Mopping floors, throwing out the trash, and running errands for the announcers eventually lead to a chance for me to try out for an on-air opening and get it. The truth is I got the job because I agreed to work for virtually nothing after school and weekends. I hung around the station even when I wasn't being paid, doing newscasts and playing taped programs for free.

I'm afraid there are a lot of people today who believe society owes them success. Hard work, learning the ropes, and doing the stuff others don't want to do are foreign concepts to many. They believe starting at the bottom and working your way up is not for them. I'm pretty sure that skipping the first several rungs of the ladder will set you up for a nasty fall at some point.

Long hours and sacrifice are part of building anything meaningful. My first  air shift as a DJ while away at college was from 12 midnight to 6AM Monday mornings. I had an 8 O'Clock class that I almost never attended and barely managed to squeak by with a D. Several months later I worked from 6 PM-12 midnight 6 days a week while carrying a full class load. Later as a consultant I worked seven days a week for almost three years to establish my business.

It was not often pleasant, but building something worthwhile comes at a cost.  I chose to make those sacrifices to build what I was striving to build. There was no other way. 

Your word is your most valuable asset. I had more than one client tell me that I had their total trust and confidence. They believed my word was my bond and i would do everything in my power to help them succeed. In life, as well as business, trust and honesty must be earned. The cost if you squander them can bankrupt a business and a life.There is nothing more valuable than your word. Protect it at all costs.

Take an occasional calculated risk. When I was fired shortly after moving from Salt Lake City to Tucson in 1980 I had a real problem: a family with two kids under the age of 3 and no way to support them. After long discussions with my wife, we decided I would try to establish my own consulting and research business. The odds were against us. I didn't have much money for marketing and promotion.

It worked. One major station decided to take a chance on me and that lead to a national client base. It was tough at first. We didn't even allow ourselves to go shopping at a mall for one full year. But, the calculated risk we took paid off. It probably helped that we had no Plan B. It had to work.

Learning must never stop. One important lesson cost me my business and pushed me into retirement at least 4 or 5 years earlier than I had planned. I allowed myself to coast on past performances and reputation. While the industry was changing all around me, I continued to use the same approach that had worked so well for so many years. I stopped learning and evolving. When radio finally went through another gigantic upheaval in 1996 I had no way to stop the decline in my business.

The lesson was simple: never stop learning. Whatever you know today is likely to be different or obsolete much sooner than you expect. Whatever your expertise or experience, it will become worthless at some point if you don't keep learning. It doesn't matter if you are in business or retired, the world will pass you by if you step to the sidelines and watch the parade. 


Know when to fold 'em. In 2001 my wife and I looked at the wreckage of the business and had to make a critical decision. Do we take a chunk of our savings and attempt to resurrect the business?  Or, do we say it was a great run while it lasted. and stop?Retiring when I did was a real leap into the deep end but that's what we did. We took that risk. We knew when to call it quits.


Sometimes you have to stop something you are doing, or change direction. You may have to undergo a difficult transition to get to the next stage. You may have jump into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. But, the riskiest decision you can make in such a situation is to not jump. To continue along a path that isn't working for you is only going to take you farther away from where you want to be.



22 comments:

  1. That was WONDERFUL and SO TRUE! I can see many parallels in my own life and oh, how so quickly it all seemed to go!

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    1. Am I really about to be officially a "senior citizen?" In my mind I am still a semi-mature, middle-aged guy!

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  2. What am interesting subject! And I agree with every one of them. A couple of other lessons that are still working for me would be:
    Be respectful--everyone, every time.
    Be prepared and then prepare some more.
    Have a fall back plan & be flexible.

    I'm looking forward to seeing what other lessons others have learned.

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    1. Three excellent additions, Florence. I'd also add take the time to thank others for anything and everything.

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  3. Yup.

    One other lesson I did NOT learn (which caused me to retire early & which issue I am now working on as a retiree is) would be:
    Take care of your physical health as you go along. I was so busy giving 100% to my job, 100% as a single mom of teens, then adult children & 100% to family & friends, I forgot all about me. Fortunately, I still have a chance to reverse that but nearly 100 pounds to remove in my 60's is harder to do than it would have been at a younger age. I do notice, however, that the Universe keeps sending me those lessons! (I say with a smile)

    pam

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    1. You are so right. What I could do with my body even 10 years ago causes some groans and creaking today.

      I lost 6 pounds during a bout of food poisoning several weeks ago. That took me down to a weight target I hadn't been able to reach in years. I have since put 2 of those pounds back but I seem to have stabilized at a new weight "set point." While I don't recommend food poisoning as a way to lose pounds, sometimes something bad can accomplish something good.

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  4. Great story! Excellent life lessons. I am 9 years older than you, so I was in high school in the fifties. We used to hang out at the radio stations. One of them would let us dance to the tunes the DJ was playing because there was a large room nearby. Another smaller one that was upstairs in a downtown building (small town) just let us hang out and request songs and on Saturday morning we could sing on the air. When they did a commercial for Holsom Bread the DJ would say "don't say bread, say..." and we would all yell HOLSOM! One of the teenage DJs went on to become a news anchor at a TV station in another city. Pardon the reminiscing. Good memories of radio stations. Your association with them certainly served you well... with a lot of effort on your part, of course. I wonder how many young people today would make the effort that you did.

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    1. What I am sad about is that radio stations are now longer important to most people. Music is available free or at low cost without commercials or chattering DJs. Music radio stations don't attract the fans or the type of behavior you cite (and I experienced).

      Radio used to be so vital to our lives, and especially in small towns. I remember being on the roof of one radio station in a small town so I could look down on a parade and broadcast the progression of the floats, cars, and bands. Can you imagine anyone listening to that today?

      That same station broadcast little league baseball games several nights each week during the summer. Again, who would listen to that?

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  5. The truest statement, for me, is Never stop learning! I think not being able to go to college, because I got married young and started a family, set me back a little in my twenties. But, I never stopped being curious and reading and trying new things. It's what got me interested in computers and technology very early on. Now I try to help my friends who 'thought it was a passing phase', or 'I'm too old to learn'. It's sad! Learning and trying to stay on top of the changes around you is what keeps you vital.
    Good post!!
    b

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    1. Thanks, Barbara. I just read a study that, once again, proves that lifetime learning keeps the brain healthier longer. Besides, it is fun.

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  6. This may be part of a calculated risk but as a front-line worker, I would sometimes proceed without permission since it would take so long to get an answer from the multiple layers of management - "easier to get forgiveness than permission" was one of my mottoes. I can't think of one instance that it didn't work. I also tried to respond quickly to requests from clients; This wasn't always possible, but I found that it took longer to explain why I couldn't do something than if I would just get it done regardless of the office "schedule". So often I was told I was "lucky" to have my job that allowed paid vacation and benefits and the pension I'm accessing now. If luck is where opportunity meets preparedness, then I was lucky. It only took 3 yrs in a training program followed by 5 yrs of part-time study in a post-basic program while I was working FT and raising a family and 34 yrs of FT work to get to where I am now, enjoying a satisfying retirement <60 yrs of age.

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    1. Great progression, Mona. Each piece of your journey and each struggle added something important to your life's path. Others can benefit from reading of your dedication and progress toward your goal.

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  7. Radio while I was growing up? Two words: Wolfman Jack.

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    1. Ah yes, Mr. Robert Smith from Del Rio Texas!

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  8. Great post Bob! One life lesson I learned at a fairly early age in my career path: to be truly effective in life with your relationships (work or personal) you need to really listen to others, and you need to be able to communicate that you care. Of course it needs to be sincere, or it won't work. These two life skills go a very long way in establishing a good, trusting relationship, both in the work setting and in one's personal life. You can't fake it. But some people have a harder time than others in demonstrating these two behaviors.

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    1. Really listening to others is a skill that doesn't seem to come naturally to most of us - it takes effort. But, being a good listener can make you very popular!

      I learned a skill while training to be a lay minister: reflective listening. It is one of the most useful things we can do to prove to someone else we are really paying attention.

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  9. Congrats on being retired. I have a couple of years to go, but look forward to it. I keep thinking retirement is for 'old' people, and not people like me. I am still in my 20s in my head sometimes.

    Hard work is always rewarded, although not right away.

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    1. I am certainly not old in my head, even as I watch my face in the mirror begin to sag a little farther south each year.

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  10. Great post! Like you, my DH has his 2 million mile tag from Delta (formerly NWA!). Last year, a co-worker commented that he must have done a lot of overseas travel, but no. Most was domestic. He (and you) deserve their permanent Elite status, even if it's only Silver.

    I worked at two small town radio stations in the '70's and '80's, and it was an invaluable experience. I ran the board for local talk shows, covered local government meetings, and filled in at 5am when the news director was off. Of course, it also exposed me to some "characters" that would lend themselves to a kooky novel.

    I recently resigned a lucrative sales position when I discovered my company had breached a Non-disclosure with our largest customer and no one was particularly concerned. Like you, my word has built my reputation in this industry, and if am not willing to risk it. At 60, I am not sure what is next, but that was a clear sign.

    Really enjoy your blog, although I am mostly a lurker.

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    1. Like your husband all my miles (close to 2 million on all airlines) was all domestic. As I think back to that part of my life it is hard to comprehend that much time and all those miles just flying to so many cities and towns (Vernal, Utah !) that I could rack up that number of miles. And, yes, my life-time silver medallion status gets me the right to board first. That's it. I think I should have been given a plane and pilot !

      My first radio job was at a 500 watt, directional daytimer. Since I was willing to do it, I was the person (at age 17) assigned to go to the station on Christmas or New Year's morning, shovel my way to the front door, get inside, turn on the transmitter (very much illegal), and handle the first 5 hours of the day alone. Just clearing the teletype paper that had been running all night and putting together a newscast took nearly 30 minutes! But, what great experience.

      "Lurkers" make up about 98% of the readership of most blogs, but I like it when something I have written prompts someone to dip a toe in the comment section. Thanks!

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  11. I understood the lesson "Paying Your Dues". I cannot tell you how many volunteers at our school ended up with jobs. But I would take it even one step further. The perfect job is the one that you would do for no pay!

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    1. So true. I would have worked for free (and actually did at times) to be inside a radio station. I slept, ate, and dreamed radio. That focus was so important as I was building a career.

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