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Friday, January 3, 2014

You are Entering the No-Bull Zone

This book is not like the oversupply of self-help books that present a list of exercises and plans to do this and that, write down your goals, create a map, draw this, analyze your inner self, keep a journal, and answer this list of questions, ad nauseum. This book is basically an honest depiction of the work and life landscape in the U.S. on several fronts and it asks some questions that get you thinking about how to go about earning a  decent living and keeping your expenses down. It is an overview of our society, not an expose about following some pop psychologist’s unproven methods. In short, this is the no-bull zone.

This book is about attempting to discover the truth about career and education opportunities available to American citizens to enable them to survive and/or go beyond the ordinary in the twenty-first century. I start under the premise that there is an enormous amount of misinformation spread through the Internet and through a trend among major media corporations and politicians that shows a serious lack of focus on the issues that really matter to us.

Consequently, it is more important today than ever before to be information literate, a topic that does not generate a great deal of interest among common everyday people. However, common, everyday people go online every day, and they are consistently being duped by amateurs who publish misleading information online. Getting a keen understanding of how to identify what’s valid, useful, and authoritative information from online resources is a necessary skill to have today, like knowing how to use a telephone or how to type. 

In addition to being information literate, we as a society need to understand and change the way our economy works. While I am by no means an economist or scholarly writer on economics, I can read and examine the scholarly literature and see with my own eyes and through decades of both blue-collar and white-collar personal experiences what is happening to our country. This too is not prominent in many peoples’ eyes. 

There’s also a movement today that is quite disheartening. It’s one in which an enormous number of American citizens are anti-intellectual.

More to come soon…

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pau Hana

The reasons why I moved a lot about the country were mostly due to weather conditions more than anything else, as I assume it is for many other people who have a tendency to not stay put. Growing up in Buffalo, NY was a lesson in cold temperature survival. In 1977 there was a great blizzard in Buffalo. I was 24 years old and loaded with wild oats. By the following spring I was out of there, moving to, of all places, Kona, Hawaii.  The cultural differences in this example are kind of hilarious. For one, I had a strong city accent that was so out of place in Hawaii that most people concluded that I was some kind of gangster or hood simply from the sound of my voice. My skin complexion was drastically white and unhealthy looking to most Hawaiians. I had absolutely no sense whatsoever of what it meant to be of Hawaiian descent, and my sense of nature, in general, was extremely limited. Despite such drawbacks, however, I did manage to get a job, starting out as a bus person at a Hilton Hotel. From there I moved up to room-service waiter and bar server. I was also hired by a small jewelry store in the hotel as a part-time sales clerk.

A search through the classifieds got me a place to live in which I shared an apartment with a man who happened to be an ex-convict, but he was actually a very good person and no problem to share an apartment with at all. In short, I was able to support myself and live comfortably in one of the most beautiful places in the world – and there was no longer a need to put on a jacket of any sort. I reveled in aloha shirts and tee shirts, Bermuda shorts and flip flops. Life was good. Going to the beach and having a beer while watching an amazing sun set was something I never got tired of doing. There was, however, one big drawback that came to haunt me after over two years of living the Aloha spirit – the higher education system on the Big Island of Hawaii was less than stellar. If I wanted to get ahead in life I needed to go back to the mainland and get a degree. 

I am not to saying that living in Hawaii would not have worked out. I also found that having a New York State education gave me a competitive edge for employment opportunities in Hawaii. I was quickly moving up the ranks and had progressed to becoming a desk clerk, night auditor and management assistant in the hospitality industry.  If I stayed, I would have eventually landed a management-level position, without a college degree, at a hotel that paid a decent wage with strong benefits due to the strong hotel unions and lived happily ever after in Paradise. 

I graduated from a male-only parochial high school where academics and discipline were drilled into us on a daily basis by Franciscan priests who often used corporal punishment to enforce their demands. There were no beautiful ocean waves on pristine beaches to escape to. Instead we were mostly stuck in doors for 7 to 8 months out of the year, looking at snow and ice, and textbooks.

There was no “pau hana,” spirit in Buffalo, as they say in Hawaii. Pau Hana is a commonly used phrase that means the time for relaxing and socializing after work. Hawaiians use it all the time as a social icebreaker : “Pau hana, bra?” they would say in their pigeon English slang, meaning are you ready to have a good time and forget about the rigors of work, sit back, relax and “talk story,” as they often said in reference to simply enjoying the company of friends in a non-threatening environment. It was just another example of the kicked-back lifestyle and pleasant Aloha spirit that Hawaiians are famous for.

Now Buffalo, as well as most Rust Belt cities, is another story. Rust Belt citizens have a much harder existence that can be seen in their customarily stern faces and overall serious nature. Our daily life is more of a constant battle with the elements of nature that pound our faces and constrict our ability to walk unimpeded. In many ways just living in Buffalo during the heart of winter is work in and of itself, thus making any kind of pau hana spirit relatively nonexistent. Of course, we celebrate our time off  like anyone else, it’s just that we have to do more work to get to that point, being forced to remove snow barriers, clean off our cars, heat up our windows and trudge through the sludge. Then, of course, there isn’t much to look at other than the mounds of snow piling up outside our windows. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

On Self-employment

Despite all this information about where the jobs are, what cities offer the best cost of living, and where and how you can get educated and keep up with learning the latest twenty-first century skills, most people simply settle in where they were born or where their family lives, whether that be in the cold cities of North and South Dakota or the warm beach cities of Southern California.

Over more than four decades of moving around and coming back home and holding a wide variety of jobs in various industries, both blue-collar and white-collar, I have come to the conclusion that for me the best situation is to be self-employed.

There are a good number of reasons why I feel this way. Probably the main reason is that I have a hard time taking orders from soul-stealing bosses that really don’t know what they are doing and seem to be on this planet to make good-working employees feel miserable. This is not an isolated problem; it is rampant across every industry. Google “bad bosses” or “horrible bosses” and you will see how much is written about this topic. There is no shortage of advice on how to deal with a bad boss. It is truly a sorry statement about human nature in general. There are way too many bosses out there who manage to turn their authority into ugly experiences for the people they manage.

However, being self-employed does not entirely mean that you won’t have to deal with this problem because your customers or clients are really just another form of superiority that you must deal with in order to be a successful entrepreneur. You are never quite fully the master of everything you do for a living. You have to follow orders of some sort or another in order to be paid.

As a freelance writer, I’ve had to deal with editors and publishers who had their demands and with whom I have not always been in agreement with, especially editors. Once I figured out how to become my own publisher, however, the amount of people telling me what to do lessened considerably. Then, of course, the bigger challenge became how to increase revenues. Dollars have to be generated from someplace. Electricity is not free. This is where all those common misconceptions about how wonderful it is to be self-employed come to the surface. The short story is that you have to work many more hours than your counterpart who has a job with a company that gives him a regular paycheck with benefits. In addition, the stress that comes with not having a regular income can take a toll on you.

If you are risk averse, you are not made out to be self-employed. Moreover, if you are not extraordinarily disciplined and passionate, you are not made out to be self-employed. Add in the need to be very creative; be okay with changing plans fairly consistently (just when you think you have it figured out the kibosh comes); and having a strong proficiency in marketing, public relations, and advertising; and you might have a chance to stay self-employed for most of your working life.  

This chapter is really only a marginal view about starting and maintaining your own business. It would take a separate book to fully cover this topic effectively, and there are plenty of books published in the business section of your bookstore. My goal here is to provide enough information to put you on a path whereby, to the greatest extent possible, you can become the master of your working-life fate. 

I begin by saying that, before you take the plunge, be prepared for a great deal of rejection. Just when you think all your hard work has come to fruition, the rug gets pulled out from under you. This happens time and time again when you are self-employed. In my opinion, this is the one aspect of owning your own business that is the most frustrating and most difficult to accept. Potential customers and clients will always make you feel like an impending sale/project is definitely going to move forward only to suddenly ignore you completely. Unexpectedly your emails are not answered, your phone calls are ignored, and all those thoughts about how productively you were going to use the funds you expected to earn turn into nothing. 

I think during any kind of work negotiation phase prospective customers/clients tend to make you feel like you got the job because nobody likes to be the voice of rejection. If you work for yourself, you have to accept this fact and hope for the best. Owning your own business is a roller coaster ride that challenges you without restraint. It’s extremely difficult to maintain your sticktoitiveness while going down the slope, but you must in order to survive because eventually you will come back to the top of the hill, that is, of course, if you do not give up. 

For many reasons a large percentage of business start-ups fail. According to Statistics Brain, a research provider that claims to be cited by such large media companies as CNN, ABC News, and the New York Times, 50 percent of all start-ups fail by year four and that rate increases to 71 percent by year ten.  
Statistics Brain claims its source of information on startups comes from Entrepreneur Weekly, Bradley University, and University of Tennessee research. Dated July, 27, 2013, it is explained that the reasons for failures are complicated, ranging from low funding; the market phasing out for products and services; inefficient workplaces; and “patent trolls,” which are  people or companies who unjustly sue startups for ill-perceived patent infringements. 

If you are an information company, the likelihood of failure within four years is 63 percent. If you are wholesaler, it’s 46 percent. Forty-five percent of service businesses fail within four years, and 53 percent of retailers fail within four years.  Some of the top management mistakes include going into business for the wrong reasons, getting bad advice, underestimating the time it takes to get going, and a basic lack of market awareness.  Businesses with the best success rates are religious organizations, apartment building operators, and child day care services. Businesses with the worst success rates include grocery stores, restaurants, and single-family housing construction.[i]

My path toward self-employment has been one in which lack of funding has always played a critical role. I discovered, for instance, that if I attended industry-related conferences, I increased the likelihood of getting more business from taking the initiative of introducing myself to prospective clients at such conferences. I could never afford being a conference exhibitor, which is an expensive proposition. Additionally, just going as an attendee, paying registration fees, and financing travel and accommodation expenses were also cost prohibitive. 

I was able to overcome this challenge several times by going to conferences within driving distance of my home and getting a press pass to cover registration fees as an education journalist. Another time for a conference that was not within driving distance, I stayed at a close relative’s house and borrowed their second car. 

My point is these are the kind of challenges one encounters in the world of self-employment. It is a tough pathway, but feasible if you are the kind of person who has a penchant for overcoming one challenge after the next.

Being inefficient has also been a significant problem for me, especially since I work from home, just as numerous other people are increasingly doing todayI’ll start with the primary benefits of working from home. First, you get a tax deduction based on the amount of dedicated space you use in square footage for your home office. Second, you save on travel expenses because there is no commute. The primary burdens of working from home include the challenge of developing a daily routine that forces you to work every day like everybody else and the challenge of keeping your sanity due to the lack of social interaction that comes from working in solitude most of the time.

For sound advice about establishing work routines, see the work of Twyla Tharp, a very successful, New York City based dancer and choreographer. Tharp has two Emmys, 19 honorary doctorates, and numerous other national awards. There is really no secret sauce to her success other than the fact that she has established daily rituals that help to consistently build confidence and self-reliance. There’s one sentence in Tharp’s book “The Creative Habit” that should be framed and hung above everyone’s desk:

When creativity has become your habit: when you’ve learned to manage time, resources, expectations, and the demands of others; when you understand the value and place of validation, continuity and purity of purpose — then you’re on the way to an artist’s ultimate goal: the achievement of mastery.[ii] 

There are a good number of other authors of self-help books about business and creative productivity that I enjoy reading, including, among others, the late Steven Covey, Daniel Pink, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Peter Bregman, and Thomas Moore.  A relative newcomer to this field of heavyweights that I read recently is Pamela Slim author of “Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur.” Slim is great for providing all kinds of no-nonsense and honest advice related to how you can leave your soul-draining corporate job and pursue what you really want to do in life. Her book is loaded with key points and exercises that will help you find the way toward being successfully self-employed. A favorite of mine is where Slim dispels the myths about working from home, explaining that if you have young children, you’ll need a babysitter; that “you need to develop routines and discipline” in order to get anything completed; and, if you have a live-in partner or spouse, be prepared to explain that working from home does not mean that you can more easily take on additional domestic responsibilities. [iii]   

In my opinion,  the bottom-line, one-sentence formula about self-employment is this: To have any chance of success, it takes a very special, hard-working, self-motivating and disciplined individual with a very thick skin that can reflect the great amount of rejection you will experience. 

[ii] Twyla Tharp. (2003). The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, A Practical Guide with Mark Reiter. Simon & Schuster. 
[iii] Pamela Slim. (2009). Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur. Penguin Group.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rust Belt-Sun Belt

Getting back to the subject at hand, when choosing a place to find decent work, continually improve yourself through lifelong education, and live comfortably without destroying your bank account, a good number of factors need to be taken into account, beginning with whether or not you choose to pursue a low-wage or high-wage career, whether you choose to settle in or excel.

Growing up in a Rust Belt city in the 50s, 60s and 70s, as well as living and working in different cities located in different areas of the Sun Belt has given me a good number of unique insights into job and education opportunities as well as living expenses in regions of the U.S. that are enormously different from each other. 

I have friends and relatives that I grew up with who earned a good living and bought fine homes in safe neighborhoods, with only a high school diploma, from working in steel plants and automobile factories in the Rust Belt. Today people with only a high school diploma do not have a chance to earn a decent living unless they become successful self-employed entrepreneurs or pick up a construction or home-improvement trade through some sort of apprenticeship. In short, the Rust Belt and its accompanying good jobs for the everyman have long ago died, and the unfortunate reality is that they are not coming back. 

According to research on U.S. demographics published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency U.S. Department of Homeland Security (see Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, which have lost half of their populations in recent decades, will continue to depopulate for the foreseeable future. Job opportunities in these cities are dismal, but the cost of buying or renting a home in the Rust Belt is very reasonable when compared to Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.  Plus, excellent education opportunities are still available through such institutions as the University of Michigan, Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and the University of Buffalo. 

People who get educated in the Rust Belt often migrate to high-growth cities and job opportunities elsewhere. It’s difficult to size up precisely why some cities experience serious brain drains and why other cities become magnets for growing industries that hire the best and brightest. Scholarly economists, political scientists, and sociologists write extensively about the whys and hows for city and regional growth and retrogressive patterns, and they all have different theories that one can easily get lost in. My research here is based on personal human experience and a good amount of reading, but not enough to steadfastly refute or agree with the scholars.Some reports claim that Rust Belt cities are in a revival phase.

The American Institute of Economic Research has a College Destinations Index that rates college towns based on academics, quality of life, and professional opportunity. Its recent November 2013 rankings shows Pittsburgh and Buffalo ranked three and four respectively as leading mid-size metro areas for college students. Cleveland was ranked 16th.  Baltimore was ranked 8th under major metro areas.[i]  I’m skeptical. I will say, that these cities have a lower cost of living, when compared to major metropolises, making them good places for students to choose for their college years. But after they graduate from college, the smartest with modern 21st century skills will ultimately wind up pursuing their careers and buying homes in cities and towns that have much better opportunities to excel beyond the normal.

Cities like Austin, Texas, as an example, or Washington, D.C., or Palo Alto, California. . . Cowen, in his book “Average is Over,” noted that college graduates gravitate to areas where there is a high percentage of people with college degrees.

Some of the winning areas are Raleigh, North Carolina, San Francisco, and Stamford, Connecticut, where over 40 percent of adult residents have college degrees. You can add select areas of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to this list, although those cities as a whole do not show uniform progress in recruiting educated individuals. Some of the loser cities include Bakersfield, California, and Youngstown, Ohio, where the percentage of educated adults is less than one-fifth. It should come as no surprise that the cities with high levels of education tend to have much lower levels of unemployment. [ii]

According to NerdWallet, a modern advisory service and publisher out of San Francisco that compiles and analyzes data in interesting ways to inform its audience about important financial issues , the top ten educated cities in America, in order, are Bethesda, Maryland; Palo Alto, California; Brookline, Massachusetts; Potomac, Maryland; Needham, Massachusetts; Cupertino, California; Upper Arlington, Ohio; Westport, Connecticut; and Newton, Massachusetts. These places have industries and educational resources that draw educated residents.[iii]

[ii] Tyler Cowen. (2013). Average is Over. Dutton.
[iii] Divya. (June 24, 2013). Most Educated Places in America. NerdWallet.