Sunday, August 23, 2015

On Building Your Barn

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Maybe a month ago, I was talking with my dad about—what else?—small business, and we were sort-of going over how he got to where he is (he owns two small businesses), where I am in my journey, and where I want to go. My dad is very supportive of self-employment and small business, so he’s always eager to discuss anything related to those two topics. I must have been unconsciously justifying myself for not yet being where I want to go—I tend to be my own worst critic—when he shrugged and said:

“You’re building your barn.”

I didn’t know what this was in reference to, so I sort-of nodded blankly and then said, “What?”

And he said, “You’re building your barn. It’s the Amish principle. You can’t do anything else until you build your barn.”

I probably said something like, “Oh, right,” and then we carried on with our conversation. That comment stayed with me, though, so when I got home, I looked it up. I was expecting a book on the subject to pop right up, but no book did; I had to dig deeper, and in doing so I found an interesting article covering an actual Amish barn-raising and all it stood for.

It turns out, the Amish, apart from banning things like television and hairdryers (and electricity overall) from their living, have a rich culture in community. Whenever a family in an Amish village is in need of a barn—a necessity for a farmers’ lifestyle, and a big part of the Amish way of life—members of the community come together to help build the structure, without any expectation of pay. This ceremonial barn-raising is a project that anyone in the Amish community can request, and all able members are expected to help. This phenomenon is a byproduct of the Amish understanding that building a barn is not an undertaking that a burgeoning family could expect to take on alone, and also that before anything else can happen on a farm, a barn to protect animals and store grains and make possible the many functions of a farm must be built

To tie all that back around to business, “building a barn” is the equivalent of establishing a foundation, generating a client base, or developing a mastery of craft. It’s the thing that has to happen before productivity is possible. It’s the investment before the return.

And for me, I suppose I am sort-of building my barn. I’ve wavered between two goals for a long time—full-time writing, and owning a third-wave, gourmet coffee shop. Therefore I’ve read much and written much; I’ve worked in coffee shops that could expand my coffee knowledge and I’ve studied coffee on my own time. I’ve done research and I’ve found ways to gain experience in both areas.

This year in particular, I’ve been studying the business side to the avenues my life could take. In scouring many books on this broad topic, taking online courses, talking with business owners, and attending seminars, I’ve begun to see through the eyes of a business person, where before, I saw through the eyes of a person with passion—passion for written story, and passion for coffee. I’m beginning to understand consumer need, why product development requires thorough research and time, what effective marketing looks like, and, unexpectedly, why working for oneself could be not only more enjoyable than working for someone else, but easier to do than perhaps I ever thought.

This has been a necessary step in building my barn. Not only have I picked up useful skills, but I’ve also started to see the plausibility of my striking out on my own. I’ve assimilated some useful contacts. I’ve explored product ideas. My official business plan has begun to take shape. And above all, I’m gaining confidence that I can actually do it.

What a valuable asset it is to the Amish culture to have a community available to help build a barn. A single community can build an enormous, ready-functioning barn in a just one day—a project that can take contractors weeks to months to complete. And then once it’s there, a family can get started running their farm. They can be productive. They can sustain themselves. They can have an independent life!

One day—a day I eagerly await—I will step back and see that my barn is complete. I’ve had so many different goals along the way, and I’m still struggling to narrow them down, so I know it’s going to take awhile. But I’m seeing the marks of progress. I’m learning a lot. One day—maybe sooner than even I expect—I, too, will sustain myself on my skill sets, and live an independent life. That’s a goal I consider well worth the wait, and well worth the effort.

To learn more about Amish barn-raising, read this fascinating article. To see a barn built in a day (through a series of images taken at rapid intervals and pieced together), watch this video.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Where I Went Today: Palace Diner

After a friend shared an article on Facebook raving about the Palace Diner in Biddeford, Maine, I had to visit. 

My interest in this restaurant was that its rebirth in a town populated with empty historical buildings and vacated mills was intended, much like Sap House Meadery and Lil’s Cafe, to breathe life back into a once-booming business community. The young owners, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, looked at the obstacles, and went for the risk, anyway.

I only read the one article on the Palace Diner, which made two impressive proclamations—one, that the Palace Diner had been named by Bon Appetit magazine one of the 50 best new restaurants in America in 2014, and two, that on a regular day, patrons lined up outside, waiting for seats  to open up so that they could get a scrumptious Palace Diner breakfast. I’d only ever seen one other restaurant like this, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (also a breakfast place), and the line there had been so long when I showed up (I made a special trip on my host’s recommendation) that I hadn’t had time to wait. I made sure that when I planned this adventure, I would get to my destination shortly after 8:00, the opening hour of the Palace Diner seven days a week.

The Palace Diner has many fascinating attributes, not the least of which I discovered before I’d even parked my car—that the restaurant actually resides in a bright-red, Depression-era Pollard car. It is a diner in the truest sense of the word; located by old mills once flooded daily with a ready-made customer base, the structure itself—long and narrow, with seating enough for only a dozen guests at a time—was built two states away in Lowell, Massachusetts. This is characteristic of many of the true American diners of the first half of the 20th century. The domed diner was always intended to be small, efficient, and reasonably portable, in the event that the mills ever closed down (which, in the 1920s, was a real possibility). Most of its life, however, this diner has remained right here by the mills. A little research revealed its first home was only a mile up the road, before it settled at its current spot on Franklin Street in Biddeford.

Another few curious quirks? An old-timey “Ladies Invited” slogan is painted both across the side of the car and on the front of the menu. When I asked our server about this (I invited my good friend Deborah to join me for this trip), she informed me that there was once a time in our country’s history when it was not acceptable for a woman to go out without an escort. What a progressive little joint!

Also, the menu. At first glance, it’s no more exciting than the average diner menu—eggs, toast, sausage. Upon closer inspection, there are a few salutes to 1950s dietary habits (customers can order caramelized grapefruit to start their meal) and also to the modern foodie elite (challah French toast and Tandem coffee). My choice, the omelette du jour, came with “potatoes,” which I interpreted as morning fries. In fact, my plate came with a whole potato on it—one that looked like it had been struck swiftly with a rubber mallet and thrown into the fryer as a crushed mass. This gave it a pull-apart effect which was, I promise, much more appetizing than it sounds. It was golden and salty and delicious.

Our server could have given Mel a run for his money, but that only added to the complete diner experience. Throughout our meal we were shuffled to and fro to make space for larger groups, and sure enough, after about a half hour, folks were waiting for stools to open up, and no one seemed annoyed to have to wait. By the end of our scoot-dance breakfast, we had charmed our server over to our side—we chatted about her hometown, Philly, and the history and future of Palace—and we left with bellies that were full and grins on our faces.

I would definitely revisit this quaint little restaurant. I was tempted to order one of everything on my first trip—but the fact that I didn’t means I could return with three or four other friends on different occasions and experience something new every time. I might just do that! It’s definitely worth the drive.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Read Like Crazy: How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie was on my must-read list for ages. I knew it as a book that all people with ambition are supposed to read early in life. As a person of high ambition, I told myself time and time again I needed to get my hands on a copy. Part of me is sad I put it off as long as I did. Another part believes that this past month was the fated time for me to finally get around to reading it.

One of the profoundest realities of humanity is reiterated in every one of Carnegie’s principles—that the best things we can do for ourselves are usually the simplest; they often cost us nothing, though they seem to cost us much. To do them requires conscious effort, and in the moment many of these common-sense actions seem to fly in the face of our impulse. But what relief is found when we give them a try! Learning to smile genuinely; remembering people’s names, regardless of their status or education or direct relevance to our lives; biting our tongues in the face of argument. We hear these concepts purported by people of prominence, but do we make a point to apply them? 

The answer is my case was: Rarely. Many of the ideas outlined in this compilation were not foreign to me, and had in fact been used to my advantage at different phases in my life. Lately, however, I had developed the need to have the last word in any debate. I had heard myself interrupting people and yet not stopped myself… I had thought kind appreciations of the people around me but kept quiet, even when I had no restraint when it came to criticism. This book brought those ugly realities to the surface, and with story after true story, proved that the higher road would have yielded better results for me and everyone involved. If I wanted to be the “most progressive man,” as C. S. Lewis might have put it, I needed to turn off the path I was on and head back to the place where I lost sight of what was good and right.

I read this book because I thought it would be good for me as a woman who strives to work for herself, but I’ve come out of it better all around. It takes a great book to change me without my having to commit strategies and acronyms and pneumonic devices to memory. The first day I returned to my workweek after starting this book, I found myself tempted to use the principles I’d read thus far and discovered them acutely changing my most peevish relationships and work scenarios. The true test will be whether the habits I formed almost overnight are long-lasting.

What I liked about this book: This book is filled with real-life accounts of the outlined principles in action. As a writer, I appreciate stories. As a debater, I appreciate proof. This book, somewhere between an inspirational read and a self-help book, is both a page-turner and practical. 

Additionally, the book re-awoke in me the things I know to be the best path to success and reminded me why they matter.

What I didn’t like about this book: Occasionally, I feel that Carnegie makes insinuations about sects of people, particularly political and religious affiliations, and I believe he does this consciously. This practice is counterintuitive to Carnegie's preached self-awareness. On the flip side, the fact that it comes off as abrasive lends proof to some of his theories about causing dissension by making others feel wrong or foolish. He just might have wanted to take a page out of his own book. This said, 98% of the book is diplomatic and easy to read.

Would I buy this book: Yes. Consider this a glowing recommendation: How to Win Friends and Influence People started to change my life on the very first day. If you can’t afford it now, at least look for it at your local library.

Normally I would include a selection of “quotes for the fridge,” but this book is not particularly quotable, as most of the lessons are taught through stories. There are some proverbial truths, but most of them are not Carnegie’s; they’re from philosophers or ancient Chinese culture or religious and political leaders, used to enhance a greater point. But more of this book is memorable than 90% of other inspirational reads I’ve taken on combined. If you read it through—twice, as recommended by the author—you will carry it with you. I promise.