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.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Success: A Matter of Focus

If I was asked to pick one photography tip that meant more to me than any other, it would be this: Pick one subject. I don’t even remember the first time I heard it, but when it clicked—when I stopped trying to cram too much in a frame and instead find the best way to portray a single person or thing—suddenly all my photos were keepers.

The same advice affected the way I started writing my best pieces. For years in school I knew I was the most proficient writer in all my classes technically, but for all that technical understanding, in the classes with teachers and professors I respected most I still tended to get B’s on my papers because my thesis or topic wasn’t clear.

“Clever observation,” I’d see written in the margin; “Love this!” I’d read next to brackets specifying a quippy paragraph. And then at the end I would get this: 

“Thesis statement?? Conclusion? This would have made for two excellent, separate papers…”

When I had a professor who found a way to make me understand the whole “kill your darlings” phenomenon—the true need to cut out all the gunk that clogged the flow of things—I started winning at writing competitions and actually getting published. All along I’d needed to pick one subject, and stick to it. I’d needed to narrow my focus.

Right now I am reading Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill.* The book’s claim is that over 500 successful people in the time of one Andrew Carnegie and then Napoleon Hill demonstrated application of the same 13 principles to obtain wealth. An interesting observation Hill makes is this one:

“Henry Ford is a success because he understands and applies the principles of success. One of these is desire: knowing what one wants.”

He later writes it this way:

“Every person who wins in any undertaking must be willing to burn his ships and cut all sources of retreat. Only by so doing can one be sure of maintaining that state of mind known as a burning desire to win, essential to success.”

Basically, Hill says that people who succeed fix their eyes on the prize, and then go after it with singular vision—with focus

When I look at the (financially) successful people of my generation, I see evidence for this theory. My friend Alex Vandermark, owner of Maine Squeeze and its sister chain, the Juicery, moved home to New England from college in Florida and was pained that there weren’t juice bars on every corner like there were in Florida beach towns. There was one—in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—but it was run down, in the red, and for sale. 

Alex looked at the place and thought, “I could make this place profitable.” His father was uneasy about the idea and warned him against taking out a personal loan to obtain it, but Alex could not be swayed. With a degree in marketing under his belt, he saw half a dozen ways just looking at the building from the outside to make the outfit more accessible to the people of Portsmouth—and that’s just what he did. Now he owns juice bars in multiple states, as well as a restaurant specializing in super-healthy soups.

Another example: Gus & Ruby Letterpress. A decade ago, when letterpress shops weren’t yet all the rage, the ladies who own this fine establishment likely heard from more than one friend the skepticism that wedding invitations made on a century-old letterpress would be profitable. Yet five years after renting a space on the single most tourist-traveled stretch of their historical city (not a cheap undertaking, especially for a risky start-up), the partners at the letterpress shop continue to thrive and grow and get extraordinary press. The women knew what they wanted, and they found a way to make it happen.

Sap House Meadery is another instance. First Scout Productions. TOMS shoes. For all the examples before me, I did not for a long time realize the positive power of focus. Actually, I did, but I saw it from a warped angle: I thought, How nice it must be to be [insert successful person’s name here]. He/she knew exactly what he/she wanted from the beginning. It’s got to be much easier to succeed when you only want one thing. I didn’t actually know if there was validation for my assumptions of singular desire and ease. I was basing my attribution on the limited knowledge I had of the people and their operations, and the fact that I wanted to do about one million different things.

Now having read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something that Matters, I know that TOMS was founded only after Mycoskie started four other businesses of varying success. He’d actually been offered a profitable job at a company he respected when he became consumed with the idea for TOMS and went after it with singular focus, turning down the job offer and thus burning his ships. It couldn’t have been easy, turning down a job with a dependable paycheck after not succeeding long-term with four other startups. 

The girls at A Beautiful Mess have a similar story. The sisters tried and failed at creating clothing lines, acting, running a vintage-shop-slash-bakery, and several other careers before becoming multi-million dollar bloggers, of all things. This didn’t happen overnight; it happened after sister Elsie became diligent with her editorial schedule and showed up day after day for years to write and photograph lifestyle ideas. It happened after she found a way to focus.

A few years ago I started keeping my New Year’s resolutions, believing that by attempting the same thing every day over a long period of time I would yield positive results. This was true; I developed several skills and healthy habits this way. But at some point, I started taking on too much. I lost my focus. I ceased making one or two resolutions, and began making five or six. It became difficult to maintain a consistent schedule in which I followed all my routines. None of my resolutions were fruitful because I could not dedicate enough time to any single one of them; if I worked on one, I felt guilty or pressured over the others I was leaving behind. My anxiety went up as my productivity went down. And I began to feel like a failure.

I still feel like a failure over those resolutions. I will think to myself, I’m not fluent in Italian because I stopped showing up every day at my computer to learn. Or, I can’t run three miles because I gave up when I let myself get too run down at work. But I wasn’t just run down from work; I was run down from trying to do too many things.

When I look at the achievements I’ve had in my life—ones I’m truly proud of—I see an opposite theme behind the scenes. In elementary school, I ran a fundraiser to help a family whose tragic story was on the cover of every local paper. I was consumed with the project; I thought about it my every waking hour. I rehearsed speeches to recite in the morning announcements over the school’s PA; I wrote notices to go home in students’ empty lunch boxes for their parents to find; I had brainstorming sessions with my classmates for added avenues to raise money. On the eve of the bake-slash-craft-slash-rummage sale, I was so nervous that no one would turn out or that no one would bring donations or baked goods that my mother baked five different kinds of desserts to ease my mind. I needn’t have worried—all the hard work and focus paid off, with parents and students crowding the school gym for hours the next day, until every last item we had to sell was gone. 

A couple years ago, I went on a mini music tour with one of my friends. It was a tumultuous trip—I learned a lot about myself and stretching my comfort zone and dealing with people of very different backgrounds and world views from mine. When I came home, I had this intense urge to write a screenplay about the experience. I could not be convinced that writing my own E! True Hollywood Story was a bad idea, likely to land my script in the slush pile of some agent whose time would not be wasted on trivial personal epiphanies, as most based-on-real-experience movie scripts do. I simply had to write it down. It helped that I had a deadline; three months after the tour concluded, an international screenwriting competition would be accepting its last submissions. I wrote and re-wrote, cut scenes and pasted them back in, finishing the script only just in the nick of time. I actually had to overnight it from Maine to the west coast for close to $50 in order to get it in on time. In the coming months I forgot about it… until I received a call one day, congratulating me for my place among eight international finalists, winners to be announced at a conference later that month. I didn’t win first place, but for a first draft, “finalist” was pretty good!

In both these examples, I had a clear goal. In the first case, I wanted to help a specific family in need by raising money. I couldn’t do much on my own, so I did everything in my power to rally everyone in my network (which, when I was ten, was anyone I went to school with). With a clear objective in sight, it became easy to cut the best path to success. So it was with my screenplay; I wanted to tell the story of all I had learned on a trip that had brought about a change in me. The best medium for the story, I thought, was a film script. Much of the trip had been spent listening to music, either in the car or at my friend’s performances each night; also, the journey had taken place in the fall, when leaves were changing and tumbling down, and festivals were going on and pumpkins were on every stoop. There was so much to hear and see and smell and taste and touch on the trip—to have confined those experiences to a novel would not have done them justice. I wanted others to see for themselves. So the story became a screenplay.

“Focus” means two things. I’m realizing this more and more from my own life story and the evidence I’ve collected. Its first definition is a noun: a goal. For it to succeed, it must be a clear one. The second definition is a verb—to be determined, to have one’s eyes set on, to be driven toward. Both of these definitions are integral to success. One might have both of them and not succeed, or take a long, long time to succeed, but without them, one is unlikely ever to succeed.

I have a lot left to learn in this area. I know I’m not the only one; we as a culture would not celebrate success if it were ordinary. I would like to see my name among the names of those who succeeded at their dreams and life goals, so I am attempting to put these theories into practice. I invite others to join with me. If you have a goal, what can you do to obtain it? Are you doing everything you can right now? If not, do you expect to succeed? Food for thought.

The definitions of success may vary, but whatever its definition, it requires focus.



* If I’d known a bit more about Think and Grow Rich, I might not have selected it. While it claims to purport the same strategy to wealth as used by Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and hundreds more, the book is fruitier than Froot Loops. Hill’s advice starts with telling the reader to envision being rich, and then become so obsessed with the idea that failure ceases to be an option. He recommends sitting in a quiet room at the beginning and end of each day, picturing riches. It’s quite scary.