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.

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