Of Turkey Farmers and Businessmen

[This was originally written in 2015 and was resurfaced by a friend a few weeks ago. I'm reposting since it has a terrible photo of me and the content is still true.]

Several weeks ago I read the following (abbreviated) photo caption (by Sid Krommenhoek) regarding a recent visit to a salami production plant:

great principles in business transcend industry & in fact i find it enlightening to learn from those in a non-tech field.

Sid’s words resonated with me because I’ve spent the better part of the last six months working on a turkey farm in northern Mexico. I’ve been an active participant (a farmer in training, if you will) in the process of raising and processing turkeys. It was an unexpected career decision, to be sure. However, it has been one of the most gratifying, enlightening and liberating experiences I’m certain I’ll ever have.

My perception of the word “work” has been refined and, therefore, enhanced. I applaud and deeply respect all those involved in the business of farming. With that said, I want to augment Sid’s statement by sharing 10 truths I’ve learned, or been reminded of, while working with loyal employees, exceptional managers and, quite simply, some of the most hardworking individuals I know:

  1. People are a farm’s greatest asset.
  2. Treating employees (and all people, for that matter) with dignity should be the rule, never the exception; trust and loyalty ensue.
  3. Company culture (good or bad) begins with and is maintained by those leading the company, primarily the CEO.
  4. Transparency builds trust. Where transparency is lacking, rumors will surely fill the void and breed distrust.
  5. A clear, frequently “evangelized”, vision and mission provide clarity and direction in good times and bad.
  6. Great leaders humbly acknowledge their weaknesses and tirelessly strive to build a team that complements them.
  7. Great leaders don’t expect from others what they won’t do themselves.
  8. Great leaders want to win with their employees, not at their expense.
  9. A job title does not a great leader make.
  10. Great leaders recognize and nurture the potential they see in others.

None of these concepts are new. However, they are true whether you work at a startup, a salami plant, a turkey farm or a large corporation. If you don’t believe me, perhaps a few months on a farm will make you a believer too.

Ignorantly free

“Most American kids are ignorant of their history as a free people. They know very little of what’s in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, and they know less of what it took to secure these liberties and rights. And if they leave school with such ignorance, they are hardly likely, as adults, to fight to preserve their own liberties—let alone anyone else’s. The young have not forgotten what Americans have done. They have simply never known.” —Nat Hentoff

I grew up in Latin America, with brief stints in the US. Each summer, we would fly to the US to visit family. During Fourth of July activities, I never understood why it was necessary to place my hand over my heart during the national anthem. I didn’t mind doing it, but I never took the time to ask why we did it. I knew the behavior was perceived as an act of patriotism, but I didn’t know what patriotism was. I was simply trying to fit in and hand-over-heart-during-national-anthem was a prerequisite to getting on with the show. 

Last year changed things for me. Suddenly everyone I knew was a political expert or activist. I had friends and family across the entire political spectrum. The country that I visited as a child and had always had its stuff together, was suddenly on fire. Sometimes literally. Debates regarding the constitution, rights, liberties were easy to come by. I was lost. I had heard these terms before, but never really taken the time to understand them. I soon realized I wasn’t the only ignorant fool. In the absence of Google and the firehose of news being spewed at us, most folks wouldn’t have an opinion, let alone a cogent analysis, to share. Then one day, I read the following statement by Ezra Taft Benson:

“A citizen of this republic cannot do his duty and be an idle spectator.”

That’s exactly what I was, an idle spectator. Having lived abroad most of my life, I knew I had opportunities that others could only hope for. I was annoyed by my ignorance and the fact that I had enjoyed so many of the blessings of this country and couldn’t even explain what made it great. This drove me to do the logical thing: talk to friends that had a clue, follow folks on Twitter that had a clue, and buy tons of used books about dead folks that had a clue. (Thank you, Thriftbooks.)

Yes, 2020 was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” year, but something invaluable came from its messiness. For the first time in my life, I realized the need to become more than a mere acquaintance with America, a consumer (leech?) of its many gifts. I felt the need to become a citizen that performs his duty because he understands his duty. I was reminded that nothing in life is free and ignorance is never bliss. When it comes to America, Murray Dolfman had it right when he said, “We will lose our freedoms if we don’t know what they are.” So, here’s to being a less ignorant and more active citizen of this republic. 🍻🇺🇸

"Get a real job!"

I don't blame well-intentioned adults for worrying about a child's desire to become internet famous. Just last weekend, my 9-year-old nephew let me know that he wants to be a famous YouTuber. He was serious. I believe him. The fact that he ended his statement with a dab makes me think he’s on the right track. But I am certain that whenever he tells other adults his plans, they kindly pat his head, smile and think to themselves, "Kid, you're gonna have to feed yourself somehow. Get a real job."

To be fair, I didn't know what I wanted to be once I grew up until I was...grown up. Even now, I've done things I had never considered as a kid. (Turkey farming, anyone?) But before we bemoan the ambitions of the rising generation and write them off as a failure, which they're not, I think there's a relatively easy solution: expose kids to individuals doing "real jobs." That's it. Nothing groundbreaking. Tyler Cowen shared similar advice when asked what he had consciously done as a parent to help his daughter build "tenacity and internal motivation":

Other than the platitudes, here’s what I recommend: expose your child in teen years to as many of your friends who might be possible role models. Like at some origin, they’re just not going to listen to you anymore. They’re not going to watch your behavior anymore. They know what you’re about. They’ve taken from that what they’re going to. Have them meet and spend time with some of your quality friends. Show them new role models. … Your influence is limited, for better or for worse.

Being exposed to "quality" individuals is one of the most important takeaways from my time at college. Of the courses I took as an undergraduate, I can only remember two: Entrepreneurial Marketing and the Entrepreneurship Lecture Series. I remember them because they exposed me to a variety of real (money-making) people with interesting (money-making) jobs. 

What would a similar class look like in elementary, middle and high school? Could this even be part of a school program? (It should be.) How do we expose kids and parents to the many paths that lead to satisfying, fulfilling, and successful careers? What role do parents and educators play in this process? Would this make non-traditional careers feel less risky? 

I don't have the answers to these questions, but with a sample size of 4 at home, I figure it's worth exploring.

To try and to err, 'tis the only way

A few weeks ago I came across this tweet:

Taleb's quote stuck with me. And after googling the existence of a human that has 1,000 IQ points (spoiler: this person is about as a real as a unicorn...for now), I came up with the following (non-exhaustive) list of life experiences that proves his point:

  • Discovering our strengths requires trial and error.
  • Developing a new skill requires trial and error.
  • Making lasting friends requires trial and error.
  • Finding a spouse requires trial and error.
  • Parenting requires trial and error.
  • Creation of any sort (invention, art, business, human, etc) requires trial and error.
  • Finding match quality in employment requires trial and error.
  • Scientific progress requires trial and error.
  • Gaining wisdom requires trial and error.
  • Improving physical, mental, and emotional health requires trial and error.
  • Timing markets requires trial and error (and is a failing strategy so you shouldn't even try it unless you really want to learn for yourself that the future is unknown 😅).

In short, what is life if not a grand exercise in trial and error? As Tony Fadell said in a recent interview, “Look, it’s do, fail, learn; do, fail, learn. There’s no such thing as learn and then you’re able to do. No, no, no. When you really learn in life is after you’ve tried to do it.”

"I don't see why not."

At the end of the movie "Mary Poppins Returns," a reborn Michael Banks is taking a stroll with his family when they come across the Spring Fair. His kids ask him if they can go. He pauses and then responds, "I don't see why not."

What a delightful phrase. I have never used it, but there's something unique about it. It is a yes that is thoughtful, feels serendipitous, wants to seize the moment, is selfless, and is looking for fun. There are plenty of reasons that warrant a no. My daughters asking for a pony is a great example. But in the absence of one of those reasons, the response I will give from now on is, "I don't see why not."