The stupid juice–it burns

John Dominik has been on a tear lately. Yesterday he wrote twice; the latter piece, The Stupid Juice–it Burns, shows an attitude that’s far too rare these days and frankly is one of the best pieces I’ve read in a very long time, anywhere. He laments people’s tendency to act as if those who disagree with them are subhuman and have no right to exist.

If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest you do.
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Of politeness and consideration in the connected age

I’ve quit several online forums in recent months, and lately I’ve been noticing a lot of Facebook wars–discussions that just got out of hand too fast. All of this makes me extremely nostalgic for the days of Commodore 64s and 128s, dialup modems, and hobbyist-run BBSs. It was hopelessly primitive compared to what we have today, but for the most part it was polite, and it certainly felt more like community.

What happened?

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The American Dream vs. the American Greed

Last week at church, our newly-installed vicar preached about greed vs. generosity, and he ripped a little on the American Dream, which he defined as each generation having better stuff and living more comfortably than their parents did.

I think he’s right, letting that consume you definitely leads to problems. But I was taught that the American Dream was more about opportunity than it was about materialism. And maybe that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

I’m probably 10 years older than the vicar is, and I attended schools that didn’t exactly value new history books. So what I was taught probably dates back two generations, not just one.

And when I was in school, for the most part they taught us that the American Dream was about opportunity, and about parents giving their kids better opportunities than they had.

Today, I hear marketers on the radio saying, "That’s the American Dream, isn’t it? Owning a home?" Or tying the American Dream to any other materialistic thing.

Note the shift. It shifted from the kids to self.

I don’t know exactly why my direct ancestor, Adam Farquhar, came to the Americas in the 1700s (perhaps 1729). Presumably it was because he couldn’t get land in Scotland. But you see the American Dream working from generation to generation. Adam’s son Benajah owned land. Benajah’s son Edward became a doctor. At least five of Edward’s sons, including my ancestor Isaac, became doctors. Isaac’s son Ralph didn’t become a doctor, but he became a successful businessman who hobnobbed with some very powerful people. Ralph Jr. revived the family tradition of being doctors, and he was wealthy enough to give my dad every opportunity in the world.

My dad never did become as wealthy or as successful as his dad was. But by Dad’s own admission, he was a slacker. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Look at things strictly in material terms, and Dad set the Farquhar line back a couple of generations.

But Dad gave me opportunities. Wherever we lived, he got me into a good school. When circumstances found us living in a town that didn’t have a good high school, Dad moved us out before I turned 14, so that my sister and I could go to good high schools. And Dad saw to it that we would be able to go to college.

My sons aren’t old enough to go to school yet, but they live in a good school district. And I did what I had to do in order to ensure they would have a choice between several good preschools, to get them a good foundation. I don’t know if either of them will be reading at age 3 like I was, but I’m going to make sure they have that chance.

I may have to make some personal sacrifices in order for them to have what they need. But for what Dad spent getting me a good high school education, he could have been driving Lincolns instead of those Dodge pickup trucks he drove. (And this was before pickup trucks became status symbols. Dad didn’t want his patients thinking they were paying for him to have an extravagant lifestyle.)

So I don’t have any problem brown-bagging my lunch, driving an older car, or using an older computer so my sons can go to good preschools. And given the choice between a smaller house in a great school district and a bigger house in a bad district, I’ll keep what I already have, so they can go to good schools.

What they make of it is up to them. But never let it be said that I didn’t get them the opportunity.

What’s wrong with American manufacturing and industry

I read a disheartening story today. It’s the story of an entrepreneur, making models out of his garage and selling them. A competitor took a liking to his models and started selling crude copies of them, made in China. The competitor is so much larger than him, he can’t afford to sue.

There’s something even more sad than this story, however. It was some people’s reaction to it.The whole thing started out as hearsay on a train forum. Someone noticed a striking similarity between two companies’ competing products. Fans of the larger company rushed to its defense, and someone who claimed to know someone came in with claims about the larger company copying the smaller. Eventually the person who designed the originals chimed in and confirmed that yes, the designs were his, right down to the placement of the cracks on the sidewalk being identical.

He went on to say in very human terms who it hurt. He’s a guy in southwestern Missouri who could make more money as a draftsman, making buildings out of his home for the love of making buildings. He sells the design to another small company in Maine who buy materials, produce parts, and assemble them into kits for sale, employing a handful of Americans along the way.

And, if sales deteriorate too far, eventually he may have to go back to work as a draftsman. Which most likely means some other draftsman will be looking for a job.

Buying the crude, cheap Chinese-made knockoffs from the other company hurts the designer. But not only that, it ripples over to the manufacturer/distributor and its suppliers, all of whom are employing Americans who are just trying to earn an honest wage working for small businesses.

But the copies sell for about half the price.

To some of the people hearing this story, the end–half-priced models–entirely justifies the means. The cheap copy is, well, cheaper, and more convenient–requiring less assembly and being easier to find, since the larger competitor sells its products in more stores–so that’s all just fine and dandy. Who gets hurt doesn’t matter as long as the purchaser is happy.

Maybe the guy just likes jerking people’s chain, or maybe he really believes this, but he was painting the people who felt empathy for the designer as the ones with the problem.

Others present an easy solution: Sue. Well, he’s not stupid. One look at his models should tell you that. He looked into that. The problem is that a one-man operation can’t hope to compete with a company that sells $50 million worth of product per year. Imagine what happens if the larger company generates a mere 100 hours’ worth of billable work for the smaller company’s lawyer, at $400 per hour. That’s a $40,000 legal bill. If the kits sell for $75, their wholesale price is less than 25. That means he has to sell 1,600 kits to cover the legal bill. And in the meantime he also has to sell enough kits to pay himself enough to pay his mortgage, utilities, and put food on the table.

If that $40,000 doesn’t sink him, maybe the next 100 hours’ worth of work will. All they have to do is delay the trial long enough to make giving up look like the best and most reasonable alternative. They don’t have to be right, and they don’t have to win. They just have to make sure the other guy runs out of money first.

Now I know the majority of Americans have no interest in wood and tin 1:48 scale models of general stores. But the wonderful thing about American capitalism used to be that someone working out of a garage or spare bedroom could make niche products and sell them to the people who want them without breaking any laws. It’s one of the ways our ancestors got ahead in life.

I’m not sure my son’s generation is going to have those same opportunities. Not when a big company can come steal products from guys like Dale in Carthage, Mo. with no fear of recourse, and self-centered consumers will gladly snap them up, just because they’re cheaper, even if they know they’re buying stolen property.

People can blame Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or NAFTA or unions or any of the other usual scapegoats for being the reason why jobs are hard to find. But none of those guys caused the predicament that Dale in Carthage, Mo. is in.

That’s purely the fault of the people who buy knockoff products, with a narcissistic, end-justifies-the-means attitude, and the people who tolerate it.

But it’s a lot easier to blame the politicians than it is to look in the mirror.

The kind of guy who could save America

I went to several estate sales today (it’s what I do on Saturdays, after all), but one was memorable. Some sales just jump out at you, and this one had evil genius/mad scientist written all over it.The estate belonged to a man named Carl. From what I could gather, Carl was Catholic, diabetic, and from my wife’s comments, must not have been married at the time he died. She mostly stayed upstairs while I rollicked around in the basement, which was tinkerer’s heaven.

“This guy was just like you!” my wife marveled when I resurfaced once. Well, she’s half right. I very much would have liked Carl. And yes, Carl liked computers and models and trains and didn’t see any point in buying anything he could make himself. But Carl’s knowledge of physics and other sciences went far, far beyond mine, as did his knowledge of electronics. I pulled out box after box after box of electronic components. Some of the stuff was pretty new, and some of it obviously dated to the early 1970s, if not earlier. It pains me to think most of that stuff is going to get thrown away, but there’s no sense in me buying it, even for pennies on the dollar, when I don’t know what it is, let alone what to do with it.

It’s entirely possible that Carl and I did cross paths, sort of. In the 1980s and early 1990s, BBSing was a common hobby among people who enjoyed electronics, amateur radio, and computers. People exactly like Carl. For that matter, it’s possible he might not have just dialed into BBSs, he fit the stereotype of a BBS operator like a hand in a glove. Who knows, maybe Carl ran a BBS I used to call.

Digging around Carl’s work area, I found lots of different things. I bought some moldmaking supplies and casting resin, Bondo body filler, and some tools. Carl took care of his tools. But on his workbench, I found a single file laying there that still had metal shavings on it. Perhaps Carl died before he was finished with it and cleaned it. I found a brush, cleaned off the file, and could picture Carl looking down, nodding approval. I bought the file and the brush. Both were better than the ones I owned previously.

Unfortunately, Carl is the type of person our society has been trained to fear, rather than respect, especially during this decade. I found plenty of literature that Homeland Security wouldn’t approve of. Instructions for making Tesla coils, and lots of instructions for making things that go boom in the back yard. I also found literature that dealt with alternative car fuels, converting cars to electric power, and generating your own electricity.

He was also obviously very interested in robotics and using computers to control things. In a spare bedroom, I found a pile of old Timex Sinclair 1000 computers and peripherals. He added I/O ports to most of them, and hacked another one to use a Texas Instruments keyboard instead of the cheap membrane keyboard that came with it. He must have used that Sinclair for programming. Another spare bedroom had a couple of barely started robotics projects.

Unfortunately, many people look at people like Carl, and are too quick to label him a deviant, or worse yet, a terrorist. The label is unfair. In fact, during natural disasters, amateur radio operators often are the people with the best information early, giving invaluable information to relief workers.

But the most important thing is the tendency not to think within the boundaries that “normal” people usually confine themselves to. Among his things, I found a book titled How to Patent Your Ideas.

Now I don’t know what kind of ideas he had floating in his head. As far as I can tell, he never published any of them (I have his last name, and I searched out of curiosity).

But with all this talk today about energy independence, I think it’s great that some guy in Crestwood, Missouri was thinking along those lines. I don’t know if any of those thoughts turned into anything tangible or not. But frankly, that kind of work is important–much more so than the tinkering I’m doing in my basement, which so far has resulted only in some wooden toys for my son to play with, and metal toys for me.

We need some new ideas, rather than just buying everything from abroad. I know there are still people like Carl out there, but I hope they aren’t a dying breed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden desire to go see what I can do with some of the tools I bought from Carl’s workbench.

R.I.P.? The American Dream

Nearly 20 years ago, as I sat in a high school English class, the teacher told us all about the American Dream. And then she said there was one generation that wasn’t going to experience that dream, and she pointed at us.

As grim as things look right now, I can look around myself and see people proving Mrs. Susan Collins wrong, and that makes me happy.I guess she read somewhere that the U.S. economy had basically peaked. I vaguely remember reading something like that sometime in the late 1980s. It would have been just like my Dad to find an article like that in a magazine, rip it out, tell me to read it, and tell me not to let it happen to me.

The current prevailing theory is that as the rest of the world develops, our economy will grow as well because they’ll be better able to afford to buy our stuff. Hopefully by the time that happens, we’ll still know how to make something here.

The real threat to the American Dream right now is the sense of entitlement. When I look at the American Dream, I look at how my Dad lived when he was my age, and I have him beat hands-down. I have a house in the suburbs, and I own it outright. When Dad was 33, he lived in a slum. Well, not quite a slum. It was the former Toledo Motor Lodge, converted (badly) into apartments. The way Mom tells it, it was even worse than it sounds.

The problem is that we’ve been brainwashed not to compare our lives with where our parents were at our age. We’re supposed to have a better life than them right now. And if you’re under the age of 40 and your parents are white collar workers, that’s not a realistic expectation at all.

If my Dad were alive today, he would probably make 2-3 times what I make. Osteopathic radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than systems administrators with 10 years of experience. What if I’d followed his footsteps and become an osteopathic radiologist like he was? He’d still make more than me, because radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than radiologists with five years of experience. Who wouldn’t rather have the guy with 30 years’ experience reading their x-rays?

But that’s something my family has been dealing with for generations. Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar started practicing medicine before the Civil War, and when you trace him to me, I’m one of only two generations who didn’t follow his footsteps. When it comes to the American Dream, it’s hard to compete with your father when your father was the town doctor. It isn’t all just handed to you.

But that’s a blessing in two regards. That means anyone who’s deserving of the title can be the next town doctor. That’s good for everyone, because unspeakable things happen when I have to look at something that’s bleeding a lot. If I were the town doctor, lots of people would probably bleed to death.

And any time someone says the American Dream is dead, I look at my neighborhood. It’s overrun with Bosnians. More than 50,000 Bosnian refugees ended up in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

I wish every city in the United States had 50,000 Bosnians move in, because they’re the best thing that’s happened to St. Louis in a very long time. They found jobs, worked hard, saved money, and bought run-down houses in declining neighborhoods. I can remember (barely) some of those neighborhoods, and they’re a better place now because of it. The neighborhoods not only look better now, but they’re safer.

Some of the children of those refugees are grown now, with jobs and families of their own, and increasingly they’re moving into the suburbs. In other cases, first-generation Bosnian immigrants are upgrading to houses in the suburbs.

It’s clear how they do it. Besides having a regular job, they always have something going on the side. Maybe more than one. They shop at thrift stores and garage sales, and they negotiate hard. They treat every dollar like it’s their last. And they’re always looking for an opportunity, or trying to make one.

They’ve tried to maintain their distinct culture, but what they may or may not realize is that they’re more American than their neighbors down the street who’ve been here for four generations.

I hope they’re still going at it when my son is old enough to pay attention. Because I intend take him out and find some Bosnians in action. And when I do, I’m going to point at them and tell my son to watch everything they do. Because for anyone who’s willing to do what the Bosnians do, the American Dream will always be alive.

How to pay off the national debt in less than 30 years

A couple of coworkers were talking about taxes, deficits and the national debt this week. One of them looked my direction and said, “I’ll bet Dave can figure out how to pay off the national debt.”

It’s actually not as hard as it sounds.

The biggest problem is that we’ve convinced ourselves that the national debt is impossible to pay. I believed this back in the mid-1990s, when it was around $4 trillion. Today, it’s right around $10 trillion. (Note: That was in 2008. In 2016 it’s about $19 trillion. So double any of the dollar figures you see from here on out.)

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What does religion have to do with the United States falling behind in math and science?

This morning on one of the Sunday morning political shows (probably "Meet the Press"), I heard a statement that troubled me. I may be misquoting, but I heard the moderator ask how we can afford to have a vice president who believes in Creation in a time when the United States is lagging so far behind in fields like science and engineering.

I call irrelevance.I’ll tell you why the United States is falling behind in science and engineering. It has little or nothing to do with religion (or lack of it) and everything to do with society and education.

I know several engineers. Some are practicing and licensed; others have the degree but haven’t had need for the license. One is the godfather of my son. He’s in church every Sunday and I know it, because I usually sit in the same section.

You can pretty much name any large company that makes something made of metal in the United States, and chances are he’s designed a press for them. Companies buy his presses because they are reliable, safe to operate, and cost efficient. I don’t know what he thinks about when he’s designing his presses, but it’s certainly possible to design one without thinking about God once. And being well-versed in biological evolution isn’t going to make his presses any safer or cheaper.

But if we want to debate Creation vs. Evolution, I’ll drag Dad into this. I have to speak for him, because he died in 1994. Dad had bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, physics, and biology in addition to his medical degree. He was also a practicing Lutheran, so he believed in God and could find his way around a hymnal and a Bible.

Dad believed in evolution and was told more than once he was going to hell because of what he believed. But the church elders never let Dad finish his argument. He and I had this talk once, and let me tell you the last thing Dad said.

Evolution’s dirty little secret is that at the very beginning, some force had to set it in motion. Dad said God set it in motion, and the same God gave Darwin the brain to figure that out.

As someone who was much stronger in English than any science, I’m not qualified to argue with my Dad. But I can say that more people would have listened to him, and the discussions would have been more civil, if he’d said that first instead of last. Dad was guilty of burying his thesis.

In 1998, I had a conversation with another doctor, one who had known Dad. Unlike Dad, this doctor wasn’t an evolutionist. He said it’s bad science, because its earliest stages are neither repeatable nor observable. So rather than plug God into it like Dad did, he preferred to throw out the theory.

If you want to say evolution disproves God, then you have to assume that original lifeform and the world it lived in happened by chance. There’s a word for that. It’s called faith. The difference is whether you believe in chance or in God.

When engineers set out to design a car or airplane, or part of one, their personal beliefs about the origins of life don’t help them design a better machine.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether public schools teach evolution alone or side by side with some variant of intelligent design because that’s not going to make or break mathematicians and scientists and engineers. The educational system and popular culture is what’s keeping our country from being on top of those fields.

First of all, the portrayal of anyone who has any interest in math and science in popular media needs to stop. Now. Television shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Beauty and the Geek" reinforce the negative stereotypes of anyone with those inclinations. But it’s not new. Twenty years ago the same stereotypes existed.

I knew lots of science and engineering majors in college. And you know what? Most of them didn’t wear glasses. I never saw any of them with pocket protectors. One of them enjoyed Star Trek but wasn’t obsessed with it by any means. Most of them had girlfriends, and without exception they were all what any normal person would consider good girlfriend material. And perhaps most importantly, you could sit down with any of them and have a pleasant conversation about anything you would talk about with anyone else with a college education.

So there’s no more truth to that stereotype than there is to racial stereotypes. But how much does that stereotype dissuade kids with the gift from speaking up in math or science class when they know the answer?

I know it kept me quiet. I stopped speaking up, and probably on some level I stopped trying as hard as I once did.

But the educational system also bears some blame. Do you want to know why German kids score better in math and science than U.S. kids?

Because German schools know how to teach math and science and U.S. schools don’t, that’s why.

Twenty years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ house with a German national named Peter. Peter was little more than a drunk and a con man, but I still learned something from him. For some reason, a math problem came up. I attacked the problem using long division, the proper, sanctioned, U.S. method. Peter came up with the same answer I did, and he came up with it a lot faster. He showed me the German way. I’ve long since forgotten the details, but it was quick and easy, unlike long division, which was one of the most difficult and painful things I ever had to learn in school.

Why are German cars better than U.S. cars? Maybe because German schools don’t use math as a way to torture their kids. And, heaven forbid, German kids might actually grow up knowing what they can do with the math skills they’re learning.

In high school, I quit math after trigonometry. The point of no return for me was when one of my classmates was building a speaker box for a car. He knew the size of the box that would fit the car, and wanted to know the maximum size of the speakers he could fit in that area. So he asked the teacher. The teacher tried some equations, but couldn’t figure it out.

The message to me (and the rest of the class) was pretty clear. We were learning this garbage because someone else before us had to learn it, not because it was something necessary for us to succeed in life. Let’s call it for what it is: institutionalized hazing.

Today, I’m 33 years old and I can tell you what basic trigonometry is good for, but that’s only because I watch This Old House on a regular basis and I see Norm Abram and Roger Cook using trig to figure out if something they’re in the process of building is going to be square or not. But I learned so little in trigonometry in high school that it’s a miracle I even know they’re doing trig.

So if we want to keep up with the rest of the world, I have a start. First, burn every math textbook currently in use. Second, launch a crash program to translate German math textbooks into English. Third, fire any teacher not willing to use those methods and replace them with teachers who are. Replace them with people like me who struggled to get Cs under the old method.

Yes, in high school and college, I got Cs in pretty much anything that required the use of numbers. Yet today I can look at business-related data and use statistical methods to figure out how to make that business more efficient and profitable. I almost always need help with the math, but once I manage to get past that, profits increase.

I struggled in Dr. F. Tim Wright’s Statistics 31 class at Mizzou, but his word problems always sounded like a something that might happen in the real world. He’s probably the reason I have that ability today.

Right now the biggest decision my son faces on a day to day basis is what toy he’s going to put in his mouth. So I don’t know what he’s going to decide to do with his life. I know when he reaches adulthood, there will be a shortage in several fields. Medicine and engineering will be among them.

He probably has the genetic disposition to be one or the other. Four of the six generations who preceded him were doctors–his father and great-great grandfather were the two exceptions.

What he decides to do with his life will have very little to do with the personal beliefs of the next president and vice president. It will have everything to do with the kind of education he receives. If a couple of math and science teachers show him how those subjects can change the world, he might head that direction. If it’s a language or social studies teacher who ends up wielding the most influence, he’ll be a lot more likely to go that direction.

I care about that, but I’m not under the illusion that Washington D.C. has much control over it.

How Generation X can take this country back

I’ve done some reading in recent days. First I read that GenXers aren’t happy with Corporate America and the feeling is largely mutual. It appears I’m not the only one.

But I see an opportunity in this. We have a window to take this country back. And I have a plan.The way I see it, the unholy triumverate of big government, big corporations, and big labor has done its best to ruin this country. Big government’s mess needs no introduction. While big labor drove some necessary reforms, it lost its way, asked for too much, and today we see the result when we look at the sticker prices of GM, Ford, and Chrysler vehicles. And as for big business, I could get into specifics, but I see the problem like this: Large corporations think only quarter to quarter, chasing short-term profits and never considering the long term. They hand out raises to their workers that don’t keep pace with inflation, while their CEOs make six- and seven-figure salaries plus equally large bonuses, no matter how badly they do their jobs. Since the people who do the work feel undervalued, they tend to jump from job to job a lot, so institutional memory becomes a thing of the past.

Forget them. It’s time to escape and start over. Here’s the plan.

Minimize the risk.

You can’t very well escape corporate America’s stronghold while you’re saddled with debt. Most small businesses die within three years because at some point in that timeframe the owners find themselves unable to pay the bills. So as long as you have debt, you are corporate America’s slave.

But you can escape. It doesn’t really matter how much you make or how much money you owe–you can be debt free in seven years or less. The main reason this works is because creditors generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to repay in seven years.

I don’t know how long this movement has existed. My mother and father in law did it in the 1980s. A classic entrepreneurial book by William Nickerson, published in the 1950s, mentions the phenomenon, so it must have existed then.

There are lots of subtle variants on the plan, but it boils down to this. Gather up all your debts–car payment, credit cards, mortgage, student loans, furniture, whatever. Figure out the minimum payment on them. Now take 10 percent of your monthly income. Pick one bill, and add that 10 percent of your monthly income to what you pay on it. (If you can afford more than 10 percent, pay that.) Make the minimum payment on all of your other bills.

After you pay off that first bill, take what you were paying on that bill and apply it to the next one. Let’s say you have two $300 car payments and a $1,000 mortgage. You could start paying an extra $300 a month on one car, for a total of $600, and pay $300 on the other car, and $1,000 on the mortgage. When the first car is paid off, the $600 moves to the other car, for $900 on the car and $1,000 on the mortgage. Once the other car is paid off, pay $1,900 per month on the mortgage.

The hardest part is initially coming up with that $300. The rest is fairly easy because you’re always paying the same amount every month, but the longer you go along, the faster you’re retiring your debt because you’re paying more principle and less interest.

How you pick the order is up to you. Mathematically speaking, you’re always best off applying your extra payment to the debt with the highest interest rate. But in every analysis that I’ve seen, the difference between paying them off in the best possible order and worst possible order is only a month’s worth of payments. Many people suggest paying off the debt on which you owe the least first, so you get the psychological boost of having eliminated one debt.

I started in November 2004. It took less than a year to pay off my car. Not long after that I got married, and it only took a few more months for us to pay off my wife’s car. Right now the only debt we have is the mortgage and my wife’s student loans. Barring unexpected emergencies this year, we should be able to pay off our remaining debt by the end of the year. (We may keep one of my wife’s student loans, since the interest rate is lower than the rate we get on one of our bank accounts.)

This is the most important thing: I fully expect to own my home outright at age 33. If I played by the rules most people play by, I’d make my last payment on it at age 58.

Here’s why I say to eliminate your debt. Take a look at what you spend every month. When my wife and I looked at our spending, we found we were spending more than $2,000 a month on car payments, the mortgage, and her student loans. Meanwhile, we were spending less than $1,000 on food, utilities, and everything else. So in theory, without debt, we could live on $12,000 a year.

Which leads to the second part of the plan.

Find a business you can start that will make you more than $12,000 a year

I’m not talking about multi-level marketing or any garbage like that. Start a real business that you control and makes money for you.

I won’t tell you what business to start, because I only know what works for my wife and me. But I’ll give you some questions that will get your mind rolling.

What can you do better than anyone else? There must be something that you know how to do really well and can leverage. Find it.

What do you know how to find or make less expensively than anyone else? This can replace the question above, or supplement it.

What do you enjoy doing? If you actually enjoy doing it, you’ll work harder and more productively. I would moonlight fixing Amiga computers if there were any money in it. Frankly I find modern computers uninteresting, so I don’t moonlight fixing other people’s computers at home, because I find it boring and stressful.

And finally, what problem do people have that you might be able to solve for them?

Mull those questions. It’s OK if you don’t immediately know the answer to any of those questions, or if you know the answer but they don’t bring a business plan to mind. Keep thinking about it, and keep looking around for opportunities.

I started looking for something in mid-2004 when I realized I didn’t make enough to support my wife and me if she was in school. I don’t remember now when I first had the idea that ultimately worked, but I followed through on it in June 2005. It took two weeks for anything to come of it, but it did finally work, and it’s still working today.

Once you get an idea, explore its feasibility. Look and see if anyone else is doing it. See if you can do it better or cheaper, or in a slightly different way than everyone else does it.

If the idea looks feasible, start doing it part-time. Don’t quit the job yet. The idea is to get established while you still have the safety net of a 9-to-5 job. If you’re thinking about a service, start advertising on Craigslist. If it’s a product, eBay and Craigslist are possible venues. The upside to Craigslist is that it doesn’t cost anything to advertise there. The real key is to look at your questions as an opportunity to get creative, rather than as blockades to your progress.

Here’s one strategy for dealing with those questions. Ask yourself those questions, especially around bedtime. Your subconscious will mull over the question even while you sleep. The answer will take some time to come, and will probably come at an unexpected time. But I’ve tried it and it works. Your subconscious mind may be the most powerful tool you have.

Notice I didn’t say to go borrow money. One of the reasons businesses die young is because they can’t pay their debts. Keep your overhead low, and you have a better chance of being successful. Operate on a shoestring.

Once you have an idea and something to do, give it a try on a small scale. At this stage, don’t put up any more money than you’re willing to lose, and don’t be afraid if your initial attempts don’t get anywhere or fail. You’re learning. If you’re starting while you still have a job and you’re in the process of paying down your debt, you can afford to fail a little. At the early stages, gaining information and wisdom and knowledge is more important than success. Get enough of those three things and you will find success, and if and when success wanes, you’ll find it again.

The problem with big government, big corporations and big labor is that they are successful, but by and large they are not well informed, they aren’t knowledgeable, and they certainly aren’t wise. That’s why we’ve seen so many spectacular failures in the last 10 years.

I see lots of small business owners who aren’t informed, knowledgeable, or wise either. When their success runs out, that’s probably the end of them. But there are also small businesses in St. Louis that stood the test of time and became institutions. Lots of Fortune 500 companies have come and gone in St. Louis since Ted Drewes Sr. opened a frozen custard stand on Natural Bridge Road in 1930. And lots more will come and go before the two Ted Drewes locations close up for good.

During this time that your small business is struggling and you’re gathering knowledge abd wisdom, you’re still working for someone else and you’re paying off your debts. But along with those struggles, you should have some encouraging successes. Follow those successes, and tweak things along the way.

Chances are, by the time you have your debt paid off, you’ll have a successful small business that’s capable of bringing in enough money to support you full-time. So you can step out of the corporate world and into business for yourself. From there, the sky’s the limit, because you’re no longer working hard to make money to support the pyramid of management above you–you only have to support yourself. And without the burden of personal debt and corporate overhead, you’ll be more free to be successful.

And how does this save America?

On May 11, 2006, Robert X. Cringely wrote, “I’m counting on Google and eBay to save America.” He didn’t elaborate, but here’s what I think he meant.

Just before the dawn of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of large corporations in the United States, but there were plenty of bright entrepreneurs with ideas. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright Brothers are examples.

The problem today is that large public companies don’t breed great people like Edison, Ford, and the Wrights. The shareholders won’t stand for it. Shareholders care only about the profits on the next quarterly report, and if the company doesn’t deliver, investors dump their shares, the stock price drops, and then (and only then) executives start losing their jobs. So companies tend to play it safe to protect their executives.

We’re seeing this problem with eBay right now, of all things. While eBay remains hugely profitable, its investors got spoiled with exponential growth. Now that the profits are steady but growth has leveled off, investors are whining, and eBay is trying all kinds of goofy things to try to recapture the magic. None of it’s really working, but they sure are alienating a lot of their best merchants.

Two years after Robert X. Cringely wrote those words, I no longer know if eBay is the right company for this recipe to save America, but it has the right business model. Someone else will pick it up if eBay decides it doesn’t want it anymore.

The small entrepreneur can’t afford to compete head to head with General Motors. But Google gives small businesses affordable, targeted advertising, while eBay and other online marketplaces provide small businesses with a low-overhead distribution channel. Google and eBay (or their replacements) won’t directly save America, but the small, bright, nimble businesses that they enable will. Small businesses can afford to think long-term, they can deliver a better product with better service (and do it faster) than the huge, lumbering behemoths, and they aren’t slaves to whiney shareholders who have lots of money but little idea how to run the companies they invested in and no vested interest in the company’s long-term health because in five years they’ll have their money somewhere else.

And since small businesses have more control over their own destinies, they’re in a better position to adapt.

If we believe the Businessweek article I linked above, corporations need us GenXers. But in my experience, as well as the experience of hundreds of people who commented on the article both at Businessweek and on Digg, by and large the corporations don’t want us. So the best thing for us to do is to compete with them. And in the long run, I think this country will be better off for it.

My children, right or wrong

My good friend the Meiers’ neighbor (close enough, at a mile away) and I keep talking about this case. Hopefully you’re not so sick of Megan Meier to indulge me, because this appears to be a case of a parent being an ally, right or wrong, rather than being a parent.Steve once had a boss we’ll call Murray. Over lunch one day, Murray said he’d always stand behind his children, even to the point where he would lie on the witness stand at a murder trial, if it would protect a child.

That goes a few steps beyond creating a fake Myspace profile and using it to bully your child’s ex-friend, but both of them are symptoms of the same thing: Not parenting.

Lying to keep a child out of trouble or to gain information isn’t supporting your kids. It’s also not a parent’s job.

A parent’s job is to teach kids the difference between right and wrong and to help them learn from their difficulties.

I always knew when my dad was disappointed in me. I think sometimes Dad could be overly harsh, but part of that was because he knew I could do better. And part of it was the alcohol. And when I did something well, Dad was generous with his praise, and the rest of the people around him probably got tired of listening to him talk about me.

Dad could have done a better job, certainly, but the important thing was that he tried. For his shortcomings, we knew he would take care of us and support us.

But we also knew that if we did something wrong, there would be consequences.

It’s funny though. There weren’t consequences all that often. When my sister and I messed up, we learned from it and generally didn’t do something a second time.

Support also means something else. After we moved to St. Louis in 1988, I got to start over at a new school and make new friends. I didn’t have good friends at the old school. I made good friends at the new school, and my parents told me so.

If a friend turns on a child, parental support would be to tell the child that’s not what friends do. It might also help to say that this was unexpected, and this friend fooled the parent too–assuming that’s true. Point to an example of a good friend, then assure the child that there are others like that good friend out there.

And when it came to romantic relationships going sour–which didn’t happen to me a lot, but tended to mess me up for a long time when it did–Mom would reassure me that the girl who broke my heart obviously didn’t know me as well as she thought she did. She couldn’t fix the situation and she didn’t try to.

The temptation is always to be your child’s buddy, rather than an authority figure. But kids need authority figures because kids are wrong. A lot. It’s one of the ways they learn.

A big reason why my sister and I are successful today was because we didn’t get to be buddies with our parents until we were pretty much legal adults.

It’s tempting to shirk that responsibility in order to compensate for other things that have gone wrong. That’s not the right way to handle things. If a parent feels guilty, the only remedy is to find and correct the source of that guilt. Not having as much time as you’d like to spend with the kids, or not having enough money to afford to buy everything you’d want to buy for them isn’t a license to let things slide. Make adjustments, learn from them, find ways that the kids can learn from them too, and always keep in mind that those first 18 years aren’t about having fun, they’re about teaching another human being how life works.

I never thought I’d say this, but it’s only 18 years. There’s plenty of time to be buddy-buddy with the kids once they’re grown. And those years will be a lot better if parents spend those first 18 years being parents.

Not only that, the world will be a better place too.

Despite what that final message said, the world isn’t a better place without Megan Meier. But the world would be a far, far better place with fewer parents who facilitate, encourage, and participate in that kind of behavior.

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