It is 1968.
I have just turned 16.
It’s a Saturday.
My father says, “Hop in the car.”
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“You’ll find out when we get there.” He drives. I sit in silence and look out the window.
“There” turns out to be Bolek’s Foreign Car Repair where Bolek is the Polish mechanic who services my parent’s blue Volvo 122S.
“This is my son,” my dad says. Bolek looks curious. “He needs to learn how to work and get his hands dirty. I’m going to drop him here every Saturday, and you give him something to do.”
Then my father takes a $100 bill from his wallet and says, “Don’t pay him anything; he isn’t worth anything. This is to cover any damage that he does.”
My dad drives off. Bolek looks at me blankly. Neither of us know what just happened.
Bolek looks around and spies a broom. “Here,” he says, “clean up the shop.”
On the way home my father says that every man needs both a trade and a profession.
He says most people don’t know the difference between the two, especially professionals.
A trade, he says, is where a craftsman sells his skilled labor for money. Tradesmen are limited in how much money they can make by the market value for their skills, the demand for those skills and the number of hours they can work. What a tradesman wants is an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
A professional, on the other hand, is paid for something quite different.
A professional, he says, is paid for putting the interests of others ahead of his own. You should always be honest in all your dealings and in most cases jump at the opportunity to put the interests of others ahead of your own because it usually pays better, but not always.
Sometimes the business you work for might be destroyed by so-called professional managers. At other times they can even destroy the whole economy.
During those times it is important to be a skilled craftsman so you can trade an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
I have no idea what he is talking about.
I graduated from Rutgers in 1974 with a degree in Mathematics and I got a job as a computer programmer. Starting in 1982 I went to school in the evenings and graduated with an MBA in Finance from NYU in 1986. Merrill Lynch hired me as a manager. It paid better than programming but was less soul-satisfying because the job mostly involved fighting for resources whereas previously I’d been a “resource” people fought over.
That job took me to Japan in 1990. While I was there the Nikkei dropped from above 38,000 to below 16,400. Then I was let go.
I returned to the States in August 1993 with a wife, two kids and no permanent place of residence. The economy was in recession and I found only one guy who was willing to talk to me. He said he had no jobs but he’d give me the opportunity to practice interviewing.
“I’m sorry but we have no jobs,” he says. “We need programmers but we have a hiring freeze.”
“Then how does the work get done.”
“We use contractors,” he says.
“I’d work on a contract.”
“Are you incorporated,” he asks.
“No. Do you need me to be incorporated?”
“Yes, we do. I’m sorry to have wasted your time but we can’t hire you. Now I have a meeting to go to.”
“May I use your phone while you are gone.”
I call the 800 number for The Company Corporation.
I say, “I’d like to incorporate in Delaware.”
She says, “Will that be Visa or MasterCard.”
When the manager returns, I say, “I’m now Bravo Alpha, Incorporated.” I write my new Federal Employee ID number on a scrap of paper and slide it across the desk to him.
“I thought you said you weren’t incorporated.”
I say, “That was then. This is now.”
He says, “OK, how much do you want to make?”
I say, “One hundred dollars an hour.”
He says, “The most we pay is $87.50.”
I say, “I’ll take it.”
He says, “How do I know you are any good?”
I say, “I guarantee my work. If at the end of the month you don’t think I am worth what I billed you then cross off my number and write in any number you want, including zero.”
He says, “When can you start.”
I say, “A week from Monday.”
He says, “Good.”
Two weeks after I was hired he was fired. There wasn’t enough money for both of us so they decided to keep the guy who was doing the work.
Boy, it felt good to be a tradesman again.