The Al Swopes Zone
There’s a signpost up ahead… the next stop… the Al Swopes Zone!
Allow me to explain:
In my formative years, like many other young people, I had difficulty coming to terms with what I wanted to do career-wise. Some people blueprint their future early on – whether it’s an aspiration toward being an accountant… a comedian… or, if you will, a crook. In my accountant’s case, it’s all three, but that’s another story. Some take a while longer before their eventual vocation becomes clear. For many others, a vocational inclination or yearning never happens, and their eventual careers are molded by whatever comes along. For example, no one grows up wanting to be a UPS driver, but thousands are doing just that.
For me, my forever dream growing up was self-employment. The type of business wasn’t important, as long as I could start it, run it, build it, and then move to more of the same or better. Grand plans indeed, but it didn’t turn out quite as planned. However, I did get a taste of self-employment, owning a few different small businesses in a five year span, starting with a printing business at the age of 24.
After a short period of time, based on a few minor successes, and mostly idealistic but hell-bent intent, I foresaw making my way onto the list of new, young millionaires. I thought I had the talent, the wherewithal, and certainly the youth to wait out and overcome all obstacles. I wasn’t making any money mind you, but I figured with time and effort, becoming a millionaire was a given. After all, unlike other poor working stiffs in corporate America, my range of freedom to explore and expand was un-tethered. I wasn’t grounded by unreasonable, self-centered, self-righteous bosses, departmentally blocked by the unqualified son of the CEO, or limited by hours set by someone else. I had “pluck,” and that ticking clock was on my side.
The vehicle to reaching “the list” (so I thought) was a printing business, hoping to eventually open additional locations along with pursuing other ventures.
In my printing business, obviously, the core product I sold was paper. Paper that was eventually transitioned, through ink and a printing press, into flyers, menus, resumes, letterheads, invoices, pamphlets, wedding invitations, handouts, newsletters, schedules, et al. The paper was purchased from the manufacturing company and delivered regularly by a particular driver. In this case, the driver was ornery, world-weary, pained, grizzled, and 65-ish-but-appearing-75-ish, Al Swopes.
Al wasn’t friendly or a conversationalist, nor did he care that I was a paying customer to his employer, which was okay by me. For various reasons, I thought he was an interesting character study, nonetheless. Most of the time, he spewed negativity or disinterest whenever anyone tried to engage conversation.
One day, about a year into my self-employment, on what seemed a rare and friendly paper delivery for him, Al and I chatted for a few minutes about business. I was a bit surprised, but he revealed that when he was young, he too wanted to be self-employed. Al said he had the interest, skills, and results to warrant starting his own car repair business. He had the money to open a nice location, but indecision and other people talked him out of it. It’s been said that the biggest deterrent to starting a business is being talked out of it by other people. I then told him my plan of working my business and other ventures, with the eventual goal of becoming a millionaire. Al abruptly stopped the conversation, as he was having none of it, and not about to encourage any weaving of dreams for my benefit. His response was classic, as he said, “listen to me kid, the only way you’ll ever get to be a millionaire is by hittin’ the fuckin’ lottery.” Al belched a snort, walked out the door and drove away without looking back. He didn’t believe in the self-employment success dream for him and others, or from what he saw, the likes of me.
Prior to that moment, I had been going through a period of self-doubt and much consternation over that decision to spend my life savings on a business. Business was slow to build, my expenses were overwhelming, and I had been wavering in my belief of me. Daily of late, I was speculating how much longer I could hold out and if I should get out now. So, when Al said what he said, a shock wave of unplanned uncertainty came over me, as he unabashedly and unflinchingly spoke the words I recently had been thinking. Not about needing the lottery mind you, but what the real odds were to make the business work.
It was a seminal moment and I knew I was about to cross a threshold, but up to me which one. Do I allow myself to be overwhelmed with doubt and fear, and thus, cross over into the Al Swopes Zone, or refocus and draw from the original positive mantra that got me there (and everywhere)?
That “zone” had nothing to do with Al’s lottery. It’s an area or mindset reserved for when you no longer believe in your own prowess to move forward. I chose to refocus, and I knew immediately that crossroads moment would last a lifetime.
As I fast forward a few decades later, though never making it onto that millionaire list, I did carve out a successful career in marketing and communications – while also successfully composing several self-published small business How-To books.
A career made successful, no doubt, by the life and business lessons I learned, and mistakes I learned from, while self-employed.
With all due respect and privacy to my truck driver, “Al Swopes,” wasn’t his real name. However, his legacy and what I learned from him were real. Poor “Al” couldn’t or didn’t take the same path as me, as he didn’t have a force or factors to motivate him. He didn’t have someone to push him forward, inadvertent or otherwise, to a self-fulfilling moment. Or someone to help him focus on not how good he’d feel if he followed through with his dream… but how bad he’d feel if he didn’t.
I was lucky enough to have that someone. I had Al.