Whiskey Business 1: You Don’t Need Permission

Totally stumbled into a distillery called Chattanooga Whiskey near downtown. I haven’t recovered!

I have an occasional sip of whiskey. When I do, I’ll get real about my life in business.

I’m surprised whiskey still has a stigma. It is definitely among the more pleasant-tasting alcohols and is often powerful enough to de-incentivize overdoing it. Some people do, but there’s somebody overdoing everything.

If you don’t drink too much, a great thing happens to you. Alcohol dilates surface blood vessels while slightly depressing the central nervous system. For most people, anxiety diminishes a bit while the body gets warm. Just a thimbleful can cause comfort, give a feeling of security, and lower inhibitions. This can of course be bad. But the first time I told a friend I loved him, even though it had been true for years, I was under an alcohol-knitted security blanket.

Some people’s inhibitions are overactive. For those people, a sip of whiskey brings out the truth. In me, it brings out an excess of felt affection towards those I love and an urgency to say the things that matter. Because I’m a businessman, sometimes the things that matter are business-related. So, from time to time, when I have a drink, I’ll share a thing or two that might not quite come out right any other time.

I’m calling it whiskey business. Enjoy. And please do connect with me on Twitter to tell me your stories or share slightly drunken rants.

I probably wasn’t born to do this, by anybody’s guess. No one in my family had ever run a successful business before, or even started one as far as I knew.

I was a kid with a knack for words and a competitive steak so big that I never really stuck with anything I didn’t have natural talent for – bad personality trait for an entrepreneur.

In college, most of my friends had parent money and studied Business Admin. I studied medieval English literature on student loans. And loved it. Still do. Also, I didn’t understand money enough to know what a dumb choice I’d made. But I was a natural at the work, and I knew it. I wrote a paper that a professor responded to by telling me of the physical effects of the impression it left on him. It wasn’t the first or last time that would happen.

I took odd jobs after college, because my undergrad advisor thought the academy had become a waste. He didn’t know anymore that the world outside was no better.

Eventually, I realized there weren’t other options for someone with my training and went for the academy anyway. It might have been a bad call, but I figured there was just enough meritocracy left in it that I could make it. If I surpassed my peers by twenty times, surely I’d be recognized to be twice as good. I did, and I wasn’t.

I applied for PhD programs with the CV of most junior faculty members up for tenure review. I got rejected at all but one.

Fashion in the academic world is every bit as brutal, capricious, and nonsensical as it is anywhere else. The rules change for no reason, leaving those who have made it to reminisce about the good old days and those still coming up to scratch heads and wait tables.

You can complain if you want. But don’t, because nobody cares. I did what I had to.

There is no job title left in civilization whose desired capabilities even include – let alone demand – a degree in medieval literature. Or a PhD in Marian theology. You might as well put “proficient in abacus” on your resume. Or worse, Windows Explorer. Plus, after a seven-year break from the work world, I couldn’t even get a temp company to take me seriously for an admin job sorting files and documents.

“Sure, you’ve nearly got three degrees, but can you order things according to the alphabet?”

There was no sense griping. This is how it is.

I have only three real skills. Leadership, the ability to tell a story, and the ability to learn fast.

The first I inherited from my father, which is amazing because he squandered the greatest gift for leadership I’ve ever seen and was never around to pass it on. He was the guy who walks in a room and everyone says “I’ll have what he’s having.” At least, that’s how it was until he started having meth. Still, I think of him sometimes, how like him I am, and it’s not terrible.

Storytelling was called lying when I was little. I wasn’t impressed by people’s reactions to me, so I enhanced the truth until they were and stopped before I overdid it. It was some time before I realized there were genres, places where you could say things that weren’t true without losing all your friends! I’m not proud of the fact that it took me till college to figure that out. I am proud of what I’ve done since then.

And I learn fast. Not quite Rain Man fast, but close. There’s almost nothing that depends on analysis and focus that I can’t learn. I picked up French in three weeks. I’m not bragging. I can’t do what LeBron James can and I’d much rather. It is what it is.

So when I realized you can learn everything in the world with a simple combo of YouTube plus practice, I got to work. Gritty, thankless, slightly obsessive work. Videography, photography, web design, and data analysis all came natural enough that before long I had a skill set. (Btw…my phone really wants to call it my skull set. I better humor it once or it might take its revenge later).

It turns out that if you have a marketable skill and the ability to lead people, you can start a business. Those are really the only things it takes. Oh there’s lots to get better at. I talk to business owners every day, some for my podcast and some who are my clients. I’m better aware than most of all the things there are to know and do. But in the end, they’re variations on marketable skill and leadership.

I say this, because some of my friends are still looking for permission. They think there’s so much to learn that they couldn’t possibly start without some kind of guarantee that they’re the type. I get that. We were raised to do that.

You raise your hand. You ask to go to the bathroom. You ask your guidance counselor or your academic advisor. Other people set policy, and you obey it. Only here’s the problem.

Things didn’t ask your permission before they got all torqued up. The economy shifted underneath your feet and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t make it great again.

The world is changing. In a few years your car will tell your oven that it’s almost home with you and the groceries and your oven will start preheating itself while the iPads start checking the kids’ homework. In that world, if your skill is turning screws, the screw is you.

But that’s your skill because somebody decided more stuff would get built faster if your only skill was screw-turning. They decided that without asking your permission. Are you waiting on them to tell you it’s okay to change?

Yesterday ain’t coming back. It’s time to get real. The genre of this story is reality. While you’re waiting for permission, the economy is shamelessly and recklessly leaving your ass in a cloud of dust.

I don’t want that to happen to you. So I’m telling you what you need to know. I’m telling you how someone who never meant to do this is building a real business, with sweat and stress and payroll and taxes and a paycheck.

And I’m loving it. I’m loving the building and developing. I’m loving the strategy and the field of play. I’m loving that a complicated world forced me to get over my fear of being bad at things so I could get good at things.

So here’s your permission. Get a marketable skill or stop ignoring the ones you have. My friend Donnie has a business cleaning windows and pressure washing stuff. It’s not glamorous. But it’s marketable, and it gives him the control over his schedule and life he needs to go after a career in comedy).

But even he’s a more obvious businessman than I. His dad was one.

But the world didn’t ask my permission before I got a deadbeat dad. It didn’t ask yours before it gave you whatever tough hand you’re playing with now.

So why are you waiting for permission to go do the one thing that’s gonna help you survive and maybe even be happy?

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