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Archive for August, 2015

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I’ve been reading Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist to my daughter of late.  To my astonishment, I’ve discovered it is, in part, a tale about entrepreneurship.  That is, criminal entrepreneurship.

twist_faginThe plot of Dicken’s novel centers on a gang of very successful free-range juvenile delinquents and cut-purses in London, led by an ingenious man named Fagin and his young cohort, the Artful Dodger.  About a third of the way through the book I suddenly realized, “My God.  These guys are better businessmen than me.”

It got me thinking.

As I have mentioned in the past, I was a multi-addicted person in my younger days.  (“Addiction and the Entrepreneur”)  There were few of the Seven Deadly Sins in which I did not enthusiastically participate.  Some of this behavior bordered on criminality.  As a recovered addict, my history has made me especially sensitive to other deeply flawed persons like myself.  (I do volunteer work with former addicts and felons at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey.)

Lo and behold, it turns out there is a growing body of research which posits that successful entrepreneurs and successful criminals often share similar personalities.  Yup.  Note the article, “Does Entrepreneurship Pay?” by Ross Levine and Yona Rubenstein of Berkeley’s Haas School of Economics.  Levine and Rubenstein’s research shows that entrepreneurs are twice as likely to have been involved in criminality in their youth.  Says Levine, “Since entrepreneurship involves innovation, it also involves doing something different and not doing exactly what you’re told to do.”  Their research specifies that juveniles who engage in more aggressive, risky, and illegal activities become more successful entrepreneurs than their law-abiding peers, if they don’t get thrown in jail first.

Or note the work of Bill McCarthy (UC Davis University) and John Hagan (Northwestern University) who report that people who are the most successful at crime have a strong desire to succeed, specialize, take risk, and work collegially.  Sound like anyone you know?

Recently I got a note from my friend Peter Sinkevich, Founder of Start-up Grind of Connecticut, who does very thoughtful, rich monthly programs in Greenwich, CT for entrepreneurs.  Knowing my interest in meaning, addiction, and entrepreneurship, he thought I’d like to hear Catherine Hoke (formally Catherine Rohr), the Founder of Defy Ventures.4101  Wow.  Was he right.  (If you ever get a chance to hear her, don’t miss it.)

Hoke passionately believes that it is an unforgivable waste of human capital not to reboot prisoners and former prisoners as useful, successful citizens.  She wants to tackle head-on the fact that the US incarcerates by far the most people per capita of any country in the world (approximately 2.3 million.) Furthermore, there is over a 70% rate of criminal recidivism. Hoke calls her organization Defy because she wants to “defy” expectations for these men and women. Mostly men.  She says, “As daunting as it is to start a business, many people who are formerly incarcerated have the skills and and will face fewer obstacles than if they sent out 100 resumes.”

Rather than going to prison and just coming out better criminals—who most employers won’t hire anyway—Hoke wants to redirect the intuitive entrepreneurial spirits of her ex-criminal acolytes into legit business.  These guys are not idiots.  They are often already clever, experienced, auto-didactic entrepreneurs from their years of selling drugs and other nefarious activities.  Some have managed scores of employees and large amounts of money.  So why not use this learned business acumen to go straight?  Hoke has dedicated her life to rehabilitating these often gifted throw-aways of society.  To this point, Hoke claims there only has been a 5% recidivist rate among the prisoners and ex-prisoners in her program.  She calls these individuals, “entrepreneurs-in-training.” (EITs)

So the distance between the successful criminal and the successful entrepreneur may not be so very far.  We both intuitively operate out-of-the-box with an instinct for not accepting the status quo.  We both are not inclined to accept the tyranny of the given.  We both intuitively color outside the lines.

Ayn RandTherefore, like Catherine Hoke, I have compassion for the ex-criminal, as I try to have compassion for myself in all my glorious imperfection.  They are me. There but for the grace of God….  When the criminal breaks the law he is often taking the same course as the legitimate entrepreneur—but as an illegal rather than legal disruptor.  This is often because he sees no other legitimate channels open to him, whether it be because of race, education, poverty, or bad luck.

Growing governmentalism is making it harder to be an entrepreneur, legal or otherwise.  I suppose the good libertarian in me tends to agree with Ayn Rand, who says, “…when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them.  One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”   Thanks, Ayn.

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My mom got cancer when I was in college.  Stage 3 ovarian, which happens to be a pretty bad kind of cancer, if it’s even possible to comparatively classify some types of cancer as less-bad.  When my dad sat me down to share the news it was one of the worst moments of my life.  I felt like I was tumbling toward a terrifying fork in the road: one where my mom would be there to see me graduate and get married and have kids, and one where she wouldn’t.

I remember there was a car commercial on at the time that played that song Dust in the Wind, and I felt like it was taunting me.  How could I have gone through 20 years of life without realizing that you have to savor every moment because it could all get ripped away from you in an instant?  All of the things I worried about, like finding the perfect outfit for a party or getting a good class schedule, suddenly seemed ridiculously trivial.  Who the F cares about any of that stuff when you don’t have a mom anymore?  To say that the situation put things in perspective would be an understatement.

FullSizeRenderMy mom had a hysterectomy and went through chemotherapy, and under the advisement of the hospital, became a vegan.  Call it God, the universe, the effect of removing chemically modified food from her diet, or just plain good luck, but she was officially cancer-free about a year later.  We could hardly believe it.  Actually, we didn’t fully exhale until five years later when the cancer still hadn’t come back and the doctors officially said it was highly unlikely to return.

Fast forward several years and my parents have retired to Portland, Oregon.  My mom found a new local medical facility and was asked to participate in a research study for cancer survivors.  The study included women around her age and involved various types of group exercise.  Being new to the area, it was a great way for my mom to make friends.   However, cancer was their common denominator. And for those whose cancer has gone into remission, there’s still a strong chance that it will reappear.

One day my mom emailed me and asked if I could help Connie, one of her new friends, sell a set of china on eBay.  Connie was undergoing chemotherapy at the time and my mom was helping her out around the house.  I said I could put the china on eBay but since it’s heavy, breakable, and difficult to ship, selling it locally would probably be easier.  I didn’t hear back about eBay, but a week later my mom sent me a photo of the china and asked if I wanted it.   If so, my mom said she would buy it for my fiancé and me as an early wedding gift.  The pattern was beautiful, and although I was tempted, I told her we didn’t really need it.  She called me later asking if I was sure I didn’t want it.

“Mom, people don’t really need full sets of china for entertaining anymore,” I told her.

“I know,” she replied.  “But would you enjoy it and use it?”

I considered it a moment and said that I would.  My mom explained that Connie wasn’t going to make it through this bout of cancer.  Yes, she said, miracles can happen, but unfortunately this wasn’t going to be one of them.  Connie knew that, and she was selling her china to help pay for her burial.

“I really want to do this for her,” my mom said in the way she does when she’s already made up her mind.  Of course I agreed.

Thanksgiving was only two weeks away, and my fiancé and I were hosting our first holiday meal with his family.  My mom shipped the china right away.  When I unwrapped the delicate plates and bowls and teacups, each piece was prettier than the last.  Even the tiny cracks in some of the plates seemed perfectly imperfect.

On Thanksgiving morning I Skyped with my parents and my mom said that Connie had passed away.  She said one of the things that made Connie happy in her final days was knowing that I had her china and that I was excited to use it.  (In truth, I couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving and had already used it.)  EL3A2844-bioI told my mom I was flattered that my tiny role in the transfer of ownership could mean anything to someone in her final days, but perhaps she was making the china out to be more sentimental than it actually was.  She swore she wasn’t.  Apparently Connie absolutely loved the china but had only used it once in the 40 years she owned it.  She always planned on taking it out at special occasions but never did.  In a way, the china had become a symbol of all the things in life you put off enjoying because you think you’ll have plenty of time later.

When I set the table that morning and felt the stress of hosting my first holiday meal, the china made me smile.  Over and over again.  It’s so pretty it’s hard to look at without smiling.  And I swear I felt Connie smiling down at me too.

It’s easy to save the things you really want to do for the “perfect” time, to hold off on going on that trip, calling that friend, or writing that book you’ve always wanted to write.  You wait for life to slow down and for the perfect opportunity to present itself, but it never does.  Life is always going to be busy, and there will always be competing priorities.  But the truth is, you don’t know how much time you have.  In the end, we’re all just dust in the wind.

It’s been more than 10 years since my mom got cancer, but I don’t want to forget the kick-in-the pants realization that tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.  You shouldn’t wait to do the things that make you happy.

That’s why I don’t wait to use my fine china.  Scrambled eggs on a Tuesday morning is reason enough.

To read more from Amelia, visit: www.pithywordsmithery.com

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