I still remember one of my first job interviews on Wall Street. The interviewer asked me where I got my business sense. Like the other thousand male applicants before me, I was about to say my father who was the bread winner in the family, when it hit me for the first time in my life that I got it all from my mother. While my mother was a full-time housewife, I realized my inheriting a small part of her innate ability to quickly judge people's character, find creative solutions to problems, organize complex efforts and manage money and investments would serve me well in my business career.
Whenever my mother, Agnes, was asked if she worked, she always got a kick out of saying, "No, I'm a housewife." Somehow, with no assistance from either hired help, her husband or the children, she managed every day to clean the house, make the beds, prepare our meals, drive us to school, manage the family's investments, run a house on a tight budget and supervise any plumbing, electrical, roofing or yard work required. And she managed to do it and leave her afternoons free for golf at which she became a course champion shooting in the high 70s. She also raised three children who all went to Harvard and me.
Before she was married and barely 20 years old, Agnes left tradition-bound Kentucky for New York City where she became a top model. Not just a pretty face, she became close friends with Bernard Baruch who always sat next to her at dinner parties simply because he enjoyed the conversation.
When World War II broke out, Agnes joined the first class of women officer training for the Navy (WAVES), was stationed in Hawaii and ended up working on the Japanese code. After the war, she returned to New York and became a vice president of a small 20-person startup called Dannon Yogurt.
In New York, she met the president of Macy's who asked her to work undercover in his cosmetics department to find out who was stealing from the firm. At the end of the month assignment, she was called in to report to the president. She told him she knew who the thief was, but refused to disclose her name as she had become close friends with all the female employees in the cosmetics department. Instead, she took an hour of the president's time and walked him through an analysis of how Macy's might do a better job in selling cosmetics to women. Before the term even existed, Agnes had completed a strategic plan for the entire business unit.
Like all of us, the list of things that our parents taught us is much too long to be inclusive. But, here are a few things that I remember Agnes sharing with me.
Never lie. While many people believe that lying is a victimless crime, Agnes impressed upon me that small lies turn into big lies and a life full of lies is vacuous and unfulfilled. It is no coincidence that my business website is entitled www.stopthelying.com.
Keep a sense of humor. When my parents were in their seventies and attending a family reunion in Kentucky, my uncle got up in front of everyone to brag about how much money he had made selling some of his antique furniture. My father jumped up and said he wished Agnes would unload some of her antiques. Without missing a beat, from the back of the room, my mother shouted out to my father, "If I start unloading antiques, you'll be the first to go."
Never be discourteous to someone working for you. I took my mother on a tennis vacation when she turned 80 and when the flight attendant brought the wrong drink for her I got up and started to give the woman holy hell. My mother shut me down quickly. I can't recall her ever being that mad at me. Having grown up in the South with black maids and nannies, she understood the importance of treating everyone with dignity.
Stock picking. Agnes was a great stock picker, and in a related note, a great horse handicapper. She found Starbucks when it was a small outfit with only twelve stores while visiting my brother in Seattle. She wanted to buy the stock, but her only mistake was she asked my opinion knowing that I had recently landed a job on Wall Street. I talked her out of it. I explained that there were no barriers to entry for making coffee and so their margins would come under pressure from increased competition, at least that is the kind of thing we had learned to say in business school.
As an aside, when Agnes was 91 years old and confined to a nursing home because my siblings were convinced that mentally she couldn't manage her affairs, her nurse's father visited and took them both out to the racetrack for the day. After Agnes picked the winners in 8 out of 9 races, he told her, "Agnes, there's nothing wrong with your mind." All Agnes said to me about the day was that she could have had one more winner but they were late getting to the track and missed the first race. And you wonder where I get my Type A personality from.
The least among us. 10 years before John Rawls developed his veil of ignorance theory at Harvard, my mother had already figured out what he would conclude. If you are struggling to answer the question, "What should I do with my life?," my mother had an answer for you. She understood that as long as there was suffering in the world we should do our best to ease it. And, like Rawls, she understood that it was the poorest among us who suffered the most. Life was not just about having fun and being entertained. We each had a duty, a responsibility to live up to. For Agnes, that meant helping the poorest among us. We weren't meant to live just for ourselves, we were a collective part of a bigger community.
I went to work at Goldman Sachs because of a love of financial markets I somehow inherited from my mother. But I left the firm because I realized that all my good work was only making rich people richer, something my mother would never stand for. In 2003, when I wrote a book predicting a coming housing crash, her first reaction was that the book was a waste because it would only help rich people. I assured her that, like all financial crises, it would be the poorest who would bear the brunt of the housing collapse and ensuing recession so she finally gave her blessing.
The color of the curtains. Maybe the most important lesson I learned from my mother resulted from a five-minute conversation we once had. Funny, we spent 50 years together and yet it is a five-minute conversation that I recall most vividly like it was yesterday.
My father was a career military officer so we moved often. Agnes had to buy, renovate and sell probably 30 different homes in her lifetime. On this occasion, we were sitting in the living room and I must have been voicing some frustration with a problem from work that I was wrestling with. My mother said it was just like the curtains. In each house that we bought, Agnes had to decide what color the curtains should be. She told me that sometimes it didn't come to her immediately. But that was okay. If you had to wait a couple of weeks, eventually, the right color for the curtains would make itself known. And, this is the important point, waiting for two weeks was not a waste of time, nor were you being lazy. Your mind was working on the problem even if you weren't.
I often think of this advice today. For you see, in my Wall Street job I used to work 80 hours a week on 20 different projects at a time. Now, as an author, I can take up to three years to write a single book. And, much of that time, even before the writing starts, is just time spent thinking, sometimes at my desk, sometimes in the shower and often with the dogs walking on the beach.
What's incredible, is that while I was very productive on Wall Street, I believe I am 10 times more productive today. Responding to e-mails, answering cell phone calls, surfing the Internet, social networking and watching television keeps us so busy that we don't even have time to think. We can go all day, sometimes all week or even all month without a single creative thought. Anybody can push paper. What creates real value is creative thinking and creative problem solving. Somehow, we have gotten so busy we don't have time to do the thing that is most important, think.
So, the next time you want to increase your productivity, turn off the computer, turn off the television and turn off the cell phone, find a nice quiet relaxing place and ask yourself what color the curtains should be. I know that would make Agnes happy.
John R. Talbott is a bestselling author and financial consultant to families whose books predicted the housing crash, the banking crisis and the global economic collapse. You can read more about his books, the accuracy of his predictions and his financial consulting activities at www.stopthelying.com
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