Saturday, July 9, 2011

Success and the Shopkeeper...

Several years ago—in the wrong place at the wrong time—I was in earshot of an elderly woman named Catherine as she ruminated on her life and times. Catherine was knocking on eighty and had raised three children—two sons and a daughter. In Catherine’s humble estimation, her daughter passed muster in the game of life. She married a good provider and supplied her mother with a healthy parcel of grandchildren. Her oldest son did all right, too. Straight out of college, he took a good job with good benefits, married, furnished mom with grandkids, and never looked back.

It was the middle child, Robbie, who didn’t quite live up to his mother’s expectations of the way things ought to be, despite having added to her ample brood of grandchildren. Robbie made more money than his two siblings combined—a lot more—but this didn’t earn him any extra credit as far as old mama was concerned, which was kind of strange. Money equals success from the perspectives of an awful lot of people, and Catherine was fixated on dollars and cents, even though her senior citizen savings were closing in on seven figures. Her husband had been both a good provider and a good investor, yet she still watered down the Hawaiian Punch in grave fear that she might one day end up in the poor house.

Robbie, in fact, made more dough than anybody on the family tree, which could be traced back to hardworking fishermen on the southern coast of Italy. In his mother’s worldview, Robbie’s unpardonable sin was that he made all of his moolah—millions—in a rather grungy retail environment. In other words, he didn’t wear a suit and tie to work every day, and didn’t have a benefits package bestowed on him by some benevolent corporate benefactor like GE, the Bank of America, or Proctor & Gamble. Catherine relished passing on up-to-the-minute employment reports on her relations—once, twice, and thrice removed, it didn’t matter. From where she sat, there was nothing that commanded more awe and respect than working for a “big company,” wearing neatly pressed dress clothes, and, of course, putting in very long hours for a familiar corporate master.

That her son founded a business on his own that eventually employed hundreds of people didn’t impress her in the least. Looking back on all that was, she wistfully remarked, “Robbie is content to be a shopkeeper.” And then added as a parenthetical aside: “He had a really good job, too, at Gimbel's when he got out of college. He could have gone places there had he stayed with them.” Upon graduation, Robbie had managed this Manhattan department store’s kitchen appliance section. He wore a suit and tie to work and—the icing on the cake from mama’s catbird seat—schlepped on the subway to the job day after day after day. It doesn’t get any better than that. “He could have gotten three weeks vacation had he stayed there for five years,” Catherine recalled almost four decades later. True, multi-millionaire Robbie could have one day become the CEO of Gimbel's—all things are possible, I suppose—just in time for the department store chain to declare bankruptcy and take all their generous employee benefit packages with them.

So, you must be wondering by now: What exactly is the meaning of this life parable? What exactly is the meaning of success? Well, I just don’t know. But Catherine apparently knew and, for starters—just starters—shopkeepers all were a bunch of losers.

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