When organizational hierarchy matters

I have always believed in a flat organization. I have managed big teams in high pressure situations when a positive outcome is not guaranteed. Information is capital and it is my experience that individuals will respond well when everyone starts with same amount of it. When everyone knows the challenges as well as the stakes, they head off in the same direction, and they work as a team. And it doesn’t stop there. When flat hierarchy and open dialog are core values, when they become habit, cohesion can be maintained indefinitely.

Yet hierarchy-refusal can be taken too far, as I once learned. I was so once committed to a flat structure, that, I decided no one on my team would have any title. For reasons outlined above, this seemed like the right thing to do until one of them pointed out, that for all my horizontal preaching, the organization wasn’t flat. There was one person on the team that had a hierarchical title – me. When I looked at my business card, I realized how disingenuous I had been. But I also realized how much I liked my title. It had been given to me by my boss and it meant something.

It’s weird, hierarchy is important outside the office. It is a yardstick that tells the world how far one has come. Titles open doors, impress the ladies (or men), lead to greater sales, and can ensure a better salary at the next job. But teams work best when hierarchy is eliminated inside the office. People can make different amounts of money, have different skills, and have different words on their business cards, but when in the office, when part of that team, everyone is held to the same standard, everyone is expected to work hard, and everyone is expected to do everything they can to ensures the success of their teammates.

The Day I Was Chef

On about a decade ago, I received a day in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen as a gift from some friends. They had purchased it for me at a charity auction. I like to cook for my friends and do so often. I also worked in restaurants through my teens and college so I have nearly a decade’s experience at the prep and line level. As far as home cooks go, I consider myself a pretty good one, but by no yardstick a chef.

Charlie Trotter’s, if you do not know, was – maybe still is – one of the most important restaurants in culinary history. Following Alice Water’s legendary focus on highest quality dill for salmon and chocolate for cakes, Charlie Trotter blew it up by putting the chocolate on the salmon. Chicagoans were lucky that he built his practice in Chicago. His was the spear tip that drove culinary innovation. His protégés sparked countless award-winning restaurants and turned Chicago into one of the finest restaurant cities in the world.

More purple, damnit!

By the time of this story, these kitchen certificates were standard fare and had been given to charities for years. They were more special to the recipient and less expensive for the restaurant than a gift certificate. Hundreds had gone before me, and the program was well established. I was greeted at the door by the sommelier and escorted into the secondary dining room where lunch was awaiting me. He explained the day which included some time in the kitchen, the pre-shift meeting with the manager and servers, some front-of-the-house time, and some other experiential but out-of-the-way activities. He also asked about my expectations. I told him I wanted to experience the true Charlie Trotter’s working environment. “How are your knife skills?” he asked. “Pretty good, I think, but you can be the judge.” With that I was sent down to change into my awaiting restaurant-supplied whites.

The kitchen was abustle when I entered. Bright lights, colorful ingredients, and a dozen rapidly moving chefs gave the room a magical intensity. I was set-up on a prep table and handed 2 dozen sous-vide artichoke hearts. I was instructed to quarter them and carve each part into the shape of a flamingo – the choke making a colorful beak. I’m sorry what? The chef picked one up, pulled a raptor knife from his pocket, and with one deft slice, turned the vegetable into a bird.

I wasn’t deft but I figured it out. I guess I did a passable job, because when I was finished, they let me stay. Next came in an overflowing tray of morels. You could have bought a used car with what these mushrooms were worth. I cleaned and cored them for maybe an hour. “Next?’ I inquired?  Out came 4 flats of strawberries – each to be cored, cut in half, and then sliced onto 32 equally thick pieces, which would then be added to the maceration solution. On this task I spent the next two hours.

Another give-back that Charlie Trotter created was a program that hired inner-city high-school kids to work in the kitchen. They cleaned, prepped food, and assisted the chefs. I am sure that many of them went on to successful careers in the culinary industry. I wish I remembered the name of the fellow in this roll the day I was there, because he is important to this story but for that I apologize. We had been working side by side for a while, chopping away, when he referred to me as “Chef Curt.” I chuckled humbly and informed him that I was just renting the spot for the day and a chef by no means. For the first time that day, he stopped moving, looked straight into my eyes and asked me, “are you working in Chef Charlie Trotter’s kitchen today or not?” I agreed I was, and he informed me, “then today you are Chef.” This soon turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.

I had been working at the team’s disposal for so long – and perhaps so quietly – that the front-of-the-house staff forgot I was there. I missed the pre-opening meeting and the shift meal with the wait staff. In fact, by the time I proudly lifted my head from that glorious vat of liquifying strawberries, the kitchen was buzzing in a whole different way. I ventured to the front of the room and found a safe place to observe. Dinner had started and the staff had moved to their action positions around the line. Well-dressed waiters were coming in, grabbing plates, wiping the edges, and heading out. Charlie had not yet arrived, but the chef in front, likely the sous chef, controlled the room like a conductor directing an orchestra. There was commotion, but also a sense of forced, busy quiet.

As entrees started going out, the appetizer dishes started to pile up. I noticed with interest that there was not person assigned as dishwasher.  This organization was so flat that every chef was expected to do everything of which he was capable. I also noted that the institutional dishwasher was a brand I recognized from my own high-school restaurant days. It was many decades newer but worked basically the same. I set to work rinsing the plates, placing them in the racks, opening the door, running the machine, and removing them to airdry. The process took about 60 seconds per load. I had no idea where they went, so I just stacked the dishes on the counter and prepared the next load. After about 10 minutes of this, I heard a sharp request. “Chef Curt! Did anyone tell you to wash those dishes?” “No sir” I replied, “but I know the machine and figured I would help.” “Chef Curt,” he now ordered, “I need you behind the line at the sauté station!”

“More caviar! No we can’t charge them for more, we just do it! That’s what we do, the right thing. Anything less would not be enough!” 

World Famous Chef Homaro Cantu quoting Charlie Trotter

You want some context? Imagine, you are sitting at Wrigley Field in some hard-won front row seats. Anthony Rizzo has been yanked, and David Ross approaches you and tells you that you are needed at first base – right now! My job was sautéing salmon – four to six pans at a time, moving between them, ensuring that none stick, and flipping when ready. Once to temperature (no thermometer, you tell with a touch), they were plated and garnished. I was getting along surprisingly competently when Chef Trotter arrived and asked what I was doing there. I learned later that in all the years of the charity certificate, I was the only recipient who had ever received this honor. I was sprinkling brightly colored flowers across a plate while I introduced myself, and he responded with, “well, welcome, now, damnit, more purple!” I absolutely beamed.

This is one of my favorite stories and not without lesson. The whole day turned with an earnest and insightful request from a teenager that I reconsider how I view myself. I had hoped for a terrific spectator vantage leading to improved understanding of people I admired. But when my heart and mind opened, the experience carried me beyond my expectations. I came to observe the show, but in the end I was part of it.

Following my 10 minutes behind the line, I was handed a glass of fantastic Brunello and sent downstairs to change out of my whites. My wife and another couple were meeting me there for dinner, and I had brought a change of clothes. In my excitement, I accidentally (I swear) put my restaurant supplied whites into my backpack with my own dirty clothes. I meant to return them, but the restaurant closed several months later. Those whites have hung proudly next to my suits, for the past 9 years as a reminder of the time I got yelled at by Charlie Trotter for not putting enough purple flowers on top of a piece of salmon and was able to live-out a real-life fantasy because a kid told me to be more than I thought I was.

Service Over Self-interest, an Ameritrade Story

This story is going to sound a bit like a western, so my apologies for that.

You see, I used to run internet products for Ameritrade. I am the guy who brought the Company to the Internet. Maybe it was right place, right time, but, man, did I love that job. The tools that my team and I built for an initial audience of dozens grew to support millions of users by the time of this story.

True leaders measure success through the success of all of those they serve, including customers, employees, shareholders, and communities. And they live by a fundamental tenet, that service to others is the highest honor and greatest obligation of a true leader.

Henry S. Givray
Creator & Lead Facilitator – Leadership’s Calling®
Former Chairman, President & CEO – SmithBucklin Corp.

But wait. Some background is important for the rest of this story to make sense. Most companies have three different data handling departments: backend, middleware, and frontend. The backend is the customer and transactional databases. This story isn’t about them. The middleware determines what information can be shared, keeps the bad guys out, and directs the traffic. This story is about them. And the frontend delivers pretty applications and pages to users. Frontend. That’s where I worked.

And we were dependent on the middleware. Unfortunately Ameritrade’s middleware was really old by the time the internet came along. We struggled to work with it, but an application is only as good as its data. That middleware had to be replaced.

The middleware team was also long in the tooth. There had been few new requirements for years, and they had grown complacent. They resisted change on procedural grounds and were viewed as uncooperative. When the mandate came to rewrite it, they were not prepared for success. Deadlines came and went, attrition skyrocketed, and even the new requirements started falling out of date. The danger the company was in because of this can not be overstated.

This is where the story ties into the quote above. My team was terrific. Because we did the fun stuff, we could hire the best people, and many of the best technologists in the Company had chosen to join us. I realized our talent, our understanding of customer needs, and our productive attitude could solve the middleware problem. But I also knew that pulling my team off frontend development would temporarily hurt us in the competitive standings and direct a lot of negative pressure towards me – from the encroached upon data services teams, from the business units, and even from the financial press. Just so you know, I am the guy in the white hat here. Guess what I did?

Marshall Will Kane is not part of this story, but he’s still cool.

I offered up my best project manager and all my senior developers. But it got worse than I predicted when those folks were assigned to another VP. Not only would I lose their productivity, but I would not receive the spotlight of their success.

Following this, my options appeared limited. My crippled team was living off scraps, our competitors pulled away dropping us to dead last in some standings, and my once bright star was fading fast.

But as clearly as I knew my days were numbered, I also knew that I still had control of the future. Three powerful things were left in my pocket. First, my remaining team, having written the middleware requirements, knew what to expect when the project was finished. Second, my knowledge of the customers allowed me to predict what an industry leading application would look like in the future – even if I could not build it yet. And third, the rewrite had not taken my graphic designers, that creative core that turns good data into great applications. Together my scrappy band would design the application that the Company would need at the other end of this dark, 8-month, tunnel.

My professional capital fell far into the red. I had a terrific boss who tried to shield me, but there was only so much he could do. His boss, a man for whom I have great respect, chose a different path – which must have been very difficult for him. He knew what I was doing, and he got out of the way. He protected the necessary resources to ensure the success of our future knowing it might be the last thing I did with the Company.

And it was. But it was also a homerun. The data streaming through the new middleware coupled with our visionary application design put us back atop the competitive rankings and painted my team in great light. I left proud of what I had accomplished and knowing that my superiors valued my efforts. Ride off into the sunset. End credits roll.

So, here’s the lesson. For years I have viewed this story as me self-sacrificing a job I loved for the betterment of the Company. But through recent introspection I have reached a different conclusion which is made clear by understanding the true options I faced:

I could take on another department’s problem. I was confident my involvement would facilitate the best outcome for the Company but also understood it would lead me out the door. I could hope that the act would end with the Company back in its preeminent competitive position, my team – a group of people I loved – once again positioned to build fantastic things and maintain their position at the top of the corporate cake, and me exiting in a super strong position to go build wonderful things for another firm.

or

I could do my job and let the middleware do as it would. It was not my problem to fix, and my head would not be on the block if it failed. My team and I could still build new applications, but the opportunities for building groundbreaking things would continue to diminish. Ameritrade’s competitive advantage might slide and eventually turn us into a takeover target – at which point I would be viewed as an average manager, and either be let go or receive a position appropriate to an average manager.

You see, I was faced with two options and neither was perfect, but my genuine desire to serve others, to improve the standing of the Company, and to make my team successful, led me to the best outcome – for all of us, me included- even if it appears to have been against my self-interest.

Find Your Not Audience

They say that embarrassment requires an audience. And it’s true. If no one sees something there is no reason to feel embarrassed about it. We can all re-imagine the horror of tripping in the lunchroom, tray aflying – even if we never actually did it. But envision the same thing happening alone at home. It may be frustrating and an ugly mess, but it is not embarrassing.

Now imagine – in either case – someone rushing to your assistance. Someone who helps you up and makes sure the mess is righted. A friend who knows you so well, that their reaction is compassion not schadenfreude. Someone who knows this shit happens to everyone but genuinely feels bad that it happened to you this time. 

We need these people. We need friends with whom we can share everything. Not just the awesome, but also the awful, ridiculous, and gross. These are the people who can see us stumble and not illicit our embarrassment. These are the Not Audience.

Our not audiences can help us when we set ourselves on a difficult life journey. If we need to lose weight, go through rehab, kick an illness, or mourn a loved one, having a not audience can make the difference between getting it done and failing. We don’t just tell these people about all the awful shit we are dealing with. They make us feel stronger for having shared it. they remove the obstacles in their control. They lend their ears, their arms, and their shoulders so that we may struggle through, be stronger, and succeed.

Tasks in life are often too big for one person. Our need for help can not be undone by our fear of being embarrassed. That is why we need our not audience.

Understand the Statistics of COVID – please?

Recently we have been hearing a lot of talk about the infection rate in Illinois. The growth in this number is quite shocking. Where it was 3% a month ago, it was 5.7% last Thursday, and it is 8% as of this writing!

Figure 1 New cases in Illinois (Bing's COVID Update)
Figure 1 New cases in Illinois (Bing’s COVID Update)

One might be led to believe that this means that 8% of Illinoisans are infected with COVID, but it does not. It means that 8% of those tested were positive. Those are wildly different things and the actual percentage of Illinoisans with the disease is something different. It could be higher and is likely much lower. Its rise could indicate a growth in the general infection rate or nothing at all. Residents of Illinois – more than almost any other state – need to be able to read between the lines recited by your officials.

I am not a conspiracist or an anti-science guy. Furthermore, I believe that the number of people catching COVID in Illinois in increasing rapidly and is cause for concern. However, my knowledge of science (and statistics in particular) leads me to worry that our elected officials are incorrectly interpreting “positivity rate” and ignoring more appropriate statistics altogether when making policy decisions.

Let us return to the early days of COVID. Initially the positivity rate throughout the Rush Medical System started in the 8% range. Within a couple weeks, that number had spiked to 25% This was consistent with what was reported in the press. The overall rate of infection in the state was unknown, but this number jumped because, given the shortage of tests, doctors began screening for symptoms before allowing a test to be administered. So, if a patient was asymptomatic or wanted a test to placate personal or professional curiosity, the request for a test was denied. Only the people who were likely sick or front-line were tested.  The infection rate of all Illinois was well below 1% at the time, but the 25% (and rising) infection rate measured meant that the tests were being used more effectively.

Post-it note captured at a Rush nurse’s station in April 2020

At some point the purpose of the this statistic was corrupted. The number is easy to track and regularly reported and it has come to be used in a way that was never intended. Testing issues have improved since then, people who are sick are still more likely to seek out testing and doctors are more likely to prescribe testing to symptomatic patients. Further complicating the issue, certain professional and demographic groups get tested more than others leading to overall results that do not match the population. In statistical terms, this is called selection bias. So, when you hear that the infection rate is 8%, understand that there is no scientific or even commonsense reason to equate that to the whole of Illinois, Chicago, or any geographic group.

Even though the positivity rate has risen 1300% since June, the fatality rate has fallen by 80% since the first peak

Still, there are important stats worth watching. My favorite (as macabre as this sounds) is fatality rate which – due to research, improved medical infrastructure, and improved treatment – has fallen consistently throughout COVID. On the first pandemic peak on May 13, 4100 people tested positive and 141 people died. On the second peak in October, 6100 people tested positive and 63 people died. This stat is not perfect either, but still, a positive test in May represented a 4.7% chance of death and a positive test in October represented a 1.0% chance of death. So even though positivity rate has risen 1300% since its low point in June, the chance of dying has fallen by 79% since the first peak. This is a reason to rejoice, not retreat further into our fears.

Figure 2 Fatal cases in Illinois (Bing's COVID Update)
Figure 2 Fatal cases in Illinois (Bing’s COVID Update)

Perhaps the best statistic available is deaths per 100,000 people. This stat cleanly identifies one’s likelihood to die from COVID and is calculated using the relatively bias-free numbers of population and COVID deaths while avoiding the sample bias of testing. Illinois’s current D/100K number is 78. That number sounds arbitrary but makes sense when used for comparison purposes. Remember our Mayor villainizing that COVID hotbed, the State of Wisconsin, a few weeks ago? Yet Wisconsin’s number is only 32. For whatever reason, Illinoisans have over twice the chance of dying from COVID than their neighbors to the north. Iowa’s number is 53, Indiana’s is 62, and Missouri’s is 47 – suggesting that all neighboring states are safer than Illinois. In fact, Illinois is and has been one of the top 10 most dangerous states as a function of COVID. Pile crime, politics, and taxes on top of that and start wondering why anyone lives here – but that is a subject for another day.

Figure 3 Death rates from COVID-19 as of October 28, 2020, by state (Statistica.com)
Figure 3 Death rates from COVID-19 as of October 28, 2020, by state.
For the complete chart, follow the link above. (Statistica.com)

I have been frustrated by misdirected, arbitrary, or politically motivated COVID policy since the beginning. I am not arguing that COVID is not dangerous. I am not arguing that people should not be diligent. I am arguing that Illinois officials are looking at the wrong data, looking at data incorrectly, and in too many cases expecting the public to accept “because science says so” without understanding the science themselves.

This issue has unfortunately been politicized. Please, do not reject my logic because it coincidentally aligns with the politics of others you oppose – some of whom you view as idiots. All the links to these numbers are included above and none of my sites have any political bias. If you wish not to believe me, click through and do your own research.

Before AGILE there was, well, agile

November 2019 marked the publication of a memoir by Ameritrade CEO and Founder, Joe Ricketts, The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get. I led the internet initiative at Ameritrade to the internet and spent many hours being interviewed for this book. Chapter 10 (page 245) highlights some of that story. Following is some more detail.

Like many software development teams in the 90s, we were struggling to keep up, as the internet – rather than floppy disks – became the data delivery method of choice and previously successful development models began to break down. This new paradigm was powerful because we could just update all our clients’ software at the flip of a switch. But it was also fraught with danger as it became very inexpensive and easy to launch new code without appropriate quality control. 

The Egyptians were not Agile

 In the olden days, almost all projects were delivered following a waterfall project management process. Even the pyramids likely started with some sort of primitive blueprint which included every thought and idea that the hoping-to-be-immortalized king might have in his head. As challenges to designing crept-up during construction, they were dealt with via design compromises. As a result, end projects were almost always something less than they were initially intended – even if nonetheless cool.

As people got better at building skyscrapers, ships, and bridges, they got better at estimating the time a project would take. Estimates were created based on the average of past projects scaled up or down to match the one at hand. We can imagine the thinking of an engineer in 1890:

That last bridge took 2 years and was a mile long. This new one is 20% longer so it should take about 29 months.

As our society of builders approached the middle of the 20th century, waterfall project management was very nearly perfected for capital projects. Engineers were aware of the details, pitfalls, and requirements of their projects. They were good enough that we were able to put a man on the moon!

Old practices didn’t fit new products

But around the time of Apollo 11, a new generation was coming of age who would challenge the time-tested results of waterfall concerning software development. Capital projects had been physical-resource-based. Metal, factory space, rivets, steel, and labor had gone into building the monuments of the previous two millennia. The new monuments were to be made of information, communication protocol, mental horsepower, and electricity. They deserved a new method of project management that matched their intangible materials.

Taking cues from Japanese manufacturing, their own experiences, and the changing relationship between programmers and users, computer engineers began to advocate for smaller production cycles that were more flexible. They sought to replace the heavy process of waterfall with something lighter. They promised to increase their accountability and transparency in return for a seat at the planning table and the opportunity to honestly manage executive expectations. Enter Agile.

There is a romantic notion within the software development community that in 2001, a group of 17 computer scientists got together in Utah and invented Agile software development. But that is really not what happened. In truth, engineers all over the world had been wrestling with the problems of building software in executive-driven environments and by the 1990s were coming up with similar solutions. The birth of the internet, and the explosion of users demands, really kicked the discussion into high gear.

Ameritrade

I was in Omaha Nebraska in the 1990s. Omaha might not have much of a silicon reputation, but due to its central proximity and favorable demographics, it was an early hub for military, communications, and technology providers. My company was Ameritrade even though it was called TransTerra at the time. Our technology team was part of the greater Omaha tech community. We knew each other, met regularly to discuss issues and share a beer and traveled to the same conferences. You can always spot a traveler from Nebraska because invariably they will be wearing red or have the state name emblazoned across their chest. It helps when they get lost.

 As TransTerra changed its name to Ameritrade and its number of clients grew from thousands to millions, we were under unprecedented pressure to revamp the way we built software. At the time Amazon first bragged about $1 million days, we were already seeing $100 million days. Our development cycles were built around exploding demand, for which our capacity increasing releases were regularly inadequate. And every day we were learning how better to present our interfaces. Clearly, long, waterfall development cycles were not going to work anymore.

In the spring of 1998, following the crush of a few 80-hour/week development cycles, we put a stop to the treadmill and took a step backward. For nearly three weeks, the development team and I locked the doors, sat together, and wrote what was to be Ameritrade’s new software development process. We called it the Cooperative Software Design Process.

I wish I still had a copy of that original document, but it is long gone. What I do have is a PowerPoint simplification, dated a year later (1999), that was presented to executives and new management as part of an initiative I worked on with my buddy, Ronny Gal from Boston Consulting Group (BCG). It is interesting to review and note how many similarities there are to what we now all know as Agile.

I have attached one particularly interesting slide from that deck. Much of it will feel familiar.

  • Cooperative acknowledges that the stakeholders were part of the process.
  • Concurrent iterations allowed us to deliver features more quickly.
  • The overlapping snail-shell arrow that has come to define Agile diagrams
  • That spinning idea generator up front was our version of ongoing backlog tasks
  • The little note in the bottom of the call-out box “smaller is better”

No alt text provided for this image

We missed a lot of important Agile components too. We didn’t think of time boxing, completed software instead of status reports, or daily stand-ups, but those things probably weren’t appropriate to Ameritrade at the time. We were creating a process that allowed our business units – and subsequently the end-users – to understand that they were in control of what we were doing. In retrospect, it was quite appropriate.

The emergence of the internet changed a lot of things in the mid-90s. Companies that didn’t embrace it went away and those that did were forced to re-evaluate the way they did business. Few companies were as shaken and shaped as much as Ameritrade. Every element of the company was put into flux – but nowhere greater than what became the internet development team. We were pioneers out of necessity and lucky that the pre-Agile discussion was one of which we could be a part. These concepts helped our team progress to maturity and paved the road for Ameritrade’s growth and eventual position as one of the largest brokerages in the country.

Additional posts in this series:

Yup, I’m entitled.

I am a white male who was raised in a middle-class subdivision and a nice house. We had a sledding hill in our front yard with a wide oak tree at the bottom that – as legend has it – was standing there when Ulysses S. Grant traveled the Stagecoach Trail on his way to Galena in the 1860s. The town was Rockford Illinois, a place where no one visits, and no one leaves. We had a train station there once, but it closed. Then we lost our bus station too. Rockford in the seventies was a town where residents grew up thinking that the big city – even one as close as Chicago – wasn’t for us. Where people thought airplanes were for fancier types, and international travel was, well, not even invited into our imagination.

I was entitled to be raised by a single mother. My father had never been one long for employment, and so when he left, my mother was left with no prospects, no alimony, and no child support. Still, she was entitled to the “American Dream” and she vowed to keep that house. It was the foundation of what was left of our small family. Towards that goal she worked multiple jobs while going to school in pursuit of a teaching certificate.

My mother and I. The early days.

I was entitled to have a mother who turned out to be a great public-school teacher. She was loved by her students and her parents. Yet, every fall she suffered through strikes or pink slips. Once at the end of a RPS strike, she inadvertently crossed a picket line to get her classroom ready for her returning students. That afternoon she found her tires slashed in the school parking-lot. The cruelties and challenges she suffered on my behalf are almost too much to consider.

In junior high school I was entitled to receive free lunches from taxpayers. Free-lunch kids had a special line that snaked through the lunchroom at the busiest time of the day. Those better off heckled from their seats and threw uneaten food at us – alms that not even the poor wanted. Cheers went up for face shots and extra points were given for making one of us cry. I stopped eating lunches and was entitled to have a school library where I could pass that 45 minutes for the next two years.

When I was in high school, I was entitled to become a hoodlum like my peers or get a job. My mother helped me with that decision. Now, this was Rockford Illinois, the most depressed city in the country. Minimum wage was $3.35 but with unemployment over 20%, minimum wage was a king’s salary. I took a job washing dishes for $2 an hour working weekend nights from 8:00pm until 4:00am. I was 14. I would go home at the end of the shift with $16-cash in my pocket. On school nights I could go home at midnight.

I am grateful to have been entitled to leave Rockford – alive. My first friend to die was my childhood best friend, Paul Ogilvy, who died of cancer at age 21. Jim Roberts who lived across the street from him followed soon after with a shotgun in his mouth.  My dear friend Debby Warden was a drunk driving casualty as was Renee Ring and Glen Nichols.  There were a couple others too. Oh, and we should not forget poor Tammy Tracy, sister to my first-grade bestie, Darren. Her teenage body was found in a cornfield. All this before I was 21.

I was accepted to the University of Chicago where I was entitled to get my ass kicked and make the best friends a fella can make. My mother couldn’t pay for it, so I got through by “beg, borrow, or steal” – which really means borrowing and working hard. School was difficult, and I joked, I was fired from more restaurants than my classmates had eaten in. It took me an extra year, but I made it through.

After college. I was entitled to find a job, quit, and find a better one. Then I was fired from that job and found a better one anyways. But then, I quit that one and finally found an opportunity in which I believed. I was offered the opportunity to invest, and I was entitled to risk everything I had (and everything I could borrow). I took a speculator leap knowing that if it failed, that burden was no one’s but mine.

But it didn’t fail. And with financial success came a generous life with my wife, my family, and my community. I was entitled to enter semi-retirement, get involved with charities, help in a meaningful way, and make gifts larger than I ever would have thought possible. I take great pride in knowing that I have made a positive difference in the people’s lives.

As my children aged and needed me less, I found myself desiring to return to the corporate world. I missed the camaraderie and shared goals of working as part of a team. But finding a job did not come easily, and I readily saw how dispassionate hiring managers can be. As a male in my late 40s who had not worked in more than a decade, I suffered intentional bias, unintentional bias, ageism, and sexism – all the while reminding myself that every obstacle was surmountable. After many years of learning how to get around those people, I finally landed a great job where I am using all my entitlement to make a positive impact on culture, efficiency, and revenue. It is from there that I write this post today.

Like many who succeed, I have been entitled my whole life. I have been entitled keep a positive attitude. I have been entitled to show compassion learned from hardship. And most importantly I have been entitled to believe we are entitled to something better than the lot we were given.

So yup, I’m entitled. And even if I’m not, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.