I asked this question to half a dozen female entrepreneurs over the past month (you’ll find out why come April 30th).
It’s funny how, when you ask someone else a question, you start wondering what your answer would be. If you ask someone what their hidden talent is, you wonder if you would have said your ability to play guitar or actually sing on key. If you ask someone where they would travel if they could go anywhere, you start daydreaming about your next vacation.
I asked women 1) if anyone ever told them to quit and 2) who convinced them not to.
It made me start thinking of the past fourteen months of my life—the fourteen months since I had a steady paycheck.
No one person ever told me to quit, but a lot of situations did.
Like every time I looked at my balance at PNC. Every time a two-week duration came and went when that balance wasn’t magically replenished for me. I thought about it every time I cut down on expenses. As in, I now cut my own hair kind-of cut down.
By fall of last year, projects were slowly, but steadily coming my way—projects I didn’t have to hunt for. But spring and summer? That was scary. I was actually scared. I can remember drinking my weight in wine at my friend Amanda’s apartment, wondering where the next gig would come from, and blurting out, “Am I going to be ok?”
And sometimes, you just have to wonder if all of that is worth the stress.
At Christmastime, I was back at my parent’s house in Iowa. My dad always asks me about my business. I’m pretty sure he has no idea what I do for a living, but finds it fascinating anyway.
“I told myself I would give it a year,” I said. “One year is at the end of January. And I’m just not sure if I can make it year two.”
He never asked why. Never asked what I made. Never asked if my former, very comfortable salary was comparable to this one. Never asked how many clients I did or did not have. Instead he said, “Do you know where I would be if I gave up year one?”
It was a rhetorical question. I’m going to tell you the answer anyway.
I’m really proud of my family. To understand our family dynamic, you need to know two things:
- My dad is roughly seven billion times more risk-tolerant than my mom, whose risk tolerance hovers around .00002 percent.
- I am the product of my dad.
And because my dad does not fear risk, this is how our family story goes.
My dad bought his first farm in 1979. He farmed just one year on his own before marrying my mom.
My parents worked like dogs. The longest workweek I ever pulled was 84 hours, and that is nothing compared to what my parents went through. They lived in a trailer and milked cows for a living. They didn’t sit behind a desk in a chic office, La Croix fully stocked in the fridge and a Keurig on the counter.
My mom worked part-time at a grocery store in town, coming home from a shift only to help my dad with chores. They did hard, manual labor. Their setup was outdated, as they had not modernized to an automated system.
They made decent money. My parents were married at twenty, and over the next few years my mom ran out every single Thursday to pick up the milk check. [By comparison, I can’t name a single Thursday where I missed happy hour from age 21 to 23.] By 1981, they bought their first farm on contract and moved into the house I grew up in.
In 1983, my dad bought his second farm for $1,600 an acre. It would be twenty years before it was worth that price again.
I want to pause my parents’ story to zoom forward to mine.
I live in the center of Washington, DC. It’s a mile-and-a-half mile walk to the Newseum, voted the best museum in DC for who-knows how many years. If you ever go, walk past the reception and hang a right. There’s an ever-standing exhibit on the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs over the last century.
The first time I went, I was thrilled when I saw The Des Moines Register listed in one of the captions. When I actually stopped to look at the photo, it was of a (presumably) husband and wife—two farmers who looked like they just lost everything—during the farm crisis in the ‘80s.
The farm crisis is probably a time few of you know about. I barely know anything about it—and I’m FROM there.
That photo hanging in the Newseum is the visual answer to my dad’s rhetorical question.
As my dad explained it to me, you don’t simply start in a crash. Events lead to it. Situations tighten. And eventually, something bursts.
In the 1980s inflation was incredibly high. Reagan went after inflation, causing interest rates to skyrocket. Where any property buyer could purchase land or their first home for less than four percent interest today, a similar contract in the ‘80s could top sixteen percent.
Almost anything that could go wrong, went wrong.
Farmers who bought land on variable interest rates lost everything as those rates doubled overnight. Couples who just wanted out sold their land for a fraction of what it was worth. Land debt and suicide rates soared. There were protests at farm sales, where machinery and equipment auctioned off at sale prices. On March 5th, 1985, roughly one mile from where I’m typing this, thousands of farmers marched on Pennsylvania Avenue. It would be another two years before things hit rock bottom—the same year my brother was born.
Government programs for farmers got slashed. My parents had secured a loan from one particular program in hopes of switching up their entire operation (again, they were working on an outdated system).
My family banked on that financing. Then the government cut the entire program.
The morning the program got cut, my parents’ phone rang. The guy on the other line said, “This program is getting cut. I made a phone call down to Kansas City and said I have one more guy that I want to push through. But you have to go buy that farm today.”
My dad bought a farm that afternoon. The interest rate wasn’t great by any means, but it was fixed.
It’s easy to keep your head up when everything goes your way. It’s really fucking hard when it seems like everything is going wrong.
Without spreading my family’s financial history across the Internet, my parents turned out fine. Which is what my dad was eluding to last Christmas.
When I started freelancing full-time, my friend Maranie told me something I will never forget:
The highs are higher, but the lows are lower.
In those lows, the only thing you can do is stay calm, try to be positive, and remember that everything that has ever gone wrong has somehow worked itself out. Hard times are tough but they also don’t last.
I once asked my dad if they made it out of the crisis because of luck. He said, “I think it was a little luck; it was mainly good people doing what they didn’t have to do. That guy didn’t have to make that phone call to Kansas City. Friends didn’t have to help out. Your mom didn’t have to marry me—marrying into a life where you come home from one job only to work another.”
Which of course, made me want to cry.
Sometimes life will cut you a break. Sometimes you will have to wait half a decade or more for that break to come. But you have to stick through the lows in order to get to the highs.
There is going to be a time when you want to quit. And everything will point in that direction. The numbers will say it’s the sound choice. The stress will be less. You won’t wake up at 3AM thinking about it.
There will be a time when all you want in life is to throw up your hands and say, “I’m done.”
In those moments, you have to remember that there is an army of people backing you. They are the ones pulling for you. And whether you can see it or not, you are just in a low. Which means the highs are just around the corner.