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Think Big, Work Hard: Life Lessons from an 8th Grader

A couple of months ago I began working at Corus360.  Like most new employees, I began attending our company’s weekly Toastmasters class. Toastmasters is a great way to practice and enhance your public speaking skills. After attending a few classes, I was informed that I would be giving my first speech the following week. It was to be an icebreaker speech about myself. Naturally, I asked my two oldest sons for some ideas on what I should share. My 5-year-old son, Eli, encouraged me to focus on how I am a hard worker. Brooks, who is 3, said to tell everyone how big I am. I appreciated his suggestion but couldn’t figure out how to convince a room of adults of that fact. I stand a few inches taller than Spud Webb. Wanting to utilize their suggestions, I decided to title my speech “Think Big, Work Hard.” This blog is a written version of it.

I was born in Georgia but spent my childhood in Delaware. There wasn’t much to do growing up in lower, slower, Delaware, so I spent most of my childhood outside riding my bike and playing sports. One of my favorite sports was basketball. When I was in the 8th grade, I recall desperately wanting to make the middle school basketball team. The middle school I attended was not a small, private school where everyone made the team. It was a public school with a lot of good athletes. There were 30-40 kids trying out for 12 spots. I was one of the shortest kids trying out but convinced myself that I could make the team if I could differentiate myself from the other players. After much thought and conversations with my brother, I decided that I would have a chance to make the team if I did 3 things well:

  1. Play good defense.
  2. Hustle and dive after loose balls.
  3. Get to the free throw line and make my free throws. Size has no consequence or advantage at the free throw line.

For two weeks in tryouts, I did these three things to the best of my ability. And when the roster was posted, my name was on it. The coach later told me that I was the very last player to make the team.  I can attribute making the middle school basketball team to two things:

Think Big. Work Hard.

Growing up in Delaware, my Father was a pastor. While all of our basic needs were met, there was not a lot of extra money for what most kids would consider necessities: new shoes, baseball bats, video games, etc. I learned at a very young age that if I wanted any of these necessities, and it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas, I would have to work and pay for them myself. This instilled in me an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. As a young lad, I ran a well-diversified group of businesses. During the summer, I sold lemonade and cut grass. In the wintertime, I shoveled snow. Snow shoveling in southern Delaware can be taxing work, as winter precipitation usually consists of a rain/ sleet/ snow mixture and forms absurdly heavy slush. During the winter of 1995/96, my older brother noticed how much money I was accumulating shoveling snow and asked me to hire him, which I did. From my perspective, it was the perfect partnership. I would knock on doors, find customers, and negotiate pricing. My brother would then do the heavy lifting while I went to find our next customer. Once the snow melted and Spring began, I knew that I needed one more business I could operate during school hours to hold me over until the summer. I began surveying my peers to see where the market demand was. After several conversations, I concluded that the highest demand product I could sell (legally) was candy. I know some of you are laughing right now, thinking there is no money to be made in candy sales to middle school kids. Well, you are wrong. You can make a killing pushing candy to 8th graders, as I was about to discover. After experimenting with several different candy products, I finally discovered my cash cow – the pixie stick. Today, when I hear the words pixie stick, I instantly grin from ear to ear. It’s like hearing the name of a long-lost friend. A pixie stick is a paper straw filled with flavored sugar. In 1995, I would jump on my Schwinn Dyno bicycle and peddle to a nearby Dollar General or Woolworth where I could purchase a bag of 50 pixie sticks for $1. I would then put them in my Eastpak bookbag and unload them for ten cents each. That is a 500% profit margin. Those are life changing profit margins for a 13-year-old. Those are life changing profit margins at any age!

After my candy selling days were done and I entered high school and then college, I always took the life lessons I learned in the 8th grade to inspire my work. From bagging groceries at Kroger as a high schooler to selling newspaper subscriptions door to door for the AJC during my college years, the think big/work hard strategy fueled my success through each venture. In conclusion, I encourage everyone to implement the think big/work hard strategy. And when resistance and doubt inevitably arise, contemplate the following: If an 8th grader can make a 500% profit margin selling flavored sugar, how much more successful should we all be in our respective fields?



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