We recently had the chance to sit down with one of the Chronotek Team’s favorite authors, Adam Shepard. Adam’s story of his decision to live out the true American Dream is a truly extraordinary journey. We chatted with him on a few topics ranging from the details of his book, to how he would find “A” players for his own business.
Give us a little background on your project. What made you want to write this book? What exactly were the “rules” and goals of the project?
The summer after my freshman year of college, I read a book called Nickel and Dimed, which is the story of how Barbara Ehrenreich basically went out to show that the American Dream is dead. I resented her attitude (as well-written as her book was) and decided that I wanted to live a social experiment of my own to see if there was any vitality to the American Dream.
I put everything on hold while I finished college and went to play professional basketball overseas. My hoops career in Germany lasted about 30 hours or so—I shot 2-for-29 from the field on the first day of practice—and when they sent me home, I reasoned that the best thing for me to do was live this project I had been delaying. The premise of the project was for me to start in a random city with $25, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on my back (read more in the Introduction), and see if, in one year, I could have $2500, a car, and a furnished apartment. To me, that was the idea of living the American Dream.
What city did you choose?
How did you go about selecting Charleston?
I had 12 southeastern cities in a hat (Mobile, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Savannah, Nashville, Columbia, various cities in Virginia, among others), and the idea was that I would pick one out on Monday and hop a train on Tuesday.
What was your initial experience?
I got anxious very quickly. I didn’t have a plan or a route to cover. And I certainly didn’t plan on arriving in the dilapidated neighborhood that I did. It was a very naïve experience, and the first chapter shows how grossly unprepared I was.
What was it like trying to break into the job market from your starting point at the homeless shelter?
Challenging. I had a vision on how I thought this was going to turn out and it didn’t go the way I intended at all.
I’ll tell you what was interesting. After ten days or so, I didn’t have a job, and I was complaining one night about the job market and this and that. There was this one guy at the shelter where I was staying—Phil Coleman—who chimed in and told me what he thought about my little plight. His pitch to me (and anyone who was listening) was very matter-of-fact: if you want a job, you have to take control and get out there and get after it. Every time I speak to a high school or college or association or corporation, I always read the excerpt about Phil’s appeal to me.
A lot of people have made a difference in my life. Steve Reibstein, a golfing buddy of a friend of mine, made a connection for me to get published. Phil Coleman, a homeless dude, lit a match under my butt that got me a job. You never know who is going to make a difference in your life.
When you had setbacks, how did you get back on track?
That was the ultimate challenge. I broke my toe. I got sick. I got into a vicious fight, and I don’t think I got in a single blow. But every time I hit a roadblock, I just figured, “Hell, it could be worse,” and that helped me to remember what I was doing in Charleston in the first place, that I had a goal and that nothing was going to get in my way.
What were the most valuable lessons you learned from the other working class individuals around you?
It was fascinating, most of all, for me to see the work ethic represented by my peers at the moving company where I ended up working for the duration of my time in Charleston. Some guys were sluggish and whiny and would come into work a few minutes late with their shirts untucked. Other guys came in with a mission. Derrick, for example, was the hardest working guy I’ve ever met in my life. Think about it: he wasn’t born and held to the moon and determined to one day be a mover in his life, but now, here he is, and he has plotted that he is going to be the best mover on the planet, regardless of his height or strength or athleticism.
Some attitudes differed from others, and that, I discovered, was the dividing factor between someone who was “making it” and someone who wasn’t.
What was your interaction like with the people you worked for? What did you do to find value and fulfillment in such difficult physical work?
The interaction with my coworkers was mixed: some people liked me; some didn’t. Derrick, thankfully, didn’t care that I was goofy with my floppy hair and daisy duke shorts. All he cared about was the fact that I worked hard and kept my mouth shut, and, thankfully, he took me under his wing.
The management of the company was happy to have me on the team because I didn’t create confrontation and I was accountable. They knew that I would be to work on time, that I would work hard, and that I would take responsibility when I rammed a dresser into a wall. Their only concern (sometimes, to their detriment) was the bottom line.
Finding value in physical work has always been easy for me. Growing up, I looked over a freshly-cut lawn, and, regardless of how much I got paid for it, I felt satisfaction in knowing that it looked (and smelled) better as a result of the work I put in. Moving furniture brought the same feeling. Unloading a full truck and placing furniture into an empty house, as grueling as it was, became one of my top three or four most fulfilling, joyous accomplishments. Seriously. When you walk through a freshly furnished house and think, “I did that,” there is a special feeling.
You spent quite a bit of time analyzing how other people around you worked and lived their lives. What did you find to be the most common distinguishing factor between those who succeeded and those who failed?
As I said, attitude was the separation. Good things are going to happen to us; bad things are going to happen to us. The only thing we can control is how we react to both the good and the bad. Are we resilient? Do we capitalize on the good and deal properly with the bad?
Put yourself in the shoes of Curtis at Fast Company, or anyone else making the decision to hire someone like you. What would you do to identify and attract “A” players like you or Derrick (While avoiding potential “problem” hires)?
I just finished reading the book Click. There is a lot to be said about initial, gut feel for a person, whether it is professional, social, romantic, or otherwise. Curtis pulled my application out of 65-80 other applications because he knew that he could count on me just based on what I was telling him. I’m not going to pretend to step into the shoes of an HR manager, but I think it’s not so difficult to acknowledge your visceral feeling, that this person sitting across from you is going to do good things for your company or not.
To learn more about Adam’s story, visit his website.