Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Flashback 1996: Gramm puts foot down right on son's career

Jeff Gramm performs in South Korea. 
     A Chicago public high school asked me to speak at its career day next month. My initial inclination was to  decline—it would take a full day, and I'm not sure I can in good conscience encourage anyone to go into professional journalism. 
     Then I reconsidered, thinking that I might be able to say something about the value of pursing a passionate career long shot versus a safe, though less fulfilling path. And besides, who knows what I'll learn from talking to the students? That is, if I can remember to shut up long enough to listen to what they have to say. I told the school I'd do it.
    At the same time, I stumbled across this column from my first year as a columnist, that speaks to the subject. After the column, we'll catch up with what happened to the budding musician over the past 23 years.

     Hey, Jeff Gramm! Don't listen to your old man, Senator Phil. He was full of beans last week when he said he's giving you an entire year to become successful as a rock musician. One year to try music after you get your diploma, at the ripe old age of 21, and he's going to put his foot down and insist that you become a lawyer or a doctor.
     I read what the Texas Republican told the Dallas Morning News and could feel my jaw tighten: "I don't want him to look back 20 years from now, when he's lancing boils or doing wills . . . and say, 'I wonder if I could have been a big rock star?' "
    That's very generous of him. Very GOP. He's implying, of course, that in 20 years you're going to be either a boil-lancer or a will-maker, that your rock ambitions—your first recording is coming out in November—are a chimera and a lark, doomed to fail.
     Thanks, dad.
     Why do parents always do this, generation in and generation out? Listen Jeff, when you were in kindergarten, my father wanted me to go into computers. "They're writing their own checks," he said. He was right, of course, but that didn't matter. I didn't want to go into computers. I wanted, for some crazy reason, to be a writer. My father thought I was insane, and anticipated exactly the same failure that your dad is so helpfully predicting for you. Now, after it has all worked out, he's proud.
     Pressuring your kids to follow in your footsteps is a combination of ego, love and stupidity. It should come as no surprise that my father was a scientist. And gee, coincidence of coincidences, Jeff, yours happens to have been an academic. Small world. I guess having someone carry on the family genes isn't quite enough—you need somebody to pass your professional books on to.
     Now, I'm not saying that law and medicine aren't honorable professions, and you might eventually decide to go into either. But it should be up to you. Senator Dad should have the restraint not to make grand pronouncements about your career in public. But then, he's a Republican, and they like to blow off their big bazoos.
     Sure, music is risky. But law and medicine are no guarantee, either. I know people who flamed out of medical school and are on public assistance now. I know people who never made it past the bar exam despite the agony of repeated attempts.
     And even those who get through law or medical school aren't exactly tripping down the primrose path. Look at the number of lawyers who end up pitching their careers. I know a guy who quit the law and opened up a mustard shop in Wisconsin.
     Jeff, let me tell you a story.
     I went to Northwestern, a hive of ambition just as crawling with achievers as your University of Chicago. There was a guy in my class named David Friedman. When David got out of school, he decided to go into balloon twisting. He became a clown.
     I pitied David, but felt especially sorry for his folks. Four years at Northwestern—a fortune in tuition—down the drain. For what? So David could make balloon giraffes for 5-year-olds at birthday parties. Nice career move.
     But a funny thing happened. David got really successful. He traveled the world twisting balloons. His clown character, Silly Billy, became a New York fixture. He licensed the character out. He built a Silly Billy empire. He was profiled, glowingly, in the New Yorker. He made a bundle.
     Now, of course, it could have worked out otherwise. No guarantees in balloon-twisting either. He could have been just another anonymous clown, standing on a milk crate on the street corner. But you know what? Still, he would have been better off doing what he wanted than going into a field he didn't care about.
     Even if music turns out to be a difficult, unprofitable living (and it's a good strategy to count on that, and for a lot longer than a year) you might still like it, even if it cheeses off old dad (maybe especially if it cheeses off old dad). I'll bet there are 1,000 lawyers and doctors in Chicago who would walk away from their careers, right now, today, if they could be playing behind chicken wire in a Texas honky-tonk tonight. More like 10,000.
     I don't know how your dad plans to enforce his edict next year. Maybe he expects you to hop on command. Maybe he doles out a stipend and intends to yank it back.
     Take my advice. Let him. You only get one life—a life that dad and mom were good enough to give to you. Don't allow them to fearfully demand it back at the last minute. Have faith in yourself and, trust me, they'll fall in line, eventually.
     And besides. We already have too many doctors and lawyers who went into the profession to please their parents.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 1996

     Jeff Gramm's first album, Aden, named for his indie-pop group, was dubbed "an underrated classic" by one critic. The group put out three more, and performed until 2001. Then Gramm went to business school and into investing—he's now a respected hedge fund manager, author of a well-reviewed 2016 book, "Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism." 
     I caught up with him on Twitter. Like most dad's, his father's bark was worse than his bite.
     "He didn’t really enforce the one year deadline!" Gramm wrote. "I played music pretty full time (while temping to pay the bills) until late 2001."
     Does he regret the time lost, playing music when he could have been, oh I don't know, crunching numbers, or whatever it is hedge fund managers do?
     "I think being in a touring band was an incredibly valuable life experience that definitely helped with my investing career," he wrote. "No doubt."

     Phil Gramm, by the way, is doing well at 77, and has no regrets concerning his public skepticism about his son's choice of career.
“I knew Jeff would be successful," the older Gramm said. "I just wanted to live to see it.”
     There you have it. If I impart only one thing to the students, it is to get the single-straight-path-to-success notion out of their minds. Finding your life's work can be like fishing: you usually have to cast your line a number of times before you snag a keeper.


  1. Then there are also those who hedge their bets, not by giving investment advice, but by picking a run-of-the-mill career and pursuing music (or acting, painting, writing, what-have-you) as a sideline that might or might not blossom into a second career.



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