Lessons From a Trailer Park: Part 1

Written by: Jeff Abernathy, Principal, Cyber Group Inc. 

Strange concept, but it is very true… As a kid, I had 3 magical summers spent with my retired grandparents at the trailer park in East Texas where they lived. If you are familiar with the book Dandelion Wine (by Ray Bradbury) about a boy’s magical summer, then you understand what I mean. During those 3 summers, as a thirteen, fourteen and fifteen-year-old kid, I felt like I “ruled” the park. I would make my rounds each day and talk to everyone. They all knew me by name. I would stop and talk with each person and learn the news of the day, which usually consisted of how they slept, aches and pains, what was going on in politics and if they needed any help doing anything. I made some great friendships there with people 50, 60 and even 70 years older than me. And over the course of my 3 summers, I built quite a good business too. It was during these summers I learned several important lessons that, although I did not know it at the time, would help me be a good consultant. Recently I started jotting down these lessons. Over the next few weeks, I will share them with you: 

Lesson 1 – Listening is a superpower

Lesson 2 – You must genuinely care

Lesson 3 – Always maintain your networks

Lesson 4 – Your reputation is everything

Lesson 5 – Know when to ask for help

Lesson 6 – Do the job right

Lesson 7 – Know when to walk

Lesson 8 – You need the right tools

Lesson 9 – Sometimes you work for free

Lesson 10 – Little things matter

Lesson 11 – Balance the work with the fun

Lessons 1-3: Listen, Care, Network

The first three Trailer Park lessons are: 1. Listening is a Superpower; 2. You must genuinely care; and 3. Always maintain your networks.

I have always loved talking with people older than me. It started with my Grandfather. He had the best stories about growing up in a small town south of Dallas, and paying his own way to go to the University of Texas during the great depression by working at an ice house. He was a great storyteller. I would listen to him for hours at a time.

Having this as my background, when I took my first walk through the trailer park that first summer, I would wave at the retired folks on their porches and they would typically wave at me to come join them. I really looked forward to what I might hear or learn about them. I cared about what they were going to say, and as a kid, of course I had nowhere to go and was in no hurry.

I think they could see I was excited to hear what they had to say by the way I would ask questions, “What happened?” or “No way! What did you do next?” It was fun to see their eyes light up talking about “the good old days”. I still enjoy finding that topic that gets people to open up, or that topic that gets someone excited. It is fun learning about the new people I meet and what they are passionate about. In conversations with my Trailer Park friends, by actively listening more than talking, showing respect, and staying engaged, they could tell I really cared about what they had to say. 

During these conversations with folks at the Trailer Park, something else happened naturally and unintended. When they asked me about my summer, or what I have been doing, it gave me a chance to talk about me. For example, I would say, “Oh, I built a fire pit for my Grandmother”, or “I painted the wood “skirt” under their mobile home”. Then usually the person I would talk to, would say, “oh that reminds me, my windows need washing”, or “can you do the same for me”. I was so excited the first time that happened. I wasn’t intending to get work from the conversation; but, it was an unintended outcome of just talking with folks. 

I found by walking through the Trailer Park a few times a week, and just stopping to chat with folks (e.g. networking), my work backlog stayed full. I learned that staying visible to folks, listening to them, and them seeing that I was enjoying the conversations (i.e. I cared), it had a bottom line impact to my wallet… Which I am a little embarrassed to say was plastic, western styled and had a snap to keep the money in it.

Lesson 4: Your Reputation is Everything

In the evenings during those summers at the trailer park, the other kids staying with their grandparents would get together, walk around, go fishing, or sit around a campfire.  I happened to be sitting after dark talking with one of the other kids on a picnic table next to where she was staying with her grandparents.  About 10 o’clock her grandfather must have seen me, and not knowing who I was, yelled (quite loudly) at me to “get on out of here!”.  As I was quickly trying to leave, my friend simply said to her grandfather, “Pops, he’s an Abernathy”.  Pops’ tone got immediately calmer and warmer and he apologized and invited me to stay.

This made a profound impact on me.  He didn’t know me, but he knew my Grandparents (both sets) and what kind of people they were.  Which by association, made him infer things about the person that I was.  This association made him believe I was probably an ok kid.  When I got back to my Grandparents trailer I told them about what had happened.  They reinforced the importance of my name and the importance of upholding its reputation. 

I have thought about this throughout my career.  Thinking about my actions and how it impacts my reputation.  For example:  How do I treat people?  How do I expect people to treat me?  Do I do quality work?  Am I fair?  Am I reasonable?  Am I honest and ethical?  Do the companies I join share my values?  Do they say what they mean and mean what they say?

I might have overstated it when I said “Your reputation is everything”.  It is super important, but I can’t control what people think of me.  But what I can control is doing my best to be true to myself, my faith, my family, my friends and my colleagues.  When I am doing this well, I have found that I am the happiest and the other stuff usually works out.