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‘Your life is ruined—or maybe not.’

Posted by John T. Reed on

Today, I ended one of the most important chapters in my life: newsletter writing.

Started as a summer job

During the summer of 1976 between our two years at Harvard Business School, we had to get a summer job. “Had to” in the sense that we needed the money and in the sense that it was required by the curriculum.

A member of the MBA class of 1976 started a newsletter called Real Estate Investing Letter and offered a summer job writing it. Another guy and I were given the job of writing the first year of it.

That ending up lasting nine years for me. Then the publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich got out of the newsletter business and I started my own newsletter, Real Estate Investor’s Monthly.

41 years

In total, I have been writing either the HBJ newsletter or my own for 41 years. Will quitting cold turkey something you have done every month for 41 years be an adjustment? Probably. It has not sunk in yet. Yesterday, I had an idea for an article in the next issue—a habit one needs as a periodical writer. I had to remind myself, “There will be no next issue!”

But this event has a far more profound meaning to me.

Appalled and disgusted

In July 1966, right in the middle of my four years at West Point, I was sent to spend a month in the “real Army.” I was appalled and disgusted by the ass-kissing and signing false documents and changed my career plans from the Army to civilian life in the first ten days there.

We had to serve five years in the Army after graduation then. I figured, okay, I’ll do that then get out and have a civilian career. But I won’t kiss ass or sign false documents while I am in.

‘They wouldn’t dare…’

I figured my superiors would not be thrilled with those two vows, but that they would not dare do anything about it. I figured if some superior tried to bad mouth me, the Pentagon would call him and ask, “What is this bad efficiency report about? We observed the guy extremely closely 24/7 through four years at West Point and another year of airborne school, ranger school and three other officer schools. If he bore any resemblance to what you now claim, he would not have made it to sophomore year at West Point.”

Boy, was I wrong about that! The Pentagon did not give one damn.

‘Counseled’

So I got “counseled,” again and again by colonels and generals. The counseling session was comically uniform, as if they went to a school where they learned exactly how to justify ass kissing and signing false documents. Here it is:

Lieutenant Reed, you can’t change the Army. It may surprise you to learn that I was unhappy about some of the same things that you are unhappy about when I was a young lieutenant. I remember the time I had tickets to an NBA playoff game and the colonel scheduled a party for the same night. I was really angry when my company commander told me I had to go to the party. I told him I wouldn’t. But I had a good CO and he counseled me like I’m counseling you and it saved my career. I went to the party. I figured I had made my point by complaining to the CO about it.

You have to bide your time, Lieutenant Reed. You can’t change things when you’re a lieutenant. You have to play the game until you reach high enough rank that you have the power to change things. You have to pick your battles. This one isn’t worth it.

Let me give you a prayer that’s helped me, Lieutenant Reed. God grant me the courage to change what I can change, the patience to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference. I have friends who got out of the Army. They say it’s the same in civilian corporations. It’s the way it is everywhere.

So what do you say, Lieutenant Reed? Can we count on you to become a team player? Everyone else can’t be out of step.

My point-by-point refutation of this “counseling” session is in my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?”

To paraphrase the great philosopher Francis Albert Sinatra

When none of that worked, they would threaten me with bad efficiency reports, not getting promoted, and “things not going so easy on you.” And they carried out each and everyone of those threats. My efficiency reports had scores lowered than anyone had ever heard: 60, 40 ,7, 9, 92. I never made captain, which was then an automatic promotion on the second anniversary of your becoming a second lieutenant.

I never gave in to the pressure. As Sinatra said in 1969,

“I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way”

FTA

‘It’s not worth ruining your life’

That led to virtually all my superiors saying I had “ruined my life.” The lifers thought that if they bad-mouthed me in Army officer efficiency reports, that I would never get a job.

They even told my peers to tell me that, which they did. “Jack, we admire your courage and we agree that the stuff you are refusing to do is wrong, but we’re concerned that you’re going to ruin your life. And here in Vietnam, they are liable to transfer you to the front lines to punish you. You could get killed for not signing false documents and not kissing ass. It’s not worth it.”

That last sentence was the main mantra of my peers. The mantra of the colonels was “Lieutenant Reed, You can’t change the Army.”
.
My mantra was, “And the Army can’t turn me into a liar and an ass kisser.” Stalemate.

Scared

But I was scared. I was 23. The only jobs I ever had were paper boy and office boy. I thought they may be right. But I decided I would rather sell apples on the street corner than be the hypocrite they were trying to turn me into.

I also thought I was a good man and that you can’t keep a good man down. But I was not sure about that.

More than just jobs

And I thought that a “job” was not the only way to make a living. Maybe I could start my own business. But I did not know anyone who had. My parents worked at jobs and my father did ruin his life—by becoming an alcoholic. After he got fired twice, he could not get a job other than menial. His career had been 5¢-and-10¢-store manager.

So I researched the matter and came up with this. I strongly considered becoming a franchisee, like getting a McDonalds franchise. That way I would get help starting my own business and thereby perhaps escape the high failure rate for new businesses. But they cost far more than I had. And there were a lot of angry franchisees who felt the franchiser parent company had overpromised and underdelivered on the help.

How to be a self-made man

So I researched becoming a self-made man. I read that you needed to own your own business or invest in real estate. Having your own business while you were an Army officer was illegal, but you could invest in real estate, so I picked that.

You could borrow up to 100% of the purchase price in real estate; not so in franchising.

Anomalous interlude

I also figured the way my life would unfold would, with each passing year, make the couple of years I was getting bad reports in the Army look anomalous—obviously driven by some sort of hidden agenda.

And I can now say that was correct.

Before West Point I was a teacher’s pet, honor society, Boys State delegate, voted “Most Quiet Boy” in a high school class of 388. I vowed never to drink alcohol or smoke, and at age 71, still have never done either. I have been an “Eagle Scout,” figuratively speaking, my whole life.

The lifers said my seven months of army officer efficiency reports would prevent me from ever making a college-grad living. The opposite is true. Anyone who ever examined my life before and after those seven months reports would wonder what the hell is wrong with the Army.

And no one was ever interested. My mom tried to read the transcript of hearing where they discharged me from the Army a year early (honorable discharge with $4,600 severance pay). She could not read it. Too boring.

Average cadet

At West Point I was your basic average cadet. Many cadets do “battle” all four years with the academic department, OPE, tactical department, aptitude for the service, honor code. That is, they would flunk out and have to pass a test to get back in, flunk phys. ed. and other physical tests, get too many demerits, get ranked low in leadership by peers and older cadets, and have to persuade the honor committee that they did not violate the honor code after being accused of doing so.

I had none of those problems. I was placed in advanced math plebe year, on the dean’s list a number of times. I was one of the very best Russian language students. I was a DJ on the cadet radio station.

Top half of my West Point class in 1968-9

During my first year after West Point, I did better than average for my class, passing airborne and ranger schools (many of my WP classmates did not attend either and many flunked ranger), being recommended to be brought back to ranger school as an instructor (maybe 5% of my West Point class got that), passing a signal officer test that half my West Point signal corps classmates flunked, and so on.

The trouble I had all came in an 11-month period when I was in line units as a platoon leader, company executive officer, and company commander. And there was no such trouble in the first unit, the 82nd Airborne Division. By that I mean no efficiency report was written on me nor was I “counseled” during that four months. The battalion commander was a West Point grad, the only one I ever served under. So all the trouble came in the other seven months—in three different jobs os two different continents—under non-West Pointers who hated West Pointers.

Paid by results, not subjective evaluations

After I got out, I chose real estate agent as my first job. I figured it was straight commission so my results, not my ass-kissing or signing false documents would determine my career progress. Also, I figured if I tried to get some high-powered junior executive job, they might want to read my efficiency reports from my last job—the Army. For a straight commission job, I figured they would not care about that.

Not Oprah

That was essentially correct. The broker did not even ask about the Army. It turned out that I am a good man, but that selling real estate was not the right job for me. I have said the ideal person to be a real estate agent is Oprah. I am not Oprah. 

Ancient history

I also figured that my second civilian boss would only care about my first civilian job, not the ancient history of my Army job. Also correct. Plus I left the first job by way of a secret interview with the second. In other words, my second employer, a property management company, never called my first the broker because it was a secret that I was looking for another job. I had a six-year plan of two years agent, two years property manager, and two years mortgage lender to become a real estate investor. I ended up only doing half that because I became a grad student.

As an agent, I became the best cold caller for listings in the company and was made the training director of the firm. When we became the first realtor in the area to use computers, it got screwed up and they put me in charge of fixing it, which I did.

In the property management job I more than paid for my salary just becoming more aggressive at chasing tenants who did not abide by the lease. I also made a bad vacancy rate better and reduced our losses by cutting rents—a very bold, controversial strategy during a recession. I also successfully completed a whole bunch of real estate industry courses.

43-year marriage

Then I got married and got into Harvard Business School.

We celebrate our 43rd anniversary this June. Three sons who are graduates of Columbia, UC Santa Barbara, and Arizona and who are all homeowners and established in their careers. The oldest is married and has a seven-year-old daughter and a two-year old son.

At Harvard, I was president of the real estate club and co-president of the new enterprise club (the only two-club president) and the only columnist on the school paper. I graduated in 1977. Twenty-two of my West Point classmates are also HBS grads. My wife had gotten into the HBS class behind me and graduated in 1978.

Buying rental properties throughout

I had started buying rental properties in 1969, my first year after college. By the time I got out of HBS and moved to CA, I owned a 36-unit apartment complex in TX. I later traded that for 58 units.

‘Fame’

Since Harvard, I have written probably 15,000 articles and 36 books. I also did paid seminars, appeared on TV programs including 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. I was sort of the investment guru of the month twice in Money magazine, once in U.S. News. I was a top speaker at a number of national conventions. I have been in Who’s Who in America for so long that they gave me a lifetime achievement award. I have also coached 35 athletic teams and written ten books about how to do that. One of my books Football Clock Management changed the way football is played at all levels. My readers have won a bunch of championships including at the state and national levels.

My wife and I are multimillionaires.

In short, I think I proved I was right about not needing to sign false documents and kiss ass to have a decent life. And I think I proved I was right about not ruining my life and about being able to be self-employed and even get some jobs before my self-employment paid enough to go full-time.

How-to advice from those who never even tried

What about the lifers who “counseled” me that I had to play the game, that it was the same in civilian life, that I would never get a good job, yadda yadda? They were idiots who had never had a real job in their lives. They were afraid to leave the forts and bases where they hid from the real world. They know nothing about civilian life or getting a civilian job or about the existence of careers where you are rewarded for your results, not your ability to get some pompous ass brass hat to write a subjective report saying you are a worthwhile human being,

My analysis at age 23 of how my life could work out was far more accurate than that of the 40-somethings who were trying to make me sell out like they had.

Do not let anyone tell you you cannot achieve high goals—like making an honest living—especially people who never even tried.


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