Growing Up Poor On Petain Street: Lessons For Success

I had the advantage of growing up on 13 east Petain Street in Prichard, Alabama. It was a place filled with wonders for a child to discover and I had the advantage of time to discover them. Just in our backyard there were dozens of incredible things to see and learn. Grandmama kept chickens in a chicken yard. Did you know you can turn a jar filled with water upside down in a big, empty bowl and just enough water will come out to fill the bowl but never overflow it? It’s true. That’s how Grandmama watered the chickens and through a child’s eyes it was a magical feat.

I’m a long way from Petain Street now, but the further I’ve come, the more I am aware that it came with me – actually it paved my way and enabled me to do all I’ve done. Daddy, Mama, and the people in this neighborhood that straddled the poverty line knew what was important to them, and they gave me the values and lessons for success that made my life different.

It would seem an unlikely place to learn how to build a business, this neighborhood made up of working people and old people who were retired from the mills and spent long afternoons sitting in rockers on the front porches of their weary mustard-yellow mill houses reading their Bibles.

They were lonely and welcomed child’s visit. Many afternoons I sat on those rickety porches and listened to stories that fired my imagination and curiosity. Having a receptive audience taught me to the fun of being on stage and prepared me for my speaking and training roles later. Most important, I was learning, at a young age, the value of listening which translated directly into business success. I came into my career already knowing that how you listen is much more important than what you say. That knowledge won me clients and those clients stayed with me and became the foundation on which I built my business.

My daddy never owned a business or made much money. But he taught me the most basic rules for success: Do things you don’t know how to do. “When something needs doing, don’t wait around for someone else to do it or teach you to do it.” He taught me to get in there and figure out the next step to take because, “there is always just one next right step.”

That’s how Daddy learned to build a piano bench. Mine broke and there wasn’t money to buy a new one, so he took one right step at a time: he measured my old one, drew out his plan, figured out the wood and hardware he would need and the people he would have to employ to do the things he didn’t have the tools to do.  

The piano bench took him three years to finish, long after I stopped taking lessons. But what he created is beautiful, a work of folk art with tiny strips of wood inlaid in a geometric pattern, and sturdy enough to support a horse.

Daddy’s bench inspired the title of my book,  How to Build a Piano Bench: Lessons for Success from a Red-Dirt Road in Alabama.    It begins with Daddy’s step-by-step instructions for building a bench. They also apply to building a business or a life.

I hope people who read my book and this blog will be inspired and supported by the wisdom, humor, and lessons from Petain Street.

  • Live in the present. The people on Petain Street couldn’t afford to borrow tomorrow’s troubles or worry about things they couldn’t change and that only might happen. They had to live in the moment, face their problems, fix them, or mourn them, then get up and go to work in the morning.
  • Simplify and focus on your real priorities. They couldn’t afford to complicate things. They had to earn a living, put food on the table, and get Gloria some school shoes.
  • There are wonders all around you. You discover them when you look for them and expect to be amazed.
  • And always remember what my Daddy said: There is always just one right next step.

Happiness starts with self-acceptance. In my next post I will share some of my own flaws and mistakes. I hope reading them will give people permission to accept themselves, flaws and all, so they can lighten up and laugh out loud because laughter is healing and keeps you young.

December 14, 2016