Friday, July 3, 2015

Little brother is watching

May 1997

I had an unnerving experience recently. A young (under 40, by my standards) farmer from my area came up to me and remarked on my writing for Farm Journal and Top Producer. Then he said something that chilled me to the bone.

“You know,” he blurted awkwardly, “I’ve been watching you, and would kind of like to be like you”. I recoiled in horror. Heck, I don’t particularly want to be like me! I want to be one of those Guys Who Farm More Perfectly Than I Do - making tons of money, getting great yields, raising deliriously happy families, and commanding universal respect. Why on earth would this young go-getter want to copy me?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we all like to find a pattern - someone who is a little farther down the road of life who can provide an example of what to do (or in my case, what to avoid doing). Such people give substance to our hopes of what is possible, and give direction to our ambition. I have done this myself, and if forced at gunpoint, could name a number of farmers in my community and beyond who I have admired and surreptitiously copied. The business world has labeled this the mentoring process, and invested it with both rule and ritual, but for us farmers, it remains a quiet and unacknowledged facet of our professional development.

After some thought, I have postulated what I like to call the Half-Generation Rule. Basically stated, there is a tendency to look up to, and semiconsciously emulate, those who are roughly halfway between our fathers and ourselves. (Author’s Note: I will be using the father-son example here because that is the only gender case about which I can speak accurately. It may also occur with women, but I would be the last guy to know). I see several reasons for this.  

First, we all want an idea of what is coming up in the near future.  If I am 25, what will it be like to be 35?  What is it like to have teen-age children? What is it like to farm twice as much or lead an organization? How will I possibly get through such-and-such experience? What might happen to me then that isn’t happening now? This range of future - about 8-12 years - is of such compelling importance that we seek out those in this stage of life to see how they are functioning, and by some mysterious process, pick those who seem to meet our success standard to provide a model to follow.

Secondly, few of us can truly relate to being our parents’ age. Regardless  of the fact that enormous numbers of genes are slowly turning us into them, we find few prospects so horrifying or unlikely as this. I, for instance, cannot picture myself retired in Florida, wearing double-knit fluorescent yellow pants and eating supper at 4 o’clock. I doubt Dad ever saw this coming either, but I will certainly not be anything like him, despite what all my friends and family keep telling me. Although I cannot imagine what being 77 is like, I can, however, just barely imagine 57.  In fact, I am planning for it. Therefore, the people I watch are in their mid-50s. Not coincidentally, these are the same guys I started admiring in grade school because they were bigger and cooler than me. Gazing upstream on the river of time begins early in life, so the habit of watching this age group is one of long standing.

Third, in farming we like real, hard, see-it-to-believe-it evidence. The example of another farmer’s life lived successfully speaks decibels louder than any self-help book psychobabble. This is the force of tradition, and regardless of our statements to the contrary, it still has a powerful influence on our decision-making.  

Finally, we all have hopes and dreams, often unspoken to even our spouses and close friends. They usually seem foolishly optimistic or wildly ambitious, and are, therefore, our most closely guarded secrets. Perhaps you want to win some competition or recognition, own 1000 acres, grow 300 bushel corn, or occupy some position of respect and prestige. While arguably the idle product of fruitless fantasizing, I believe such visions to be the fundamental energy source for much of our career, and should be treated, not with embarrassment, but respect. In good times and bad, these images sustain our spirits and provide direction. But when you are a long way from actual accomplishment, keeping your mouth shut can prevent ridicule. 

Mentors can unknowingly provide needed and discrete justification for these hopes. More than a few of us have made something happen in our lives because we saw that it was possible in the life of a friend or neighbor. Moreover, the attitudes and words of such exemplars affect our own. If someone I admire is fearful and apprehensive about the future, for instance, I get concerned, especially because I assume their judgment and capabilities to be superior to mine. If they are worried, it may be time for me to panic! At least as powerful, however, is the effect of a positive and confident role model. 

And now the unthinkable was happening. I was serving as a pattern. Preposterous as it seems, you may be in the same boat, only you don’t know it yet. If you are midway or later in your career, and enjoy farming and show it in your life, it is a good bet that some younger colleague(s) watches you very closely. To put it more frighteningly, you carry dreams and hopes other than your own. By our actions, attitudes, and words we send messages of warning and encouragement to those who follow.

Whether this is actually occurring or not, it wouldn’t hurt to pretend that it is. Speak well of this profession in public. Be honest with doubts and frustrations, but also acknowledge joys and successes. Tread lightly around  the dreams of younger colleagues - your unthinking disapproval can be felt disproportionately.  And above all, remember you are helping to create the role models that your son and daughter may admire.

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