Mark Kennedy: My life-changing summer of 1977

·4 min read

Jun. 26—My older son and I were sitting on the back patio last Sunday, and I was in the mood to talk. I had mentally rehearsed what I wanted to say, which is such a codger thing to do.

As I age, I feel compelled to offload knowledge. Whether the 19-year-old is in the mood to listen is up to him. But on this morning he listened politely and nodded occasionally, which, as a parent, is all you can ask.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I sold books door-to-door in Indiana?" I asked.

"No," he said, smiling.

"Yep," I said. "Bloomington, Indiana. I was your exact age, 19. It was the summer after my freshman year in college."

It felt like a "back-in-my-day" speech, but I had a point to make, darn it.

I went on to explain that after a dab of success the first day selling Bibles in rural Indiana, I turned out to be stunningly bad at door-to-door sales. I didn't have the personality or the strength of will to be a peddler. Within a month, I was back home in Middle Tennessee, broke and looking for a job.

"I failed at selling books, but I learned a lot about myself," I told my son. "Failure keeps you humble, son, which is one of the most important traits you can have as an adult. The fact that I even tried something that I was not suited for still gave me a boost of confidence."

After I returned to my hometown in the summer of 1977, I landed a job at a General Electric plant that made window air conditioners. My job was to load and unload a furnace the size of a one-car garage. I would push in carts stacked with evaporator coils and, after a few minutes, pull them out.

Occasionally, one of the metal coils would fall off in the furnace, and I would have to take a step inside to rake it out, leaving a boot print in the super-heated furnace floor with every step.

I worked a lot of overtime and made a lot of money. Overtime pay was about $7.50 an hour then, which was three times minimum wage — not bad for a 19-year-old in 1977.

"I was miserable selling books," I told my son, "but I was good at plant work. I would count the money I was making in my head and dream about buying things."

As an introvert, I was comfortable with a solitary, nose-to-the-grindstone job. As the son of a former Army master sergeant, I was also used to hard work and respected the chain of command.

Succeeding at plant work in the face of my book-selling fiasco helped me build more confidence.

It didn't occur to me until years later, but the summer of 1977 was a valuable gateway into adulthood. Even though I was good at plant work, I realized that I didn't want to work in a shoe-melting job forever, so I buckled down in college. And selling books — although I ultimately quit the job — taught me that taking a risk might bruise my ego but it wouldn't kill me.

The moral of this story, I told my son, is that confidence and humility are complimentary traits, not opposites.

Think of confidence and humility as two ends of a seesaw. If you have confidence without humility, you'll be stuck feeling self-important. If you are humble but lack confidence, you will almost certainly fall short of your potential.

"So, as hard as it sounds, try to be both humble and confident," I told my son. "Smile when you succeed, and brush yourself off when you fail. When you figure out that balance, adulthood will be a lot easier. ... OK, that's the end of the Father's Day sermon. Thanks for listening."

With that I slapped my thighs. We both stood up and went back inside to soak up some air conditioning.

Will he remember my advice forever? Perhaps. Or did he forget what I said by lunch? Maybe.

Either way, no worries. I'm confident that I said what I wanted to say, yet humbled by the awesome challenges of being a dad.

Email Mark Kennedy at

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