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Making your background work for you

By the time I sit down at my desk every morning, I have already made many choices: whether to hit the snooze one more time, what to wear, etc.  With other things, however, I had no such discretion. Family members and childhood upbringing fall under this category.

When I was growing up, I didn’t appreciate the fact that I lived on a farm where we raised our own meat, among other things.  Instead, I generally thought it was embarrassing and a real pain to take care of our animals, especially during New York winters.

My family’s activities didn’t exactly help my social life.  My siblings and I went to a small Catholic school in central suburbia but we shared the same bus as the public middle school students.  Our plaid uniforms and the age difference between my younger siblings and the other middle schoolers already provided prime fodder for our fellow bus passengers before our family’s lifestyle came into play.  The process of raising meat requires that the animal hang upside down for some time. My dad chose to do this procedure in the most practical place available- from the beams of the exposed part of our barn, the barn that was right next to our house.  Our bus would pass our house, turn around at the end of the road, and come back to pick us up, giving passengers twice the viewing pleasure of homegrown meat processes.  I am sure you can imagine the comments that followed.

FarmPublic high school improved somewhat since my peers were slightly more mature than in middle school and I no longer had to wear a uniform.  Still, my dad insisted that he bring in various “remnants” of our homegrown meat process to my biology teacher so that he could use them in lab. And, of course, gracious Mr. Melee would thank my family in front of every class, disclosing where it all came from.

Eventually, I started to use this unique upbringing to my advantage.  I applied to and was accepted in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.  Grades and SAT scores were important, but I think my personal essay about my garden design business- a product of working in the greenhouses on my family’s farm helped to win over the admissions committee.

After college, I moved to New York City and worked for a real estate brokerage firm.  I managed to land a meeting with the owner of a retail space in the dwindling wholesale fur district.  There, on West 30th Street, the owner proudly showed off his space that was filled with all sorts of animal pelts, including coyote.  Now in upstate NY, coyotes are major nuisances because they bother farm animals and can damage property.  I was shocked to see them in the commercial fur trade with such high price tags and began a conversation with the owner about coyotes, providing the context by which I am familiar with them. This common ground, a derivative of my agricultural upbringing, built major rapport with the owner and I ended up with my first exclusive real estate listing.

I eventually decided to pursue law school.  In looking for a job, I had to use everything to my advantage.  This included setting up informational interviews, attending networking events, and putting a positive spin on something that made me more unique- my background.  Attorneys generally found my ag background interesting because it is a not a very common precursor to practicing law.  Interviewers usually would ask about the garden design business listed on my resume. I could then talk about growing up in a farming family and about how working in agricultural and small business facilitates a strong work ethic, etc.

We have very limited control in some areas of our life, and, at times, we may not appreciate or see the value in our circumstances.  However, the challenge is trying to find a way to use it to your advantage. Like Randy Pausch put it in his Last Lecture, it’s not the cards you are dealt, but how you play the hand.