Rod Kackley

“Get a new job, and by that I mean a new boss, every three years.” That is the second most important piece of advice I received from a man who is no longer with us, Elzo Veenkant.

Elzo was tough. He worked as a general laborer in factories and farms in Kalamazoo County most of his life. Elzo probably did some factory work too. He’d lost a finger or two along the way.

How that happened, I don’t know.

However, I am willing to bet the only time he ever wore a white collar was at church on Sundays, and he never missed a Sunday in church. His wife, Gertrude, would never have allowed that.

Elzo and Gertrude were first-generation Hollanders. They were born, lived and died, in western Michigan, raising their family and living the last days of their lives in a house that Elzo built on a small, piece of property in Kalamazoo County’s Cooper Township, Michigan.

In their garage was a 1942 Ford tractor, the last thing that Elzo ever bought on credit.

This is a key life lesson: Stay as debt-free as possible. If the return on investment doesn’t beat the cost of the money, don’t do it. Elzo never had a job that offered him a pension. How many of us can relate to that?

Another key life lesson: No pension means no equity. No equity means no reason to stay. What about a pay raises in return for time served? Those add up, right?

The average pay raise in 2012, in the U.S. was close to 3 percent.That might be cost of living, but it is not raising your standard of living. The difference between getting a pay raise where you are now, and the hike in income you could receive by moving to a new company, is like the difference between arithmetic and mathematics.

Here’s an example. It’s a slice of my personal life. When I moved from an editorial position at a business magazine in Muskegon, Michigan to a middle-management position for a division of CBS Radio in Detroit, my salary nearly doubled.

When I came back to western Michigan a year later and took a position at the business magazine, my salary stayed at the level I was being paid in Detroit. I had scored a healthy pay raise and I didn’t even have to ask.

In my most recent position, there came a moment when I realized I was not happy. I also realized it was never going to get any better. The only thing I could hope for is that it wouldn’t get any worse. I was miserable.

Would it be any worse to be on my own, freelance writing, putting together a book, living off my savings?
My house was paid off. My cars were paid off. I didn’t owe anyone a dime.

I was miserable where I was working.
So I knew miserable.
I was there.
I didn’t want to be there anymore.
I set off on my own.

Wouldn’t I have been more secure if I had stayed with the same company, the same boss, for years? Do I even need to answer that question?

However, living as an entrepreneur does carry with it an element of risk. Not that you are not in danger of getting fired every day you show up to your old job and deal with your old boss, but moving to a new position or starting your own company does carry with it a bit of a gamble.

You have to love the risk, even when it does keep you awake in the middle of the night.

And it will.

That is why you need to stay as debt free as possible. When Elzo was building his house, he ran out of money. Instead of taking out a loan, his family lived in the half that was finished until Elzo could raise the money to complete the house.

No. It is not always easy.

When it gets tough — and it will — remember the best advice Elzo ever gave me, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

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Rod Kackley has written for Crain’s Detroit Business. The Detroit News, MiBiz and is a former news director for Grand Rapids’ WOOD-AM/FM. He is also the author of Last Chance Mile: The Reinvention of an American Community.

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