Green Baloney Feasts: What It Takes For a Shot At the Top

One of the easiest and most common things to do is look at people who’ve “made it” and say, “I wish I had that kind of success.” The truth is that this expressed wish is very rarely sincere. The simple fact is that except in unimaginably exceptional cases there is no such thing as a supernaturally lucky “big break” that just hands out wild success against all odds.

That’s just not the universe operates.

Reality has always been pretty very clear about  this: Getting to the top of any business, field, or market generally happens to those who sacrifice the most. Let me provide an example of sacrifice and suffering I learned first hand from the The Jets, a hugely popular band in the 80’s and 90’s.

JetsCrushOnYou

Many years ago when I was 15 I met an unusual family that changed the course of my life. My family was struggling after a financially disastrous sojourn to Arizona. We returned with lots of debt and no money, so we took up residence in a rather dumpy duplex.

We eventually had enough money to buy a very used green stationwagon that leaked an enormous amount of oil which we dubbed: the Lizard. Behind our raggy home was another duplex whose driveway was soon filled with a large blue bus. A huge family had moved in, and I was especially curious. I made friends with this enormous family (eventually totaling 17 children) who were dedicated musicians even though most were not even in their teen years. Eventually, I moved in with this family (21 of us in a 4-bedroom house), the Wolfgramm family, entirely and went to work for them. In doing so, I received the greatest education I would ever acquire in life: I learned the value of passionate purpose, maniacally hard work, and the health benefits of green baloney.

Because I was truly an aimless kid with no idea what to do with my life, I was immediately struck by how hard these kids worked just because they wanted to do. The older ones attended high school with me, but all of the kids would attend school, then return home and practice until the evening. Then, they would pile into a green cargo van (no insulation, no seats except for the driver and one passenger, no heat—entirely devoid of safety and comforts. Each weekday they would load the instruments in a trailer and take off to perform from 9pm-1am at local bars. They would return home by 2:30am and were awake and ready by 5:30am the next morning for school. I had never seen anything like it, and I soon became a regular companion to nearly every show. All along, they were still getting better grades than I was in school! These kids were something special.

As the oldest of us graduated from high school, things became even more serious. Their father’s vision of what the family could achieve became clearer, sharper, and more urgent. He felt the time was coming for a big break. At this point, they hired me to work as their sound man (a clear sign of a–Their incredible generosity and b– How short-handed the business surely was. because was I wasn’t a very good soundman). I immediately went on the road during a year where we did 200 shows in many different cities. It’s an exhausting lifestyle that leads other bands to turn to drugs, sex, and alcohol to pass the time and stay engaged. We were different despite the ubiquitous temptations. To this day, many people who became attracted to the positive message and example the Wolfgramms and I set express gratitude for helping them change their lives.

It’s important to know that during a grueling 18 month period I gained only a taste of the hard and satisfying work these kids had lived since they were old enough to dance or hold a microphone. They were stage veterans at 13, and I was an entirely green stage hand at just shy of 18. Each day on the road was spent:

  1. Driving to some remote city with a bar that reeked of stale beer and decades of cigarettes
  2. Unloading all the instruments, setting them up and rehearsing all day into the evening
  3. Taking a small break to eat a burger and soda before the show
  4. Playing 4 sets from 9pm to 1am
  5. Tearing down the stage, lights, instruments, etc. and loading it all in the trailer
  6. Driving all night to another remote city with a bar that reeked of stale bear and decades of cigarettes. (repeat steps 1-6)

If you do this long enough and with enough passion and stay united, good things WILL happen. Eventually, word got around about an amazing and talented family. We landed a pretty nice gig at John Escuaga’s Casino Cabaret in Reno Nevada where Jheryl Busby from MCA came to see the band perform. He was blown away, and an impressive recording contract followed.

JohnEscuagas

To the outsider who does not know the full story, how we froze in a van with no heat in the dead of Minnesota winters, how we ate moldy baloney, how we fit 15 people into a small hotel room, and how these kids had given up so much of the entirely wonderful and good play time that all their peers enjoyed—that outsider will most likely look at the final success and think, “I wish I could be a star like that.” As I said at the outset—that wish is usually not very genuine. Few people are willing to make the relentless sacrifices it takes to get there. However, for the kids who suffered and sacrificed, it wasn’t just a wish—It was a mission, a commitment, an incredible attitude for people at such a young age. I was fortunate to come in contact with them and “get” it. I became one of them in my drive to succeed among other things. I learned what it takes for a shot at the top of any endeavor.

As we turn our attention to business, family life, developing talents, and so on, we can learn a lot from Maikeli and Vake Wolfgramm and their remarkable family who remain my very closest friends to this day. The principles that led them to achieve their successes, including the great success they have their vast clan of children and grandchildren are ones that apply elsewhere—You need to eat a lot of ‘green baloney’ for a shot at the top, my friends. There are no shortcuts to the top.

–John R. Durant © 2011

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About John R. Durant

Drawing on years fostering innovation in the high-tech industry, most notably at Microsoft, John is a principal researcher at Savvysherpa building new businesses.
This entry was posted in Behavior, Innovation, Leadership, Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Green Baloney Feasts: What It Takes For a Shot At the Top

  1. Kat W Wilson says:

    John,

    That was a wonderful read,took me back to a certain place and time…WOW! Until you actually read it on paper,you don’t realize what a backwards kind of life we lived…hahaha! I so remember your familys duplex as you turn into our neighborhood on Boone Ave…so many memories…you were our little ‘palangi’ brother w/the gorgeous sisters! I’m picturing you at the soundboard w/an old Army jacket on (maybe one of my dad’s collections) Boone Ave duplex home was when MJ’s “Thriller” was the #1 video out,remember dreaming to be like the Jacksons at the time and was willing to practice hard to get there! The lil’ neon orange mailman car…loading the instruments up the slanted hill on the side of the house…The twins being born and Mika crying on a red velvet couch we had…Can’t believe we all fit in that lil’ duplex…clear memory (more of a smell memory) was when my dad shot that deer or elk on one of our road trips and gutted it in that basement…it reaked like the heck..but he ended up hanging strips to make deer jerkey! Thank you for sharing a little window into your memories living with us…You’re amazing John and we’re the fortunate ones to have you in our lives still!! Long live the green baloney sandwiches!!! LOL! Love you John Durant

    • I had forgotten that I was always wearing old army jackets your dad would give me. I admired him immensely, and I still do. For whatever reason, it was easy for me to make sense of his broken english and his eccentric ways. He had a message I was desperate to hear. He’s never been a follower– part of the herd. He’s a leader, a guy who goes his own way. We need more of those in the world! Blessings to you and the crew. I’m so glad you all know how much I love and care for you. It’s Endless.– JRD

  2. Lloyd Winston says:

    Wow! Hi John! Awesome story! I hope is well with you and that you’re having an awesome life.

  3. Andy Phillips says:

    Hello John. Wow… what a wonderful service you have performed by sharing the truth of what you and the Wolfgramms experienced on that very long and challenging road to success. I don’t know if you will remember me but I knew you, from church in Mpls, when I was one of the adult leaders in the Young Men’s program. I’ve got great memories of those times. I’ve even got photos I took of the Woflgramms when they were Quazar (pre-Jets days). I can vouch for everything you’ve said about them. I remember you and your situation at that time, and I’d love to reconnect with you. Your writing is on target and well written and this piece, in particular, is truly marvelous. In the meantime… keep doing what you’re good at!

  4. Jennifer Tupuola says:

    John,.I think you were the one who introduced us to Top Ramen,..a few steps up from the green baloney..for some reason you are in my memory when I first smelt and tasted that…it was the best thing ever at the time!! but unfortunately the bologne was still cheaper so having ramen was rare…I was only like around 5 or 6 @ that time…but I do remember the cold trips,…and waiting under bar tables til the shows were over,..it was cool watching people in those bars at first…then I started to realize that the same scene would repeat itself no matter what bar,..city or place we were in…it always ended w/ that smell you described! Thanks for sharing!

    • Ah, Jenny– I remember those days so vividly. I have forgotten very little. I always wondered what you were thinking during all those shows, during all that activity going on around you. You had then and still retain a special place in my heart.

  5. Jen says:

    What a great article! There are alot of great memories of the Wolfgramm’s, their dedication to music, to their fans, family, friends, everyone. I enjoyed the time spent at their house, it was always filled with so much love, peace, and a sense of belonging no matter who you were.
    I hope that they will come back home to perform as my children are constantly asking when they will be able to see the Wolfgramm’s again. We love you and miss you guys and all are looking forward to your return.

  6. John – this story was really touching! It really goes to show that hard work and dedication will do wonders! Nothing happens overnight and, sadly, many people think that they could just *snap* and they would be overnight successes. Truth of the matter is that the overnight successes sacrificed for YEARS to get to where they are. Thank you for posting this!

    • Thanks, Aly. It looks like you are also an example of what happens when you follow your passion and work hard at something. From what I can tell– you would never eat green baloney though! Or, if you did, you would make a great recipe for it!

      –JRD

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