For 65 years my grandfather worked as a tailor at Learbury’s in Syracuse, nearly the entire duration of the company. He was a master of his trade, tailoring suits for mayors, governors and the uniforms for the Triple A baseball team in Syracuse (at the time it was the Yankees, now it’s the Nationals). He was the tailor for Governor Cuomo, driving his suits to Albany and often having dinner with the Governor and his family. Governor Cuomo liked having an Italian tailor, and my grandfather liked having an Italian Governor, so it turned out to be win-win for everyone.
When my grandfather came to America in 1935 on a ship called “The Rex,” he didn’t speak any English. His entire life had been spent in the Italian countryside. But his Italy wasn’t the idyllic image that is so often romanticized in travel magazines. It was poverty stricken, and provided citizens with limited opportunities for upward social mobility.
Arriving in America at age 15, he found himself in a cold, cloudy and snowy Syracuse, New York. Too young to legally work, he would sneak into Learbury’s through air ducts to evade labor inspectors.
And just a few years later he would be back in Europe. This time he was traveling by boat again, but not towards freedom and opportunity, but to protect the ideals that drew him to America in the first place – storming the beaches of Normandy during WWII.
I often think about my grandfather and the stark differences between our lives in terms of rights, privilege and opportunity. His job as a tailor was long hours and hard work. And like so many of his generation, he never complained and just went about working hard to support his family.
His experiences have certainly shaped my life and influenced my worldview, but they have also taught me a few really important lessons about navigating a career. So looking back at his career, there’s some themes that stand out to me:
- Be deeply passionate about what you do: My grandfather loved being a tailor, and was good at it, too. He always wanted people to be happy and healthy, and that came out in his work.
- Obtain mastery: He reached Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of mastery pretty early on in his life. He worked hard to constantly improve his craft. Although mastery was important, he was always looking to get better, and teaching others some his skills as well.
- Relationships matter: People loved him as a tailor, not just because of a superior fitting, but also because he had a fantastic personality. They enjoyed the experience along with the product.
I could list tons more lessons and share countless stories. But the thing about my grandfather that I have always loved was that whether he was fitting a suit for Governor Cuomo or a local salesman, it didn’t matter to him. Everyone was treated with the same class, dignity and service. Maybe that’s the real lesson.
Photo Credit: FlickR Creative Commons – Robert Crouse Baker