For too many people, staying in the family business is the easy way to worm out of difficulties of adult life: finding a place where you fit in, discovering what you love to do, and living with the fear of rejection. Especially today, with a dried-up job market, the family business is a way of avoiding a difficult job hunt.

I worked in a family business — a bookstore. I started when I was eight, selecting titles for the early reader section, and by the end of college I was a walking card catalogue. After so many years, I was the heir apparent to the store. But I wanted to do something else. I just wasn’t sure what.

Fifteen years and three careers later, I am certain that there are three things you should do before you decide to settle down with your family business for the long haul:

1. Figure out your dream job. Don’t worry about being realistic. Rock star, movie producer, politician: everything is fair game. Then decide if you want to go down the path to fulfill that dream. Don’t feel bad if the dream is impossible – many dreams are not realistic, but they contain gems of truth. For example, someone who dreams of being a rock star probably wants to be creative at work. The exercise of dreaming helps you to figure out your core needs. Once you know these needs, take an honest look at the family business. If you cannot fulfill your core needs in the family business, you should leave.

2. Get a job. Even if you are sure you’ll stay in the family business, get a job outside of the business. Job hunting sucks, which is why you should do it. The process is humbling and scary because on one level, you are asking someone to pay you to work so you can eat; at another level, job hunting requires understanding yourself well enough to talk about your dreams, your strengths, and your weaknesses. You need to experience what it is like to ask for a day off from someone who doesn’t love you. Working for someone outside your family helps you to interact effectively with all people outside your family. This process is a rite of passage, and if you don’t go through it, you risk stunted growth.

3. Take a large risk. If the entrepreneur is on the high end of the risk-taking scale, the kid who stays in the family business is on the low end. At the end of life, the thing people most often say they regret is not taking enough risks. Make sure that staying in the family business will not make you wish later that you were a risk taker. If you take a large risk early on, then you can be more certain that you are not staying in the family business because you are scared of taking risks. Risks are different for everyone — a mountain for one person is a molehill for another. Find something that scares you and do it.

Adult life is about learning what matters to you and creating a life that reflects your values. In order to know what’s important, though, you need to see the world. Take time to establish yourself independently from your family — at least for a while — so you can see yourself more clearly. Whether you stay in the family business or go somewhere else, you’ll be a happier person for making the decision honestly.

188 replies
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