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From a young age, I was taught that there is honor in any job well done and that there is opportunity around every corner. All it takes is a goal, a desire to get there, and a lot of hard work. My family’s story is the embodiment of the American Dream: If you work hard, good things will happen.

Alex Brothers Lunch

My grandfather Kosta Kordovich was born in 1911, and as British Minister RI Campbell described, grew up in a world that

“the Government has carried out in this area, with greater or less severity, a policy of suppression and assimilation. In the years following the Great War, land was taken away from inhabitants and given to Serbian colonists. Macedonians were compelled to change names . . . and the Government did little or nothing to assist the economic development of the country.”

As an ambitious young man who wanted to improve his lot in life, he knew he would have to leave his homeland. So my grandfather, his father, and his brother left Macedonia to Alex Brothers Lunchpursue the American Dream. Each day my grandfather would go to his street corner in Rochester, NY and shine shoes. He started to earn some money and eventually learned English by talking to his customers. He knew that if he did a great job, was reliable, and was friendly, his customers would keep on coming back. Seeing the connection between hard work and opportunity, he started working a second job as a short order cook at a restaurant with the dream of opening his own restaurant someday.

That first restaurant wasn’t much. In fact my grandmother couldn’t keep from laughing when describing the first time she saw the restaurant – “Your grandfather wrote me that he was a successful businessman in America and that he owned his own restaurant. When I finally saw it, all I saw was a hole in the wall. I started laughing and asked him where the rest of the restaurant was. And he proudly said that this is THE restaurant.”  

Baba and Dedo RestaurantOf course my grandfather wasn’t done. He perfected his hot sauce recipe, used nothing but the best ingredients, and worked around the clock improving his business. As his business grew, he eventually outgrew his “take out” window. He ultimately opened up Alex Brothers Lunch, which was to West High School in Rochester, NY what Arnold’s was to Jefferson High School in Happy Days. Everyday he would wake up at 4:30 am to do all of the prep work, make his now famous hot sauce, make the coffee to his exacting specifications, and work the grill all day – never making a mistake on any of the 100’s of orders he would take each day.

The Myth of American Meritocracy?

None of this would have been possible in Macedonia during the first half of the 20th century. More importantly, none of this would have been possible without my grandfather’s drive and hard work. But that was then. Is the American Dream a myth for today’s generation?

It’s been popular lately to question the American Dream and the American Meritocracy.  Armed with plenty of statistics, some conclude that “the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated”. As they define economic outcomes, it is difficult to argue: Even though they worked hard, my parents and grandparents never made it the top 1% of income earners, their children never got accepted into an Ivy League school, and not one of us is independently wealthy, or received a huge inheritance. However, I don’t think that is the true measure of the American Dream. The fact that we are one generation away from dirt poor farmers in an oppressed land is success. . . . So I think the dream is still alive.

The only myth of the American dream is that some people think it should be easy. This myth is perpetuated by get rich quick stories, people becoming famous when their post goes viral, reality stars with little real talent that become nightly news material, etc..

So, over 100 years after my grandfather’s birth, I was surprised to see such staunch support for hard work coming from a movie star.

Ashton Kutcher: Opportunity looks a lot like hard work

When accepting his award at the 2013 Teen Choice Awards, Ashton Kutcher said

“I believe that opportunity looks a lot like hard work. When I was 13, I had my first job with my dad carrying shingles up to the roof, and then I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant, and then I got a job in a grocery store deli, and then I got a job at a factory sweeping Cheerio dust off the ground. And I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so opportunities look a lot like work.” 

Pretty solid advice.

Opportunity is there for everyone that wants to take a shot at it. It’s not quick, it’s not guaranteed, and it will take a lot of hard work. But that opportunity is still there. It’s important to have a goal, work hard, and get started – no matter where you have to start. For all that my grandfather accomplished in his life, I will always remember the gleam in his eyes when he recalled how good a shoe shiner he was, “I sure could take those shoes and make them shine”.

About Leadership Stories

Leadership stories are drawn from the bedtime ritual at our house which usually finished with “Dad tell me a story”. These stories are about our family: Who we are, where we came from, and the sharing of life lessons that were passed on to me. As I told the stories, it became very clear to me the significant impact that they have had on my life, my career, and my leadership style.