Are you giving up your best years to the pursuit of money so you can enjoy life after you retire? If so, you’re not alone. Far too many of us follow this path only realizing too late that there’s no such thing as a do-over but there’s a better way to live, right now with an unprecedented level of autonomy and authenticity. Do you hear your own authentic voice deep within you telling you it’s time to do something different?
If so, this book is for you. Craig A. Perkins was in the exact same spot, he stepped away form everything he knew to pursue a profound sense of purpose. His book, Against the Grain, chronicles his harrowing journey into the unknown through his early struggles and setbacks to his ultimate triumph, living life on his own terms.
This is the Author Hour Podcast and I’m your host, Frank Garza. Today I’m joined by Craig A. Perkins, author of a brand-new book, Against the Grain: Ditch the American Dream and Create Your Own.
Craig, welcome to the show.
Craig Perkins: Thanks for having me, Frank.
Frank Garza: To kick things off, could you please just tell us a little bit about your background and how that led to you writing this book?
Craig Perkins: That’s an interesting one. I grew up in a small New England town, Northeastern Connecticut, in a mill town. My mom and dad both made it through high school, my dad grew up, both of them kind of grew up poor. My dad grew up on a farm, went to the same high school I did and when he went to high school, it was always after doing the milking the cows and that type of stuff so we always went to school kind of dirty, smelling like manure and got made fun of. So, he kind of lived his life.
After that, trying to make up for that, trying to make sure people didn’t remember the kid, the poor farm kid in Putnam High, he kind of took the path where everything was about trying to look like he was wealthy. He chased wealth his whole life. My whole beginning was, I was an athlete, loved football. I really wanted to be a football coach when I grew up.
The biggest impact of my life when I was young was my head football coach, Bob Devout. When we came close to going to college, I had good grades in high school, I was an all-state running back in Connecticut, so I had a couple of universities looking at me for football but my dad was adamant. I had to be an engineer like his good friend, Eric, who lived in one of the biggest houses in our area.
I buckled, I listened, I went to school, graduated as an engineer, got a job with a Fortune 500 company, became the youngest plant manager in the history of the company but I eventually realized I was just living someone else’s dream. I was living my dad’s, it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy it. When I became plant manager, they put me into a new division. All the joint management I had done with the local UAW, local union kind of got tossed out of the door and I was asked to start laying off people who had helped me save the plant.
It just came to the point where I had to make the decision to leave. When I did leave, my buddy and I, the Chief Cost Account and started a consulting company. We were doing the same thing for small manufacturing companies — no implementing just in time systems, lean systems — but I was running into the same issues where owners who just would not allow their workers to have a voice in the business and I was just getting kind of lost along the way but during my time as a plant manager, I kind of had a couple of scares that kind of led me on a direction of my purpose.
My mother’s mom, my maternal grandmother, had died young at 51 of a massive heart attack. My mom had cholesterol deposits under her eyes, which she had to get lasered off. I remember that as a kid and my brother and I were always taking cholesterol samples, blood tests, all our lives. I kept mine in control, playing sports, being very active but on the way up the corporate ladder, I kind of forgot about fitness. I was eating junk food, drinking coffee all the time.
I became plant manager, they did a blood test and I remember getting a phone call from my family doctor and he said, “Craig, you got it, something’s up here. You got to make a change, your triglycerides were 1,400 and there were so much blood fat, we could actually see the yellow fat in the vials of your blood when we took them.” So that kind of pushed me in the direction of leaving and then when I did leave the company, I had those couple of years of consulting and it really gave me a time to focus back on fitness. My study became a personal trainer with National Strength and Conditioning Association.
It really — I became more than passionate, I was obsessed with fitness. I totally got myself in the best shape of my life. My doctors were dumbfounded on how everything turned around for the positive and I remember one day just sitting there and saying, “How about owning a gym?” That’s where it came down to, I found a gym for sale through a local consultant that specialized in selling fitness businesses and I bought an old family World Gym in Enfield, Connecticut.
Frank Garza: Yeah, as you talked about the influence that your father had on you, in the intro, you also talked about an influence that your grandfather had on you. You said, he died a happy and fulfilled man without ever living in anything nicer than a single-wide trailer. Is that something you could appreciate [when you were] younger or is that something that you didn’t appreciate until later? I guess, I’m wondering what kind of influence your grandfather had on you as you were growing up and making these decisions as well.
Craig Perkins: That’s interesting because I really — I say in the book — I followed two different paths of very important men in my life; my grandfather and my dad, and my dad was very, very powerful, he would tell you what he wanted you to do. My grandfather, a little Italian guy was very meek so he wasn’t as forceful, so I tended to listen to my dad when I should have listened to my grandfather.
My grandfather’s one of the nicest, calmest people I’ve ever met in my life, worked at a rubber factory for his entire life and just really enjoyed playing golf, going bowling where my dad was always struggling to buy more, get more. It’s too bad, I didn’t listen to my grandfather early on but I didn’t.
Frank Garza: I’d like to hear more about this decision you made, because a lot of people maybe are stuck in a corporate job and I know your book is something that can help them kind of map out where to go from there. I’m always curious about people who do leave that corporate job and pursue something else, what that decision-making process looks like. Was this like a big plan you put together months-long to leave your job and if it is, I’d love to hear about it or was it more kind of spur of the moment type decision?
Craig Perkins: It really was more of a spur of the moment. I had slowly gotten — every time I got promoted, I got closer and closer to the upper management of the company and I kind of saw what was going on there.
I say in the book where I was, as a plant manager, I was taken into the operations managers’ office. My boss, he actually said to me, “Hey, Craig, finish goods inventory is with a bonus we’re going to get based on — the bonus we’re going to get at the end of the year is based on finished goods inventory. I need you to shut down your start operations at the plant.” I remember just looking at them and saying, “I can’t shut down the start operations at the plant. I mean, there’s bearings in there that are waiting to be installed on downed aircraft” and he said, “I’m sorry.”
I moved from down south to up north, it just cost me a lot more money for a house and I need that bonus for my mortgage. I mean, it’s that type of things that I started saying, “Wow, what in the world am I doing here?” At the end, they actually took me and put me under a new division, like I was saying, that really wasn’t union-friendly. They had bad relationships with unions in the past and I basically got sat down with my new boss and said, “Hey, you may have done a lot of good things here for the plant but we don’t like the way you have the union so in bed with you and know everything that’s going on here, so that’s got to change.”
That was the final kind of gun to my head where I was like, “Okay, this isn’t going to work for me anymore.” I had at least been thinking about consulting. I knew I always wanted to own my own business. That was kind of the least costly way of my partner and I to print up some business cards and some canned flakes and go and do what we already knew what successful because we had already done it at the plant. It was maybe over the course of six months, the decision was made.
Frank Garza: You’ve written a book, it’s called, Against the Grain. Can you talk about why you decided to write that book and who is the target audience that you wrote it for?
Craig Perkins: I mean, I really wrote the book for my daughter. Just so she would always have a map for negotiating the path called life, which we all know isn’t easy, but I also wrote the book for all the people like me who will listen to their parents or their teachers or basically, society as a whole and believed what I consider the lies.
What I mean by that is, get straight A’s in high school, pick a profession based on high income and social status; doctor, accountant, lawyer, engineer and go to the most prestigious college that will accept you and then get out, land a fortune 500 job and claw your way up the corporate ladder. Get used to driving in a nine to five traffic, be happy you get your three or four-week’s vacation that the company allows and then basically do everything in your power to keep up with the Joneses.
You have at the end, you end up in golden handcuffs if you’re successful with the company, when you retire after 40 years, building someone else’s business and you hope to have fun for the last 15 years of your retirement. I really wrote the book for them because what I realized myself and when I realized looking at a lot of my friends who never left, who never made the move, they end up stressed and working in a very unfulfilling job, they get a big mortgage, don’t have a lot of savings, got leased car in the garage.
They’ve got lots of toys, as usual to keep them busy on the weekends and most of them are addicted to some type of drug or alcohol just to get through it. That’s what they call the American Dream in the United States, that’s considered normal. That’s why the subtitle of my book is “Ditch the American Dream and Create Your Own” because I know what happens in that life.
I mean, most of those people met at the end of every weekend, as they’re getting ready to go to bed and set the alarm clock, they’ve got what everyone calls the Sunday Scaries. That dull feeling of dread, when you know, “I’ve got the next five days ahead of me and I’m really not into this”. I think they go to bed and they’re saying to themselves, “There’s got to be something better than this but I just don’t know where to start.” I really wrote this book to help give them a map.
I’ve been there. I bought the life, hook, line and sinker. Like I said, when I was young, I listened to my father and I went down that path and to everyone — I remember when I was plant manager to the outside world — I was a complete success. I was in my early 30s making over six figures, recently married and a new homeowner. I mean, it’s just life but the higher I went up the ladder, I just didn’t like the culture of upper management.
Embrace What Gives You Goosebumps and Develop Your Vision of Freedom
Frank Garza: I’m going to quote you something from the book. You say, “The single most important lesson I’ve learned in life is this: Success in life requires listening closely to your authentic self.” Can you talk to me about why that has been the most important lesson you’ve learned in life and how you figured that out?
Craig Perkins: I think it’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned, just like I said, because so many of us are so worried about what other people think about us and what we’re going to do that we just give up, we just don’t do it. We’re so worried about fitting in and going along with the herd that we just don’t take the time to say, “I’m just not living authentically,” you know?
For me, it’s one of the most important things that anyone has to do if they want to follow a path called against the grain. They really have to get back to listening to their authentic self.
Frank Garza: Did you have any breakthroughs where you were able to do that for yourself or any tips you can pass on about people who really are trying to listen to their authentic self? How can they do that?
Craig Perkins: I think it’s a lot of personal reflection, it is a lot of — I did Jordan Peterson’s Understand Myself, you know, online personality tests, 16personalities. I really talked to friends, talked to people who knew me when I was younger, what was I like then. It’s kind of weird, you can kind of forget who you are when you get in that society’s rut. I think you can do tough things. You can do a Spartan Race, you can say, “I’m going to do a three-day fast.”
It’s funny but when you do some of those tough things, the excuses go away and you can actually think and you can actually get back to talking to that person who you really are.
Frank Garza: You talk about in the book a term called, “vision of freedom”, developing like a vision of freedom for yourself. Can you talk about what is a vision of freedom and how somebody can map that out for themselves?
Craig Perkins: It’s really about looking at your life as a whole. In the book, I reference James Altucher’s 10 Commandments of Freedom that I have read in an article and I distill that down to four or five where it is basically, you got to — before you take this path, before you try and break away from corporate America or start living a more authentic life, you at least have to know what does freedom mean to you.
For some people, freedom could mean becoming sober. For some people, it’s got more of a financial thing but for me, it’s really in terms of finance. Financial freedom is pretty simple, it’s you spend less than you make but the freedom from not carrying about the expectations of others, you know the freedom of not having toxic people in your life. They just always try and put you down and say, “What are you trying to do? That’s crazy” because they are just so scared that someone else is going to be successful and they’re not.
It is just important before you go down this path to say, “What does freedom need?” and to me, freedom was a really important thing because when I looked at freedom, it was all about autonomy. So I have lived my life since I left corporate America, once I figured this out, by always answering the question when something big or some big change came, I’d always ask myself, “Is this giving me more autonomy or less?”
I ended up owning the World Gym, became one of the early Planet Fitness franchisees and I am good friends with the founders of Planet Fitness, Mike and Marc Grondahl. I remember Michael, the oldest brother, always saying, “God Craig, Don’t you want to own three, four, five, six of these? You’re one of the smartest guys we have in franchise system, what’s up with you?”
It’s funny because I had come from being in charge of 500 employees and the 50 million sales from my factory and chaos of working 12 hours a day. I had found the trick for me with Planet Fitness, the World Gym that converted to a Planet Fitness. I had a little 12,000 square foot gym. I put in great systems and I allowed myself to be able to work four hours a day and then for the second four hours to leave and go do what I wanted to do.
I’d found this marriage of authenticity, fitness and helping people regain their fitness like I did, which was I was passionate about it. So going to work was a blast and then I had mentioned, I was smart enough to say, “Hey, I don’t want to do all the work here. Let me make sure my manager understands that he gets paid a good bonus for running this place like he does” and it gave me the autonomy to go race motocross, go race go-carts and really enjoy my life.
When Micheal would call and say, “Come on dude, you know open up five, six, seven more. I will even loan you the money. We’d love to partner with you.” I was like, “Sorry, Mike.” It’s just my autonomy means that much to me. I want to able to live kind of a carefree life. I’m making good money with one, I just don’t want more.
Frank Garza: Yeah, it reminds me of another quote from the book that stood out to me. It says, “Once you set the bar for the level of autonomy you want in your life, please don’t keep trying to move it higher. Know when to say enough.” I mean, that is so hard to do. Have you seen a lot of people struggle with that as they’ve gone through similar processes of you that you did?
Craig Perkins: Oh yeah, I mean, I really have. I had another friend in Connecticut that ended up opening five Planet Fitness’s where I had my one and eventually, the owners from Planet said, “Hey, we need you to go down there and help out.” It was the same thing, it was a lot of work. It was 10 or 12 hours a day to handle something that big. I have seen a lot of people when we were consulting.
There was a — it was one of our first consulting clients. We helped, went in, helped this sheet metal factory become way more profitable but he was an ousted vice-president of a large corporation. He was just fixated on getting his standard of living back. He hadn’t moved into a condo, left his big house in Harvard. It was just more, more, more. It was like, “Okay, I’m going to buy another company” and he had friends in the banking industry that allowed him to do it mostly on debt.
He was greatly into debt but had a much bigger business, bought a big house again, had the Range Rovers, sending the son to private school and then a couple of customers left that went from sheet metal to plastic. He completely lost the business, went bankrupt along the way. It actually happens a lot in business. It is sad to say that’s why I always try and warn even any clients I’m working with or any people I’m giving advice when it gets into business.
I always say “don’t shoot too big, start with one make it really good. Make it nice and profitable. Make sure you have some free time to yourself then make a decision.” But a lot of people, they see the income coming in from one successful one then immediately say, “Well three, that’s three times the money” and they just — they don’t realize that it can get, even your own business, if you allow it to grow too big too fast, it’s just like having a corporate job again. You are working 12 hours a day and you don’t have a life.
Frank Garza: Yeah, I can see that. You also talk in the book about how going down this new path is not always going to be easy, there is going to be a lot of obstacles, it’s going to be a lot of hard work. Would you be willing to share one of the biggest obstacles that you faced or perhaps even a failure as you are going through these journeys yourself?
Craig Perkins: Yeah, I remember early on in the gym days, we were — it was World Gym. My partner and I, Elliot, had just been a year into the business and I could kind of tell things were going a little bit slow with membership. The previous owner had put no money back into the business. I was like, “I’ve got to spend some money on new equipment.” I kind of pulled the plug, spent $15,000 on some plate-loaded equipment and it started doing exactly what I wanted it to do.
I mean, the membership started growing. The members are really happy saying, “Thank god you guys are investing some money back in the business,” but little did I realize my accountant was using that money to flow to pay the bills, so one day, I remember literally where his wife walked in and just handed me a bounced check and said, “Hey, the rent bounced, what’s going on here?” So that’s — I remember panicking and saying, “What’s going on?”
But it’s those types of things, it’s those types of issues are always going to happen. You don’t see them coming and then I just— and that’s why I tell people you don’t do what I’m expecting to do, you don’t go jump into a business that you don’t have a real passion for because it’s going to get tough and if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s so easy to call it quits. I was lucky, my mom and dad actually let me borrow $35,000 and it kept the gym open for another 17 years.
I was one of the lucky ones but you know, one of the reasons why I just wasn’t willing to give up because I was finally doing what I consider my purpose, helping other people increase their fitness like I had done for myself.
Frank Garza: Well, writing a book is such a feat. Congratulations and thank you for putting this out into the world. Is there anything else about you or the book that you want to make sure our listeners know before we wrap up?
Craig Perkins: I would just say to go against the grain with the goal of finding your own freedom. It is going to be quiet, that you start listening to your authentic self, just like we talked again and really, the second step is you’ve got to embrace what gives you goosebumps. To me at least, whenever I get goosebumps. I mean, something is connecting with me on an emotional basis that is real.
Then the steps are, you’ve got to have the discipline of the work before pleasure. If you think you’re going to be able to follow this path and on the weekends, you’re binge-watching the latest Netflix series, it just doesn’t work that way. The other real big issue we didn’t kind of touch base but I think is critical, is you have to become friends with fear. I mean, fear is an integral part of this process and I even laugh with my wife.
I always say, “Hey, if you’re not fearing, if there is nothing in your life that you fear, you are stagnant.” You are just not growing. I would say that it’s a great life. I mean, I hope way more people read this book and say, “Okay, this can be done.” But it is really is a process and it really starts with knowing who you are and really what gives you goosebumps and then that will give you the motivation not to give up because there are going to be obstacle after obstacle.
Frank Garza: Craig, this has been such a pleasure. The book is called, Against the Grain. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?
Frank Garza: Thank you, Craig.
Craig Perkins: Thank you, Frank.