“Cheaper by the Dozen”: Learning the Facts of Life

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Cheaper by the Dozen is not a business book, nor would it be characterized as great literature. But it is the book that changed me because it opened my eyes to the many facts of life. Cheaper by the Dozen opened my eyes to storytelling, time management, the importance of observations, experimenting on ideas and behaviors, finding humor in the most mundane and the importance of family.

The book is not widely read today so a refresher – it is the true story of the Gilbreth Family. Between 1905 and 1922 Frank and Lillian Gilbreth produced twelve children, a feat in itself that was beyond my wildest imagination. It was first published in 1948 and went on to become a best seller.

The authors were two of the “dozen”, Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. I first read it when I was nine or ten years old and here is how I was changed…

  • Stories Matter – With that many kids, this could have been like a Dickens novel with not enough food and long bathroom lines. Instead, it was a story of every day adventures that endeared all of the characters to the reader. I take that lesson each day into my descriptions of the workplace
  • Time Matters – Almost coincidentally, the Gilbreth parents were world-class leaders in the field of time and motion studies. If you work on an assembly line even today you almost certainly are the beneficiary of, or slave to, their discoveries. But even as a young reader I took away the lesson of how we choose to spend out time is important in our life and our work. The Gilbreth children learned a new vocabulary word every day while they were in the bathroom. Maybe that’s what everyone today is doing on their cell phones in the bathroom.
  • Observations Matter – The authors of Cheaper by the Dozen chronicled the lives and adventures of the family. There was no murder, no one was elected President, no one was in rehab, research was not involved; the story was simply based on observations. What I observe in the small acts in the workplace today is the basis for my own writing.
  • Families Matter – Families then, as now, are full of characters and family bonds work whether there are two in the family or fourteen. I didn’t really need a reminder of this fact when I read the book, but the lesson is even more important today when families can be more complicated.
  • Partnerships Matter – Frank and Lillian acted as partners in a complicated enterprise. They were both experts in time and motion study and worked together in and out of the home. In fact, after Frank died (not a spoiler), Lillian picked up where he left off. In a man’s world, she eventually became even more widely respected and known than her husband – she became the real pioneer in motion study and workplace psychology but also in feminism. A remarkable woman.
  • Humor Matters – The Gilbreths could describe every day events with the humor that made their story stronger and made us empathetic. We may not be in family of fourteen but I have a little brother who is annoying me all the time sort of thing. In the workplace there can be humor in the guy in the cube next to us or in the jerk who rejected us on the last sales call. Sometimes, seeing humor in life is what gets us through it.

So a small, readable book I read many years ago shaped my perspective and even my career. Much later in my life, when my own four children were small, I pushed Cheaper by the Dozen into the CD slot in the car.

We were on a long drive and I was skeptical of how the book on tape would play with a new generation, if they would listen at all. We were not far into the book when my young daughter exclaimed, “Dad, this book is about you! You are like the dad in the book!”

I took it as the ultimate compliment. Thank you Gilbreth Family.

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