While many personal finance gurus and financial correspondents are looking to the Great Depression for guidance on how to handle the current economic times, I’ve been seeking guidance from a slightly more recent time period.

My great grandparents built a manufacturing empire out of the fragile economy that emerged from the Great Depression to a tentative existence in World War II. Shortly after the GD, historians will remember a time where your duty to your country was saving, hard work, and rationing instead of spending.

While rationing was a necessity, it was also potential death for small manufacturing companies like my great-grandpa’s lighting business. During those years lamps were made from steel, and Uncle Sam had the priority. How he and my great-grandma handled things taught me the greatest recessionary lessons I know:

Lesson #1: It’s okay to shift your focus when necessary.
So my great-grandpa found a way to obtain steel. He obtained a government contract to make detonators that allowed him access to raw materials. Today, while people are being laid off from traditional IT jobs, fields like Health Information Management are in need. Re-examine your skill set and your needs and look for your niche in various industries.

Lesson #2: Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.
My great-grandpa was so desperate for that government contract, that he grossly underbid. Uncle Sam was gracious enough to let him re-bid, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to keep his doors open, let alone fulfill his obligation. If you want the job or extra responsibilities, it’s more than okay to go all out to get it, but don’t commit to anything you’re not capable of. Leaving an inept impression will be worse for you in the end.

Lesson #3: Cut unnecessary expenses.
While an era of rationing makes it easier to cut unnecessary expenses, it’s still vital today. If an expense doesn’t have a purpose, need or actual benefit, cut it.

Lesson #4: Don’t cut necessary expenses.
It was especially important to pay the money to court business contacts and keep the business afloat. Many people today don’t understand the diverse meaning of investment. An investment in your business can be an investment in a contact, an investment in a new supply line, or even an investment in yourself so that you can continue managing your company.

Lesson #5: Do you really know the meaning of hard work?
Not only did the contract allow him access to steel, it did allow his business to continue manufacturing lamps. However it was only allowed on third shift, and on a few days a month. Production would go straight through the night to keep everyone afloat. I have to admit, even as a child my great-grandparents ran circles around me; I just don’t think they make them like they used to. But right now I’m burning the candle at both ends trying to keep my day job and start a new business. Being industrious is the most important skill anyone can develop.

Lesson #6: Innovation or death
My great-grandparents knew their situation was not indefinite. With the war, and rationing, coming to an end, more competition would arise. So when the new concept of plexiglas (lucite) came across their desk, it was a perfect solution. Because of their willingness to be creative and move forward, my great-grandparents specialty lucite lamps are a signature of the modern era that emerged in the 50s. History rewards the bold and the brave, so don’t be afraid. Try new things, and don’t be afraid to fail.

My great grandparents obviously weren’t in a bad position going into World War II, as they were business owners, but when the world told them sink or swim, they built a life raft. This economy is scary to a lot of people; I am comforted to look back on a generational legacy that has taught me so much. I’ve also learned from their mistakes, which I’ll talk about next.

Photo Courtesy of army.arch