“Dead almost 20 years, you’re still taking me to school…” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 2
A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with my older sister as we reminisced over family stories from our childhood. Our memories and perspectives tend to be different, so our stories are typically just as unique. We also remember things differently, which makes those rare moments all the more interesting as we piece together our shared family history. As I dipped a tortilla chip into the salsa bowl between us, she remarked, “You have Dad’s hands.”
I looked down briefly at my hands. A scar runs the length of one knuckle, a remnant from a playground scrap with a particularly buck-toothed kid in grade school. A band-aid covered the fingertip of my left pinky finger where an errant staple cut through the fingernail while working in the garage. Various scrapes and scratches paint a menagerie across my hands, and a fresh cut on one palm served as a reminder of a nasty splinter courtesy of an old sheet of plywood earlier that very day. Like my father, I use my hands a lot. And, like my father, I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get those hands dirty.
As we returned to our conversation, our words drifted toward what else we inherited from our father. Although it’s been 26 years since his death, we both exhibit traits—learned or otherwise—that were once his hallmarks. My sister shares his financial acumen, something I wish I’d learned earlier in life. I share his dark sense of humor and talent for nicknaming people, things not always appreciated by others. And we share his work ethic, which occasionally gets us both accused of being workaholics.
Lessons That Keep Giving
We also learned a lot of life lessons along the way, lessons that have endured the test of time. Those lessons have served us well over the years, constant reminders that he never really stopped teaching us even long after he departed this world.
1. Never ask someone else to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.
My father was notorious for two things: throwing away the instructions every time he bought something and learning to do the hard (and dirty) jobs himself before asking anyone else to help. I managed to avoid the first, but wholeheartedly embraced the second. It helps to appreciate the amount of work you’re asking of someone, and the level of effort required. There are limits to this, of course, but I swear by it as a general rule of thumb.
2. There’s no such thing as being done early.
If you finish early, there’s always another task waiting. You’re never really “done” as long as there’s work left to do. That doesn’t mean you can’t step away early and take some much-needed time to yourself (or your family), but it’s a reminder that being your best self means you have to be willing to put in the hard work each and every day.
3. Never compare yourself to anyone else.
My father was deeply goal-driven and results-oriented, something that defines much of who I am today. He taught me to set my goals high and to compete with myself, not others. “If you measure your success against what someone else is doing,” he once told me, “you’re never going to achieve your true potential.” Compete with yourself. Push yourself to your limits and let everyone else worry about keeping up with you.
4. Get organized, stay organized.
Look around my office today and you’ll find no fewer than three project trackers: a whiteboard, an adhesive butcher block attached to the door, and a desktop glass tablet. Each one serves a different purpose, from breaking down daily tasks to managing near- and long-term projects. As a boy, I hated my dad’s lists. As an adult, I live by them. When #2 happens, I never fail to check the lists to see what else needs to be done.
5. Read. A lot.
My father was a voracious reader, from the daily newspaper to world history to contemporary fiction. Long before I appreciated the value of reading, I was doing it. In the summers, I would spend my afternoons in the county library. At night, I would huddle under the covers with a flashlight reading science fiction and fantasy. In between, I read every comic book I could get my hands on. Just as my father did, I surround myself with books. Reading is fundamental, after all.
Instructions? We don’t need instructions!
The next day, as my brother-in-law and I were preparing to install a drop-down ceiling ladder in their attic, I offered to throw away the instructions before we started. “Instructions? We don’t need instructions.” He looked me and made a face, while my sister nearly spit out her coffee. Our father’s sense of humor lingers in me.