Life Lessons: Things I Learned From My Parents – Part 3

(Here’s part 3 of 3 on some life lessons I took from my parents. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here.)

Lessons from what happened to them:

Dad and his job loss taught me 3 really big things:

Much like a geological or evolutionary timeline where there are breaks between eras, my childhood had a clear break in 1983. The recession led to his job elimination and he never really bounced back. Pre 1983, Dad was all the good things I have related. Leader, athlete, pillar, dynamic. Post 1983 , he was a shadow of himself and it really changed everything for the whole family.

1 – Shit happens and how you deal with it matters a lot…

Dad really just folded up. Today we’d probably call it clinical depression. As one family friend bluntly put it “at least he didn’t kill himself like some of our friends’ dads.” Nice. Thanks.

But he really was entirely dysfunctional for several years. He couldn’t do the laundry despite Mom working full time. This led to a lot of conflict in the house with me trying to get him going on anything and him not able to.

So I really took away a sense of A) how fragile everything can be, B) how bad it can get in a hurry with no real warning and C) the way just one person’s actions can drive a whole groups.

2 – Your company doesn’t care about you. You are just a number…

So save diligently. And do good service. You are being paid (hopefully well) to do something and your employer deserve your best effort.

But they are your employer. And it is a very rare one that will look out for employees first to the detriment of management, shareholders or customers. So save and stay nimble. You could be here today, gone tomorrow anytime.

This has unrelentingly driven my interest in careers and focus on managing them. I always assume you need to have portable, tangible skills. The best way to keep a job is to be market-ready all the time.

3 – Please yourself first…

…because if you fall apart, everything else is a mess.

He never said this, so I may be reading into his life too much, but I think a major problem for my dad and why he fell apart was that he never really was doing what HE wanted. Whether it was trying to please my grampa who was a very senior executive at an F500 company or trying to meet external expectations of lifestyle or my mom’s needs and preferences; he never seemed to love what he did.

So when you are doing something you don’t really like for others and that path doesn’t work out, it’s probably a bitter pill. That’s why I tell people to “make your own mistakes.”

I think he would have rather been a teacher or minister. But he lacked the courage or drive to follow through all the way on those impulses. Even later in life when he had partially rallied, he’d take a seminary class and substitute teach, but he’d never really dive in.

So I’ve probably been overly conscious and focused on “am I having fun?” throughout my career. This doesn’t mean every moment needs to be joyful or that there shouldn’t be hard times. Those are how you gain the experience earns you choices. But is the macro trend in your career driving you somewhere you want to go? Can you see the place where you’ll be happy and are you actively working toward it?

I LOVE my job and am privileged by who I get to do it with every day. I also have an unconventional job, which is part of the joy in it. I don’t think I’d be here if my Dad’s example hadn’t served as a warning.

Michele (wife & sometimes editor) says “Knowing you I don’t think you really mean this. Because you also subscribe to the Mr B theory (family first). If you meant this, you would regret not staying in China (which I don’t think you do, you may) or other choices. I think you more mean take yourself into strong consideration. but maybe you don’t so I didn’t change it.)

Thanks. The caveat here is everything is context dependent. When we were in China for work I had the opportunity for a long-term career enhancing assignment. M didn’t want to stay with our 2 small kids and hopes for a 3rd (who turned out to be our Abby). I don’t want to be marginally more excited about my career by making my wife miserable.

So it’s about broad trends and don’t check your brain at the door. Nobody’s perfectly content all the time.

Your children will drive you crazy, but eventually it usually works out…

At times, my mother must have thought I was the worst thing that ever happened to her. I argued, was willful, didn’t take direction, was lazy…the litany of failings go on. We fought. I mean, did we ever fight. I think it was a combination of our personalities, how much time we spent just the two of us and the stress she was under.

But it turns out we ended up best friends. Despite torturing her for years, I doted on her too. Particularly as dad wilted, I was sort of the man of the house and stepped up. As an adult we probably talked 3-5 times a week for more than 30 minutes each time. We’d go on dates when I was home and she liked to strut me around town to her friends.

I keep trying to convince Michele of this as we fight with ours. She often wishes she could consult with my Mom about our oldest because he’s a mini-me. Then she remembers she wouldn’t have been able to because Gran would have said, “what do you mean how will you deal with him? He’s perfect!” Because only Gran would be able to point out any flaws J

Lessons from their relationship:

You can usually make it work if you both want to…

Despite all the issues I outlined above, my parents loved each other and they hung in there. Today they might be divorced in their 50s. What a mess that would have been. The permanence of a bond makes you work through things and so they did. In a 45-year marriage, there were several really god-awful years. But the vast majority were happy I think.

In closing, perhaps the biggest lesson is that whether they are with you physically, they’re always there. They’ve been gone for more than four years now. The pictures of them are older and older every year and they are so dated because our kids are so little in them. But not a single day goes by that I don’t think about them.

I hope my kids learn half as much from Michele and me as I learned from my parents.

So what did your parents teach you?

 Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here.

8 thoughts on “Life Lessons: Things I Learned From My Parents – Part 3

  1. Good points here Phil,

    1) Job loss and unemployment are serious traumas. On par with the death of a loved one or the end of a marriage. Our society needs to understand this and our communities – business, spiritual, family, and friends – need to learn how to deal with it better.

    2) One of my mentor’s told me once that life is not about what you do, but how you respond. I have always thought that this was very good advice.

    • I completely agree on the “how you respond” thought. It’s not whether you’ll fall down. You will. It’s how you get up and keep going that matters. I try to convey that need for resiliency in my teaching and work. Life really is a struggle. But that’s how we learn. And if you get through a few big challenges, it’s amazing what doesn’t seem like that big a deal anymore. Stuff that used to stress me out mostly doesn’t bother me as much these days. I’m not that Zen, but “scar tissue” helps keep things in better perspective.

  2. Oh and…

    I just read all of the posts in this series. This last one is by far the best.

    A re-occurring theme in my life and those of my peers with regards to inter-generational learning is that what we learn from our parents is not “how” to do things but “how not to” do things. In order to make progress, most of us must learn the hard way through failure and shame. Very few of us learn new things without some degree of struggle and set back. Looking back reflectively on the faults and failures of our elders is one of the ways that we are able to keep making emotional, spiritual, and intellectual progress as human beings.

    • As I was writing, this dichotomy between what they said/did and how the responded to what happened became really clear to me.

      We definitely learn from observing and evaluating family. I’m really fortunate that my parents had a lot more admirable qualities than not. But even with them there were a few key “don’t want to do that/be that way” lessons. For me, mostly around career and autonomy as I discuss in the post.

      Sadly, as a parent I can see myself combining a few of my parents less appealing traits as I am working day to day to mess up another generation of Millers 🙂

  3. Just finished up this 3 parter and wish there were more – when are you writing a book? Seriously. The thing I always have to remind myself and Bill of, is how even on our worst days, how incredibly lucky we are – we are better off then literally billions of other people on this planet and there is little to complain about. Currently we are a house divided between the unemployed (he got laid off in December) and the Grim Reaper herself (still doing lay-offs, 3 years into this mess) – and while it can be an effort to keep things in perspective, having a good partner provides balance and the ability to do just that.

    • Missy – thanks. I agree that the perspective is important and that a partner sure helps. For me, knowing that the kids still have soccer or whatever and don’t really care about what happened at work helps. My perspective sure has changed on what “balance” looks like as I get older. Thanks for the encouragement. it’s coming along…

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