Life Lessons: Things I Learned From My Parents

(Author’s note: This is another multi-parter. I couldn’t distill my parents influence down to 1000 words.  Part 2 can be found here and Part 3 here.)

Parents wield a powerful influence on their children. Whether it’s positive or negative, from their presence or their absence, their attention or aloofness; they are dominant figures in each of our development. My folks both passed a number of years ago and as my kids get older (they are 8, 7 and 4 right now), I wanted to capture the impact they had on my conscious self (I assume there are all sorts of influences it would take Dr. Jung or Freud to sort out as well.). What follows is an attempt to disentangle a lifetime’s worth of interactions, love, arguments and ultimately their collective impact with a little distance for reflection.


My dad (Dick Miller) was a wonderful man. He was a leader at every level in his life. A four-year class president in high school, fraternity president in college, rapidly promoted executive and a church and community leader. He was intuitive about others’ needs and how to get a lot out of them. He was a great athlete into his 40s, particularly tennis.

My mom (Sue Miller) followed in her newspaper editor father’s path and loved her craft.  An English major in college, she worked alternately for corporations doing communications and as a newspaper editor. I’m pretty sure I was both the joy of her life and the bane of her existence. As my uncle likes to point out “she didn’t come this way (kinda crazy), you did this to her!” Beloved around town she was also a service-oriented leader serving as an officer in multiple non-profits and doing extensive church service. Despite being an otherwise intelligent woman who could quote Milton, she had a serious problem with what my Dad and I referred to as “quasi-historical trash.” Other might call it “bodice ripping chick lit” J I’m an only child and she and I spent A LOT of time alone together.

They loved each other deeply, but also struggled through the normal vagaries of 40+ years of marriage that ended much too early with both their passing from very different cancers about 6 months apart in 2006-7.

Lessons from their character and actions (in no particular order)

Be of service to others

Both my parents served their communities. Among his service activities, Dad was president of our Little League and served as a volunteer umpire for years. He took on a lot of educational and mentoring responsibilities at our church as well. Mom was an officer on several town level political committees and the Junior League. She also co-wrote/edited a number of church publications over the years, including a church history that included 350 yrs of material (a New England Congregational church, so history dates to only a bit after Mayflower).

They didn’t need to be asked to serve and they gave freely. Their perspective was “well someone has to do it” and so did things without (much) complaint or drama. I think peers would describe them as pillars of the community. So for me, I guess the example was not whether to be of service, but how and where.

Hard work won’t kill you…

Both my parents were committed professionals who set examples. My mom was offended by a misplaced (or inappropriately used) punctuation mark. She would pour over galleys, trying to get the language perfectly right. Our dining room table would be taken over by pages and pages of the church history as it was being developed. She was visibly committed to doing what it took to get things done. My dad’s work was less visible to me, but he traveled and sacrificed for us. He was a big believer in the idea that if you want it bad enough you can usually outwork people.  Both worked very hard in their own particular ways.

Do good work. It matters…

Both my parents were good at what they did and had high standards. Neither was a 4.0 GPA superstar in school, but both were professionals and cared deeply about doing good work. They set an example in retrospect, but this message was communicated more through feedback on my own quality of work (or lack thereof).

I have a terrible memory for specific situations and events. It’s really pretty bad. I joke that my memories are stored “in the cloud,” with the cloud being my mother, my wife and my best friend’s heads. So I had forgotten how direct my dad’s feedback could be. I think of him as a really nice guy who was VERY measured in giving advice. But he was a tough judge.

I was reflecting a few years ago to a high school friend about needing to ease up a little on my “millennial” students, maybe starting with more emphasis on what went well rather than driving straight to what needed to improve.

My friend immediately pointed out how much like my dad that was. I was surprised when he reminded me of an assignment he and I worked on together back in the day. He was the top student in the class and I did OK, so we knew we had the benefit of the doubt on the assignment. I’d call our effort level “satisficing.” Enough to earn the “A”, but no more. My dad had quietly watched without saying much. When informed weeks later about our good grade, the lecture came. Something to the effect of “you may pull the wool over the teacher’s eyes, but you boys know you didn’t do your best. I’d give you a ‘C’ based on what you’re capable of.”

So there it is. I didn’t even realize that message had sunk in. With my students my message has become “how much value did you leave on the table for your clients?” In other words, what could you have done better or gotten to with more focus or execution?

That’s Dad (and I’m pretty sure a lot of my grampa Phil Miller, quite the Prussian task master…)

As I talk to students about career issues, I try to make a point about this. Success and progression are sure boosted by doing great work consistently.

Love the process of what you do

My mom was an editor. She liked to write, edit, design and publish. Whether it was editing the Farmington Valley Herald or investor communications for a real estate investment firm, she was clear about what she did and more importantly didn’t like to do. Every two years at the paper, the managing editor would resign. Mom would be offered the job. She would graciously decline because the managing editor doesn’t get to do that much editing. They run the paper. She didn’t want to run the paper. Case closed.

This clarity of purpose and focus on love of her craft left an impression. I push mentees to understand the process of doing their preferred jobs. Often people are in love with the spoils of that path, but don’t really understand or enjoy the work itself. Doing things you don’t like takes a toll over time and isn’t sustainable.

Be kind and think of others first. It usually doesn’t cost you anything…

I don’t think I ever saw my parents be unkind to anyone outside the family. They always started from a position of graciousness and “what can I do to help?”

My mom in particular was unbelievable thoughtful. She remembered everything about everyone. Our family lawyer, who we knew only slightly, told me that when we were dealing with my dad’s passing, she and he were chatting about ice cream. He mentioned loving a particular flavor you could only get at one place 30 minutes out of town. She showed up at the next meeting with several pints she had gone out of her way to get. (Keep in mind she was already deeply ill with her own as yet undiagnosed pancreatic cancer and had little energy.) Really? Who does that anymore?

These little acts of kindness from her were countless. Hard act to follow, but she set the bar high.

It’s probably not coincidental that she was beloved.

Teaching and coaching are important and noble…

As I mentioned earlier, my dad was an instinctive coach. He enjoyed it and I assume was really good at it. He ended up focusing on leadership development as his professional calling and did it at an F500 company.

As an example, I actually had a former employee of his come up to me at his funeral and tell me, “I hadn’t seen your Dad in over 25 years, but when I worked for him he changed my life and I wanted to come pay my respects.” Dad had encouraged him to expand his horizons, get a PhD and, subsequently, he had loved his career and far exceeded his own expectations.

One can only hope to have that kind of impact.

So I took the big picture value away, but I also learned a few specific things as well.

–       Don’t make people come to you. You can read the prior post for more color…

–       Let people reach their own conclusion. Dad was great at asking good questions and would rarely offer his direct opinion on what path he thought you should take. It could drive you crazy, but his perspective was “own your choices.” He was there to help but not to steer.

–       Be available. Sometimes people just need 5 minutes to be heard. Those 5 minutes might save a week of e-mails or silent confusion. It also makes people feel more “love” from you.

Part 2 can be found here and Part 3 here.

6 thoughts on “Life Lessons: Things I Learned From My Parents

  1. I have just read part one and will save parts two and three for another day when I need a boost of inspiration – I’m sure I’ll finish them by Monday! This is wonderful and of course made me misty eyed missing your mom and dad, but maybe extra misty b/c I know how proud they would be of you and this great man you’ve turned out to be – who’d of thunk it? – and would have joyfully devoured this post..and then come back with some edits. M

  2. Hi Phil,

    Was needing a bit of inspiration today, and ran across this post and it did not dissapoint 🙂

    Hope at is well with you. Take care!

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