My dad wasn't a college man, but he had the real-world smarts you can't get from a higher-learning institution. I grew up working alongside him in numerous tasks, some short and sweet, some big and bold.
Along the way, I learned how to approach work, how to plan for it and how to know when it's time for a change of tack.
Nothing's free, but if you work for it, it'll mean a lot more to you
Little did I expect that his work style would translate into the philosophies and ethics that are the hallmarks of many successful endeavors, mine included. I doubt he knew he was preparing me for a life of business, but he showed me the way and gave me the tools I call upon today, in and day out. Here's what I learned about work—and working in business—from my dad.
What are you willing to give up?
The first thing Dad would ask me—a challenge, really—was, what are you willing to give up to get what you want?
"Nothing's free," he schooled me, "but if you work for it, it'll mean a lot more to you." He was saying I needed to give up time, leisure or maybe a competing desire to get what I wanted. Boiled down, here's what I learned from this initial lesson of his:
- Most successful people work hard for what they have and make personal sacrifices to get what they want.
- In most cases, if someone else could do it, so could I… if I was willing to work for it and likely give up something else.
- Getting what I wanted meant understanding how badly I wanted it. This required prioritization of what I would do with my time and effort, what I wouldn't do as part of the trade-off, and how I'd monitor my progress to see if I made a good choice.
Keep it simple, son
This was a key in the way my dad approached his work: "Why make it harder than it has to be?"
Tools are here to make our work easier. If they're making our work harder, then we're either not using the tool correctly or we have the wrong tool
He was methodical in what he did, whether he was building a deck, felling trees or just sweeping the patio. ("First, understand which way the wind's blowing," he wisely reminded me.) His intent with this bit of advice was:
- Don't be in a hurry to get started before you really know what it is you're going to do and what you expect to achieve.
- Boil the work down to its simplest form. If you can't explain it in a few sentences, you haven't simplified it enough.
- Get from Point A to Point B as directly as possible, without a lot of side tasks or distractions that slow your progress. Make the path to the result as simple as possible.
Oftentimes, my dad would have to corral me and stop me from running off (at the mouth or in any indeterminate physical direction), getting me to just stop and think. "The 5 minutes you spend now thinking about the simplest way to do your work will probably save you hours if you choose to run off half-cocked." Today I know that's so true.
Let the tool do the work
"What are you doing?" he'd often come over and ask me, seeing me with my teeth clenched, dripping sweat and achieving nothing for it. "That's not how you use that tool. You're fighting it. Relax!"
Never had I seen anyone dig a hole in the unforgiving, sun-baked soil as my dad. He'd find a comfortable stance, lightly scribe an outline of the hole he wanted dug, then leaned into the shovel with balanced body weight. Like magic, the ground yielded. He understood how to make the shovel work for him, and not the other way around.
Put differently, he always knew who was in charge in the matchup of user versus tool (and the tool rarely won).
Tools are here to make our work easier. If they're making our work harder or aren't providing the results required, then we're either not using the tool correctly or we have the wrong tool for the job. This goes for any tool being used for any work: Let the tool do the work and, if it isn't doing the work, let it go.
This was the most important lesson I ever learned working with Dad: Sometimes, things just don't work out, but giving up is not an option
And what if we encounter trouble and find ourselves cursing at a job that hasn't gone so well? Do we throw a fit, shake our fists at the sky and expend extra energy as we bemoan our situation? Dad would narrow his eyes and say, "Big whoop-de-do."
In the moment of my rage, I'd wonder why he would add salt to my wounds of frustration, but he wasn't. He was simply saying, "There's still work to do, but the way you're doing it isn't working, so try something else."
If ever I'd complain about my efforts and how hard I had already tried, only to fail, he'd say it again: "Big whoop-de-do."
This was the most important lesson I ever learned working with Dad: Sometimes, things just don't work out, but giving up is not an option. Go back to the beginning, look again at what you set out to do and the path you thought would take you to completion. If it didn't work, then your only option would be to try something else.
Giving up gets you nowhere and wastes all the effort you've put in. Usually, failures are where the best lessons are learned. My dad always seemed to know just what to do in these sorts of situations, able to save the day. Only later did I realize he had made many, many mistakes in the past. What made him so successful, though, was that he decided at the very beginning he'd never give up. Truthfully, I can't think of any time that he ever did.
My dad had a remarkable approach to work, to planning and to applying lessons learned along the way. I learned a lot from him and, to this day, I'm still learning from those simple little phrases of his. Thanks, Dad!