What I Learned from My Dad

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,”every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. This post is the fourth in a series that highlight some of the awesome people I’ve had the privilege to learn from.

My Dad taught me what really matters.

As far back as I can remember, I can remember my Dad saying “oh, don’t worry about that, it doesn’t really matter” or “just do it, nobody will mind.”  Those lines have served me really well from elementary school until to today running my own businesses and staying out of the cubicle. That credo has given me the freedom to pursue my own path, rather than feel the pressure to follow what most people deemed the “right” path.

I remember learning this lesson many times, both inside and outside the classroom. In first grade, I had to build a model Papua New Guinea hut. I had little to no art skills back then and my model was really ugly. As the due date approached, other classmates brought in their finished products. They looked really good. I was worried my diorama would look really bad and I’d get a bad grade and get embarrassed infront of my classmates.

My Dad looked at the project and told me “who cares what your model looks like, its kind of a stupid assignment. As long as you learn about the place and the people, you’re completing the assignment.” My parents gave me some national geographic magazines and encyclopedias that featured Papua New Guinea and read them with me. I made my model, it was ugly, but I learned a lot and got a decent grade. I learned that all I needed to do was learn about the subject matter, not make a perfect assignment.

In middle school I got marked down because of poor organization, messy handwriting and not showing my work on correctly answered math problems. I’d lose points even thought I had the right answers! I was indignant. My Dad always asked, are you getting the right answers? Are you learning? If the answer was yes, I was ok. Later in 8th grade, a teacher kept threatening to give me an F in a class to try to get me to behave. She lied and told me that university admissions departments were now looking at middle school grades. I knew it was a lie and when I got home, instead of trying to get me to behave better in school by confirming her threats, my Dad told me she was full of it. He told me to behave and then get good grades in high school because that’s what really mattered. That became the mantra.

Later, when I got to high school, I started to get better grades, but still wasn’t interested in complying with rules that I thought were stupid. During my freshman year, I took a class that was 40% tests, 30% homework, 20% final exam and 10% class participation. I had an A based on my tests, homework and final exam, but I didn’t participate in class. I just sat there. With a week left in the semester, the teacher told me that he reserved the right to fail any student if he didn’t pass every single area of the class and threatened me in front of the entire class. I came home fuming that it was unfair. My Dad told me he agreed, but that sometimes you have to deal with unreasonable or unfair people during your life. He told me to figure it out. Let them have their power, don’t let it bother you. I participated a few times and the teacher gave me an F+, a 50%, so that my grade went down from an A to a B+, but I passed. That was the only thing that mattered.

In college, my Dad told me to get good grades, but make sure to make friends and experience things. Take advantage of my opportunities outside of classes. Explore things that I was interested in, not just learning from books. I took that to heart, probably more than he expected. During my second senior year, I got hired by a startup to work in Chicago. I had to live there for two months during second semester. I was taking the last three classes I needed to graduate and I didn’t want to fall too far behind. Instead of giving up my job, I hired a roommate to attend classes and take notes for me. I came back for the tests and did just fine. I don’t think I could have ever done that if I my Dad hadn’t taught me what truly mattered.

Besides teaching me what mattered in the classroom, my Dad showed me that many times, protocols don’t matter all that much. When I was growing up, he would always say “just ask, they won’t mind” or “just do it, nobody will care.” Most of the time it was true and in the rare times where someone actually did mind, I realized that the consequences really weren’t much to be worried about. This lesson really served me well, especially as an entrepreneur. Nobody gives you anything you don’t ask for or take yourself.

My Dad taught me self confidence and not to be a perfectionist. He showed me that I should do things well, but not obsess over details or protocol. To not be afraid to fail or to be criticized. In the end, it doesn’t matter very much how others react, it matters if you are learning, enjoying yourself and doing the right things. I learned what really matters from my Dad.

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