The biggest lesson I learned from my dad: if you want something, you have to work hard for it.
I’ve been working since I was twelve. I had a job at a horse ranch in Sanger, TX cleaning out stalls. After that I labeled newspapers and cleaned the house for the guy who owned the local newspaper. I’ve been a bank teller, a special ed school bus driver, a cashier at a gas station, an elementary school janitor, I worked for Boeing building airplane cables and I worked for Target as a stocker. All of this before the age of 20 and many of these jobs were done concurrently. My success was measured not only by the amount of money I made, but also how many hours I could pack into the day. I bragged about waking at 5:00 a.m. and then getting in bed at midnight only to repeat the performance the next day. All of this work paid off and by the time I was 24 I had a job paying 52,500 and I hadn’t even finished college yet.
I continued to work and finally finished college. I served in ministry at church. I did a discipleship program. I kept busy, busy, busy. I ran myself ragged because, once again, this is how we were raised.
Throughout my twenties I made my identity about what I was doing, but I really lacked focus and direction. I made a ton of money and spent it as fast as I made it. I wasn’t taught the value of savings. I got into a lot of debt. I dated girls, I went to church, I went back to college to get an MBA, I got laid off.
By the time I was in my thirties I should have been married and settled down. At least that’s what I thought, but I was single and broke. I was still making great money, but I was living paycheck to paycheck. I never finished my MBA, I only got 12 hours in and it wasn’t even something I wanted to do, I just thought maybe it would make me feel accomplished. It was just one more thing that I was using to define me.
My life wasn’t going according to plan because I never really had one. God blessed me with a buffet of talents and opportunities but I could never just settle in to one role and be happy with it. Feelings of inadequacy plagued me most of my life. I kept asking myself the question, “Am I enough?” I felt that I had to go above and beyond with my friends just to keep them. I paid for meals and cooked dinners and I tried to be funny, but often my motives were misplaced. It was as if I was creating a recipe of the perfect version of me constantly adding a dash of this and a tablespoon of that, but no matter what I tossed in, the dish still fell flat.
I know that part of what I am talking about is just part of growing up, but could some of this be learned at a younger age? Is confidence and value something that can be achieved through the perfect home environment? The right amount of time spent in a loving community, a great school, an amazing church, the right relationship with Christ?
Now that I’m older I’m still learning about who I am. I have had a mentor for the past three years that has become a captain on the unguided ship that was my life. I feel like I’m just now starting to be the own captain of my ship. Through all of this struggle, through this learning process, I have gained wisdom that only comes from experience. And experience is an interesting thing. It provides clarity, the type of clarity that an ex-addict has after going through the process of recovery. When you see a fellow addict you can immediately see through all of the excuses and the self-delusion because you have already come through all of it. It’s like a mountain that has already been climbed, sometimes repeatedly, sometimes a thousand times, sometimes more. Experience can sometimes be a cruel teacher, relentless in her process pushing you to perfection. “Again!” you hear her shout each time you fail. “Again!” “Again!” “Again” – the ruler slams on the table, the voice is shrill and each time you pick yourself back up you are learning valuable lessons. There is much to be learned from pain and failure, those lessons are patience and perseverance and the value that comes from earning something the hard way.
And this is where I get to the final point of why I started writing this post in the first place. I am not a father, but sometimes I find myself in leadership roles over young men. It is when I am in these roles that I want to cram my years of experience into their lives. I think most of us men that have the opportunity to lead others understand the character building qualities that come from hard work, some more than others. But for me, hard work has been the most consistent theme in my life. There is no time for coasting and therefore I cannot tolerate coasting in others. Furthermore, I get annoyed at easy success because I am afraid that quick success will bread arrogance, pride, and hubris, where repeated failure forces you to be humble and makes you rely less on yourself and more on others and God.
But what I’ve learned in the past year and a half is that you cannot expect people to know what you know from experience. They will have their own set of experiences that will guide their life and while you can do your best to guide them along the way, in the end, they get to learn at their own pace. As fathers, coaches, mentors, big brothers, we get to lead and support and when our “sons” fail, we get to pick them up, dust them off and say, “Again.”
I love my dad and he taught me a great deal, but one of the things I learned from him was that in times of failure he was not someone I could go to for support and encouragement. Eventually I stopped telling him about my problems because he would say, “Welcome to the real world!” As if I was living in some alternate universe with unicorns and fairies. I had been living in the real world since the age of 12. When I wasn’t working at my actual job or doing schoolwork there always seemed to be a plethora of projects around our house that needed to be done. Instead of playing video games or watching TV, I was often outside moving piles of bricks or crossties. My father meant well and I now understand what he was saying. Part of him was happy that I was going through hardship because he had to go through it too. It’s like its just part of becoming a man, and it is, but there are enough hard lessons in life and so when we have the opportunity as fathers and men to respond to failure, we can seize that opportunity to soften the blow – not pile more on top of it.
So now I’m 38 and I’m still learning. How my father raised me wasn’t perfect, but it has made me who I am and I have learned to take the good from our relationship and let go of the bad. Life has been rocky, but the bumps and bruises along the way have toughened me and thickened my skin. What hasn’t killed me has indeed made me stronger. And lastly, I have learned what true success is, it is finding joy and contentment in what you have in the current moment. It is not measured by money in the bank or material possessions, but in deep relationships with friends and family and an understanding the importance of who God is and how is should be the ultimate captain of our lives.