Among the myriad reasons 2020 has been an absolute horrorshow is the passing of both my mother and father. Dad left us back in July and, as my sister and I have been saying would happen for years, Mom was right behind him 90 days later.
As I’m sitting here unpacking the boxes of stuff from their apartment, a lot of thoughts are crossing my mind. I don’t know if it’s a form of therapy or just a desire to share some lessons they taught me that I know are useful to any of us in business but today is about them.
I wrote some words for each funeral. I wasn’t able to attend in person because of the pandemic. In Dad’s eulogy, I wrote that
Those three senses – the importance of family, of taking responsibility, and of being humble – were things I know he tried to convey to the three of us.
In business, I would mean a family in the broadest sense. Your business family – your coworkers, your partners, your suppliers and most of all your customers are what’s important. I did expand on the responsibility part later on:
Any time I went to Dad with a question, the answer was inevitably the same: do what you think is right. It was never “do what’s expedient” nor what’s easy. Do what you think is right based on all the information you have…When we were wrong, Dad never asked why we made a bad decision but reminded us that we’d tried our best and we’d do better next time.
I’ve been in toxic work situations where bad decisions were followed by long periods of blame-placing and recriminations. The lessons learned usually led to paralysis. If you don’t make any decisions, you can’t make any bad ones. People were more focused on finding another job than on advancing the organizational goals.
In Mom’s eulogy, I expanded a bit on that lesson:
So much of what was true about Mom was true about Dad. Certainly the importance of family and of taking responsibility. “Actions have consequences,” she would remind us, both good and bad. Consequences could be pleasurable or, as I found out often enough, not so much…At the height of the Vietnam War protests, like many my age I informed Mom I was going to skip school for Moratorium Day and go march. Skipping school pretty much for any reason was not ok and doing so to participate in a march as a newly-minted high school freshman when I should be learning where the heck my locker was was even worse. Mom’s response was pretty much “do what you think is right.” Maybe she was looking ahead a few short years when her son would be draft-eligible but I prefer to think she was telling me to use my brain, make good choices, and be prepared to live with the consequences. If I recall I was informed those consequences would not involve her posting my bail had I been arrested.
This is perhaps my pet peeve, both in and out of business. Some folks just won’t take responsibility for their actions. It’s always someone else’s fault or bad luck or the weather or ANYTHING but their own doing. The pandemic, for example, wasn’t any of our doing. How we’re managing our businesses and our own health is completely our own doing.
Here’s the last lesson and it’s one my folks probably didn’t know they were conveying. My parents worked very hard their entire lives. Like many of us, they accumulated a lot of stuff. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer things as homes were sold and downsizing occurred. When they couldn’t live on their own anymore, more things were given away or sold. Finally, here at the end, my sister and I and their grandchildren received some boxes with pictures and mementos. Not much “stuff.”
I guess I’m trying to remind us that “stuff” doesn’t last. What matters are the memories in those pictures and the people who keep you and your memory alive. Try to remember that when you’re pushing yourself to make more money to buy more stuff. If there is a silver lining to the horror of this year, it just might be that we all got a little time at home to reflect on what’s important.
I’m thankful for the lessons my Mom and Dad taught me. I hope you find these few of them useful.
Some Foodie Friday mornings, I go out for breakfast to a local joint that’s well-known for hot dogs. Hot dog joints are a thing here in North Carolina. Fortunately, not being of the hot dog as breakfast persuasion, they also serve great eggs. Try the fried baloney too. It’s a thick slice tossed into a deep fryer until the outside is nicely charred. It’s enough sodium to raise your pressure 50 points and enough flavor to make you happy for the rest of the day.
One thing I noticed on several occasions was a number of folks eating cheeseburgers for breakfast. Yes, they had fries too and it was well before Noon. Before 10, in fact. Was this a southern thing as well? Why did I find it so strange? The more I thought about it the more I realized that there was nothing odd about it at all and, in fact, it was a good business reminder too.
Think about it. First of all, not everyone’s day runs from 7am – 11pm. Some folks, particularly in farm country where I live, begin before dawn and stop work long before dusk. 9:30am is lunchtime! It’s a reminder that whether they’re farmers or shift workers who got off work at 8, we can’t impose our worldview on everyone. As business folks, we need to be open to their situation and not how we want the world to be.
I was having scrambled eggs with cheese and a side of baloney. Grits, no toast. Broken down, that’s cheese covered protein with a fried slab of meat and some cooked grain on the side. A little hot sauce and that’s breakfast. But if the fried slab of meat is ground beef and the cheese covers that protein, we’re on the same page. The grain here is bread, not grits and the sauce is ketchup, not hot sauce. Potatoes can be french fries or home fries – does it really matter? The basic formula of protein and dairy, starches and grains is the same. We can’t get so hung up on how the “formula” manifests itself. We can’t insist that it’s my way or the highway.
I’m not going to start eating cheeseburgers for breakfast any time soon. I am, however, not going to look askance at those who do. As it turns out, both in the business world and the world at large, a little understanding and an openness to finding common ground goes a lot farther than trying to turn everyone to your point of view, don’t you think?
I started playing the guitar when I was 11. At the time, learning how to play the riff from “Satisfaction” or “Day Tripper” felt like a big deal. A few years later, along came Jimi Hendrix, and what I thought of as playing lead guitar changed completely. Sure, Clapton was still my idol (I mean, the “Crossroads” solo on Wheels Of Fire. Has it ever been better?) but Hendrix opened my ears to the possibilities the instrument contained.
I played guitar in bands through middle school, high school, and college. I was rarely alone in my room without a guitar in my hands. I couldn’t really emulate the Claptons and Hendrixs of the world but at least I understood what they were doing. Then, in February of 1978, along came Eddie.
With the release of “Eruption,” Eddie Van Halen redefined the guitar. It’s the solo that changed guitar forever and blew the minds of anyone who ever picked up the instrument with serious intent. In 102 seconds, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about something I’d been playing for over a dozen years. How was he doing that? It was so far beyond even what Hendrix had done.
What amazed me the most wasn’t just his use of a technique I’d never seen before. It was how grounded in musicality his playing was. Beautiful arpeggios that just soared. Yes, as I came to find out, others had been using the techniques Eddie was using, but what made Eddie’s playing stand out was how despite the feedback and squeals, it was very musical. You might not have known that Eddie learned music early on and won a piano competition. He learned Bach and Mozart and not just Lennon and McCartney. There’s a business point there.
Too many of us jump into business thinking that we’re going to change everything. There’s nothing wrong with that. But learn from Eddie, who really did change everything. Before he did so, he was grounded in the fundamentals. He studied the masters. He learned to play Clapton note for note and mixed up Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Hendrix. He melodized, perfected, and popularized the techniques he learned from them and from others. Oh – and he always seemed to be having fun while he was doing his job.
We can learn a lot more from Eddie than just how to handle a fretboard and even if you’re not a fan. I’m sorry he’s gone. You?