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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Life (and Work) Lessons From My Dad

Without question my father was the most influential person in my life. (sorry if you’re reading this mom!). My dad was my hero and my biggest supporter. He didn’t have a college degree, but the lessons he taught me have been more valuable than anything I’ve learned in school. Here they are:

1.      When you have an important decision to make, ask everyone for their input. Then, make a decision. This is a guiding principle for me: listen. Ask questions, and listen. Really think about where the other person is coming from. Appreciate their point of view and learn from it. Be willing to change your mind as you get more information (shouldn’t this be natural for scientists?). Many times in my career I’ve had to interact with people I didn’t really care for. But I never tuned them out. Sometimes it felt like taking cough syrup- brutal in the moment, but ultimately beneficial. This approach gives me confidence when I need to make a decision, and helps me make well informed decisions. There is a responsibility that goes along with making a decision, so knowing the counterpoints, who may disagree etc. is incredibly valuable. People also seem to appreciate that I care enough to ask. Even if my decision doesn't line up 100% with theirs, I hope they realize that their input shapes my thinking.

2.      I cut, you choose. This is my favorite one. While visiting my parents for Father’s Day many years ago, a reporter was at Crab Meadow beach asking people for the best advice their dad gave them, and this was top of mind. She looked at me quizzically so I had to explain: It ensures fairness. If there is only one piece of cake left and we both want it, if I cut and you choose it incentivizes me to be fair. I learned from my dad that “fair” does not always mean equal. He shared that he liked a lot of chocolate chips in his cookies, while my aunt just wanted a bigger piece. So he would cut in a way that the smaller half had more chips. Then she got to choose (generally selecting the bigger half). They both got what they wanted. I bring this approach to my work today: how can we all win? It starts by understanding what the other person values (for my aunt, the bigger half), and being willing to give up a little in order to get what you care most about (more chips).  

3.      Good help is hard to find. I’m sure many people reading this agree! I’ve seen that there’s a spectrum of talent and a spectrum of work ethic in every field. Degrees and titles don’t always adequately reflect how good someone is at what they do. As an employee, I’ve always strived to be good, taking pride in my work starting from when I worked the front counter of our local pizzeria in high school. As I’ve hired people, I prioritize hiring people who are good. Early in my career I remember telling the HR director that when it came to job qualifications, I just needed someone who was great. She said I wasn’t allowed to list that as a requirement. More recently someone said to me “Well, you know, not everyone is going to be an A+ employee.” I feel strongly that if you hire the right people (those with grit and curiosity), they will be! And I have definitely learned that it’s worth holding out until you find that unicorn.

4.      Just wait, it will get better. Growing up I did not feel like I fit in. I deeply resented those for whom things came easy (I still do). And it seemed like these were the popular kids. Life felt unfair. What was the point of working hard if it didn’t matter? “Just you wait” my dad would say. “Keep working hard and it will pay off.  When you grow up and see where you are compared to those kids, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.” We had this conversation many times. I was skeptical, but trusted my dad’s wisdom. He was right.

5.      Work comes first. This may be the most controversial one, given that “family comes first” seems to be more socially acceptable. But for my dad, work—the job—was what provided for the family. My dad did not have a glamorous job, but he was thankful he was employed. When he passed away almost 2 years ago he left me a final gift: a few bucks. As my brother noted, he earned every penny working double and triple time days out in the rain, snow and wind, and by clipping coupons and having the whole family stand in separate checkout lines when there was a limit of 1 coupon per customer. The inheritance wasn’t a crazy huge amount, but enough that I could financially afford to take a risk by starting a consulting business. He was extremely risk averse, so I was surprised at his support as I floated the idea of a career shift during one of our last conversations. He probably knew that I took heed of the lessons he’d taught, and would consider all angles before making a big decision. So thanks dad, for the many ways you supported me.

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