I had lunch with my son yesterday and part of our conversation wandered into the phenomenon of repeating things your parents used to say. You know the ones that you heard so often that you rolled your eyes and prayed to be deaf so as never to hear again? Yet when we reach adulthood and begin to deal with all that life can dish out, we find that some of those things came sailing across our very own lips.
In honor of Father’s Day, I thought it would be a fitting homage to make a list of the more prominent phrases that I was barraged with in my youth, and the deeper meaning they have taken on later in life.
1. “Any idiot can learn from his own mistakes. A really smart man will learn from someone else’s mistakes.”
I can’t begin to count how often I heard this one, and I also remember muttering to myself, “easier said than done.” It wasn’t until I first landed my industrial shift work job that the advice really stood out. Thirty-two years ago, the plant employed about 2500 people, men and women in just about any size, shape and color. Watching the actions of these co-workers, listening to their opinions and their life stories proved to be a unique education. I found it quite amazing how self-destructive people can be, and how stubbornly they will repeat the process despite a similar outcome.
2. “There will be sixteen yards of bitter for every inch of sweet.”
I have absolutely no idea how he came up with these particular measurements, but I eventually realized this was the metaphor for how much work will dominate your life and that goals will not come quickly or easily. As much as my father disapproved of sports, his piece of advice is incredibly applicable in that arena. As I watch football each year, I see how hard a team will train, and how much sweat and blood they will sacrifice to be able to hoist a trophy above their heads for a scant few minutes. But it is those precious moments that are bought with heart, desire and effort that make them priceless.
3. “Don’t be afraid to improvise.”
I have always looked on this statement as a variation of the quote by Greek philosopher Plato, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I don’t ever recall Dad telling me that he read Plato, but it is proof that pure wisdom stands the test of time. With my father, having to improvise usually meant figuring out a way to repair something with what you had on hand. Nowhere was this more evident than in the garage where lawnmowers and the family car were torn apart with regularity. I found in my adulthood that lack of funds and time will force this situation into your hands without mercy, so I am indeed grateful for this particular piece of advice since it had been a life saver.
4. “You’re only stupid if you don’t ask questions.”
How many consultants in today’s corporate world get paid healthy salaries to push this very idea? They have now made it softer around the edges by saying, “No question is a bad question.” But I have found it amazing over the years how many people will remain silent and ignorant rather than face the self-imposed shame of saying, “I don’t know.” If we had never raised a hand in school, how would we ever have found out the information we lacked, or gotten the clarification we needed to move forward. My father wasn’t a highly educated man when it came to degrees or diplomas, but he obviously picked up an important thing or two along the way.
5. “Don’t be the first to volunteer for everything. Sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut.”
He related this amusing story on more than one occasion about his early days in the Army. He already had some experience with driving trucks, and when his Sergeant asked if anyone knew how to drive a truck, my father eagerly raised his hand. The Sergeant promptly showed him to the handles of a wheelbarrow, a shovel and pile of coal. The Sergeant ordered, “Here’s your truck, now get it loaded and get moving!” He told me that was the last time he volunteered until he found out exactly what he was in for. I found this advice to be quite beneficial over the years on my job. There have been many new processes that have been tried and failed, and while I have been part of the “first team” on some of those occasions, there have been others I have gladly side-stepped after watching the misfortune of others. Leaders step up, but the wise leader sizes up the task before charging blindly forward. I guess Custer didn’t listen to his Dad.
6. “We only got one pair of shoes a year. Make it last.”
There was very little my father spoke about that didn’t include an analogy about life on the family farm. Growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina during the Great Depression would probably be enough to kill most of us nowadays. In a world where corporate types jump off buildings after losing a job, the thought of working for your survival each and every day seems other-worldly. Plowing fields by mule, chopping wood with an axe, hauling water from a well and countless other chores were all a part of daily life. You lived and died with harvest time because that was what paid the bills, so “shopping” was truly a once a year activity.
In our world of outlet malls and people who shop as a pastime, this concept probably couldn’t be fathomed.
I must admit to being a bit of shoe horse myself, specifically in the sneaker area. If my father saw how many pairs of shoes are cluttered in my closet he would probably sound off with something like, “That’s enough damned shoes to last me a lifetime!”
In the throw away mentality of our modern time, the concept of caring for something to make it last is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. If we don’t value our own work and what we choose to purchase with our efforts, then how much will that ideal spill over into more vital things? Maybe shoes were the metaphor for the larger things in life.
7. “Put the light on the goddamned work!”
I realize my father uttered this phrase countless times while working on cars or lawnmowers at night. My job as resident light holder was a mundane one, and my learning about what was being worked on took much longer to sink in. I have to believe that Dad is very proud in the long run since this expletive phrase has taught me a very valuable lesson. Focus!
Our modern environment is filled with the plague of “multi-tasking” and that is something I loathe. As a matter of fact, it appears to me that multi-tasking simply forces us to do many things, and none of them particularly well. Or as Dad would say so eloquently, “If you’re gonna do it half-ass then just leave it alone,” or “Any job worth doing is worth doing right.” Virtually everything we do is made up of a series of steps, and that is especially true in the automotive world. I vividly remember the colorful language that would follow when something was being re-assembled and a part was missed. Having to tear things back apart again was in his words, “Wasted work, now dammit, stop trying to get ahead of yourself!”
The time and patience to focus on the task at hand, and perform that task right might be something of a “tortoise and hare” mentality, but we all know who won that race.
8. “Be careful as you climb the ladder of life not to step on too many fingers, because someday you might have to climb back down.”
Life is without doubt a serious climb, and one that often knocks us backward, so “burning your bridges” isn’t always the best option. I much prefer my father’s take on this since climbing a ladder and going over or around someone else would be an arduous task to say the least, and one that would require cooperation. Human interaction is one of the most challenging tools to hone as it encompasses a combination of many different skills. We learn, for better or worse, from every encounter we have, and as surely as there is fate or poetic justice, there will be touchy situations that we will face more than once. It costs us nothing to be kind, courteous and respectful, except maybe bit of our pride, but it is another part of us that no amount of money can purchase. Honesty and integrity are easily lost and incredibly tough to rebuild.
I could easily go on but many of his other “teachings” are things that fall under the category, “What is said in the garage stays in the garage.” But even those things have their place and value.
I will conclude with one other thing my father said often while I was learning to drive, but I have found it to be applicable in many other areas of life.
“Watch the road, try to anticipate what might happen, check your mirrors and know what’s around you, but above all, Think Ahead!”
Isn’t it funny how that the things we heard over and over, the words we dreaded to hear even once more, have become the gemstones we hold so dear.
Thanks Dad; and Happy Father’s Day!
-T. August Green