7 Lessons I Learned from My Dad
Father's Day Reflections on Wisdom Lovingly Gifted
For this week of Father’s Day, I spent some time reflecting on the lessons I learned from my father. Each day this week, I will post one lesson on LinkedIn. Then on Sunday, I will publish the series in my newsletter. (Link in comments).
Lesson 1 (Monday): Listen and Ask Questions
Dad was not a talker. He listened intently – practicing “active listening” decades before that phrase became popularized. He had a genuine desire to know more about the person with whom he was speaking. He would ask questions and sincerely ask follow-up questions. To feel listened to, to have a human try to understand you – and in that moment, you alone – was quite a singular experience.
There were many drivers of this skill in Dad. He naturally preferred not to be the center of attention. He was introverted, and at times shy in settings with many unfamiliar people. He wondered about people and their stories.
He also felt a deep responsibility to make the other person feel comfortable. This was the great lesson for me. Dad respected people and wanted them to feel at ease. He sometimes felt uncomfortable in social settings and understood that perhaps many other people did too. And he wanted to moderate that unease in them if he could. It may have also helped steady him in these settings too.
Respect for the other person. Responsibility toward the other person. Comfort of the other person. Dad lived his life teaching this lesson and skill.
Lesson 2 (Tuesday): People Rarely Vocalize Feelings
At a Christmas party one year, I saw a picture of my sister-in-law. I made a comment to her about it. I was trying to be funny. I walked away and she walked away.
My Dad came over to me. “Russell, I think you hurt her feelings. Look at her face and how she’s standing.”
I looked at her. She was looking downward at the floor. Her face had reddened. She wasn’t talking with anyone. She felt alone.
Dad said, “You should go say something to her.”
With that nudge from a more perceptive man than me, I went over and apologized. I had thought I was ribbing a friend in a funny way. But that picture had a backstory. My remark hadn’t come across as funny. It hurt my sister-in-law. I felt ashamed.
In that moment, Dad taught me to pay attention to more than the words people say. Notice their posture. Their facial expression. How they position their hands. Their eyes.
You will learn more about someone’s state of mind from silent observation than from the words they say. Many times, like in this case, people won’t reveal what’s truly on their mind.
They won’t reveal the hurt, because you hurt them.
They won’t broadcast their sadness, because you won’t understand.
They won’t air the words, because they believe you don’t want to be troubled.
Know that people simply will not come out and articulate their real thoughts – or especially feelings. Almost always, the body will tell – or at least hint at – the true story. Pay attention.
At that Christmas party, Dad taught me this critical lesson.
(Readers may also perceive that Monday’s lesson from Dad is also embedded in this story: listen and ask questions. The world usually doesn’t need my attempt at stand-up comedy.)
Lesson 3 (Wednesday): People Remember How You Made Them Feel
Even 11 years after his passing, people remember Dad. They remember him fondly. They bring him up in conversation. Sometimes they say:
“He was a great man.”
“He was incredibly smart.”
“He was the best lawyer I’ve ever known.”
“He gave so much of himself to Lindsey Wilson College.”
(Somewhat disconcertingly, over the years since his passing, people have sworn they “just saw your Dad walking downtown.” I usually suggest they saw my uncle, who many people think resembles Dad. On a couple occasions, people have insisted they saw Dad, and not my uncle. I then noted that Dad passed away years ago. Incredibly, one person still persisted in stating he’d seen Dad lately. At that point, I had no reply.)
Much more often, people remember Dad by saying comments like:
“I loved your Dad.”
“I miss your Dad a lot.”
“Your Dad was the nicest man.”
“I wish I could talk with your Dad again.”
“Your Dad helped me through a problem years ago.”
These statements reflect feeling – how Dad made them feel about themselves, their lives, ambitions, efforts, families and work. People so often recall the feelings that swelled up in their times with Dad: worthiness, boundlessness, heard, smart, valued, uplifted and respected.
So many of our efforts in life aim at achievement. Close a deal, publish a book, get into a college, grow a business, earn a doctorate, become a surgeon, start a company. These achievements matter. They propel the world forward, in a sense. Most people’s achievements matter to them and a few others, for a short while. Months or perhaps a few years. People do recall a few of Dad’s accomplishments, or that he was somehow involved. They recall few details, and in a hazy way.
But they recall the feelings Dad imbued them with tangibly, palpably, with force. Their eyes light up. Their voices lift. They straighten up. Their life brightens in the remembrance of Dad.
I’ve learned this lesson in the years since he passed. Even in death, Dad continues to teach me.
Lesson 4 (Thursday): Your Name Matters
When people bring up my Dad, they do so cheerfully and happily. His name brings to mind fine feelings and memories.
Underneath those feelings sits the bedrock knowledge of Dad’s honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. If an action had to be taken which would shortchange someone else or Dad, he chose the path to shortchange himself.
When Dad and Uncle owned some apartments, they renovated them and maintained them to a particular quality standard. The standard was: “we would be happy living in one of our apartments.”
That ethos stands in stark contrast to most rental landlords. For most rental owners, maximizing rental income and diminishing expenses – even cutting out desperately needed safety measures – rule the day. Of course, those owners would never think of living in one of their apartments. It’d be beneath them.
People knew that Dad lived to high standards. They could tell. As a result they placed their trust in him. The name “S. Russell Smith, Jr.” meant rectitude, fairness and decency.
All of this I knew when Dad was alive. But the forcefulness of his name hit me even more after his passing, and after I moved home to Louisville. Reflecting on my clients, about ¼ of them have come to me because of their sentiments about Dad and Mom. I have been the fortunate beneficiary of a wonderful halo effect from being their son.
Your name matters. During your life. But it can also matter years later – to your family and to your community.
Lesson 5 (Friday): Words Matter
On the occasion of our friend Herb Melton’s 35-year anniversary in business, his company invited clients to send Herb a letter. I jotted off a quick handwritten note, addressed it, and mailed it off. I had seen it as a task to complete. And while Herb appreciated my note, it simply didn’t convey what reflection taught me I should have conveyed.
Dad realized the significance of that moment for Herb. He wrote accordingly and appropriately.
Years later, I ran across Dad’s letter to Herb. It was a two-page single-spaced exploration of his friendship and work with Herb. Dad wrote about how fortunate he felt to have met Herb, and utilized Herb’s services as a tailor. He also described how much of an impact Herb had had on me and my brother, both as a stylist and in imparting broader, more critical lessons to us through Herb’s work:
Perhaps my thoughts and feelings about you and our long relationship are best reflected in what occurred about 17 or 18 years ago when I first asked you to advise my son, Russell III, about clothing and then a year or two later I asked you to do the same thing for my other son, Brooken. You have been a wonderful mentor to both of them on clothing quality, taste, style and appropriate attire for any given occasion. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, you have been a fine example to them of how to honestly and professionally conduct the business of providing quality goods and services to others.
Dad wrote a beautiful letter.
To Dad, words mattered. He knew their import and their impact. His heartfelt words made his heart felt by the recipient.
Lesson 6 (Saturday): Write Well
As I noted yesterday, Dad knew that words matter. Dad wrote well, worked at writing well, and helped others write well too.
Dad was an outstanding legal and, in the words of his office manager, “technical” writer. His writing flowed cleanly and clearly. I never misinterpreted his writing and was not left in ambiguity as to its meaning. As a non-lawyer, I could read his contracts and perfectly understand the duties and rights of each party.
Dad also helped many people become better writers themselves. I have been told he served as the unofficial writing mentor to junior associates at his law firm. Often in high school, college and even after, I asked for Dad to deploy his editing skills on an essay I had written. Universally, it came back with suggestions to tighten it, better organize my argument and make my point more cogently. He rooted out logical flaws, incoherent or inconsistent flow, and weak arguments. It was humbling, and uplifting, to receive the paper back from him doused in his red ink. Humbling because he’d shredded a piece I had a high and mighty opinion about. Uplifting because his editing efforts showed me a path to greater skill in a craft I felt desperate to master. And because the very detail of his edits conveyed his belief in my as an aspiring writer.
When he retired from the law, Dad shared a passing fancy that he thought about writing a history of Rome. He never did, and I profoundly regret he never took up his pen in that cause. In a world with more than its fair share of books, histories and analysis, somehow Dad’s would have shed some sort of unique vista on it. And it would have been a joy to read.
Lesson 7 (Sunday): Be a Good
Dad had one brother, my Uncle Raymond. Dad and Unc taught me and my brother a great deal about brotherhood and friendship.
Dad and Unc were best friends. They loved getting to spend time together and to work together. In a sense, they arranged their lives so they would have the chance to work together every day. They worked at different law firms, but owned a real estate firm on the side. It was their passion; they loved the work of it and they loved working on that business, together.
I’ve always found one of their “rules” for working together fascinating: when facing a decision, they had to agree on it or they didn’t do it. It was that simple. Their relationship mattered far more than one deal or one decision or one person’s ego. They stuck to that rule through almost four decades of business partnership.
Dad and Unc were the role models for my relationship with my brother. We grew up best friends. That continued in the years we attended the same university, then lived together for several years after graduation. It continues today.
I also think Dad and Unc lived a profound philosophical point. Many people today have a false impression that brotherhood is the strongest link that can exist between men. That is simply not true. Aristotle did not write, ‘The greatest city would be one of brothers.’ He wrote, “The greatest city would be one of friends.”
We should pay attention to the warning that the American Civil War was one of “brother versus brother.” I worry when I hear the sentiment, “the brotherhood of man.” Brotherhood has not and will not bring good rule or peace. But friendship might.
That practical and philosophical lesson – friendship is a higher and more noble state than mere brotherhood – was brought home to me by my Dad and my Uncle.