Life

Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way

I wrote this five years ago, when my sons were in high school and thinking about their futures. I’m thrilled to see how much of this advice they took, and how relevant it remains today.

Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.

The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.

1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.

How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.

If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.

If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.

But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. There are paths to move up in those worlds but they are hard and slow. This will suck; avoid it if you can.

2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.

Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.

Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.

Dad and Sons

Me with my sons, now both in college

3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.

Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play the music from my youth.

But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.

More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.

4. Be who you are.

This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.

You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.

This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.

5. Following your dreams is overrated.

I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.

Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I was only an average programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.

Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway.

You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.

6. Enjoy the journey.

If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.

You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.

That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.

Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.

7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.

You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.

For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.

Those days are pretty much over.

I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due one month after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.

The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.

But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.

Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.

Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.

You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.

Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!

These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.

I envy you; it sounds like great fun!

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Stories Told

Dad was always there

It’s a steady presence that lets a child feel secure: a father who is there.

My dad had a strong singing voice. Like father, like sons: my brother and I could carry a tune and sing out. Dad encouraged it in us from a very young age. He’d ask us to sing as we rode around in his car, and we’d serenade him and Mom with the day’s popular songs. We also had a pretty good Beatles repertoire. My brother sang John and I sang Paul, our voices blending. Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!

My parents weren’t surprised when the school’s choir director asked their permission for me to join the choir a year early, in the second grade. She had heard me sing in music class and wanted my voice as soon as she could get it.

I loved being in the choir. I sang my heart out. At our concerts I sang to my dad, who was in the audience without fail.

James Monroe School

Sometimes I’d wait backstage for my turn to walk out as part of some production, but most of the time I stood with the choir on risers at the foot of the stage. From wherever I sang, the first thing I did was scan the audience for my dad’s face. I could seldom see it in the dark. But I knew he was there and it was enough for me.

James Monroe School

I’m fortunate to have these photographs of my elementary school’s auditorium from eight years ago when they held an open house after an extensive renovation. Here’s the view my dad would have had, as he preferred to sit in the balcony.

James Monroe School

Dad was always there. He came home every night and spent his evenings with his family. He attended every school event my brother or I were in. When my brother ran track and cross country, they went not only to every meet, but even to most practices. They’d sit streetside in their car and watch. Here’s a photo of them doing just that in 1984. Mom is prominent in the frame but Dad is there, in the driver’s seat. To the right, out of the photo, is the school practice track and my brother running on it.

MomInRenault

When I did a summer basketball camp, Dad came to watch me play (badly). When I was invited to sing in an opera, Dad came to listen to me practice with the chorus. When I got braces, Dad took me to many of my orthodontic appointments and waited for me. When I flew to Germany the summer after my junior year, Dad wrote me that he wished he could be a butterfly on my shoulder.

When I got my first apartment, Dad came to see it right away. When my sons were born, Dad waited in the hospital, eager to meet his grandbabies. When my marriage began to stumble, and then to crumble, and then to flame out horrifically, Dad had no idea what to say that would help but he took every phone call through the whole mess and let me vent and rage. Those phone calls home kept me from losing my mind.

Dad was there.

If you’ve read the other stories I’ve told about Dad since he died (all here), you know our relationship wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and that he could be difficult and unkind, and that it left me with some stuff to work through.

But none of that obviates one iota that he was in the game with his children every step of the way. That it set his sons up for successful adult lives.

Where I go to church, in an inner-city neighborhood that knows poverty, families are usually significantly broken. Fathers are out of the picture. Kids live with moms and current boyfriends, or with aunts, or even with family friends. They bounce from roof to roof, from bed to bed. They don’t know stability. It shows up in their lives: the trouble they get into, the challenges they have transitioning to adulthood, the deep anger so obvious in them. They got a raw deal, and they know it.

But I have a solid sense of stability and goodness because Dad was there.

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Life, Stories Told

Why I stay on Facebook even though I don’t enjoy it much

I’ve not enjoyed Facebook much for months and months. Especially since the election of our current President, the place has become so polarized and tribalized. Angry screeds and narrowminded memes. Siding up and tossing ad hominems.

It’s not fun. I keep thinking I should quit. And then something like this photograph happens.

Me in 2nd Grade

Me in second grade, 1974 or 1975

A fellow I knew in elementary school, someone with whom I’ve not spoken for nearly 40 years, shared it on my wall. It’s me at my desk in our second-grade classroom. The fellow’s mom brought cupcakes for his birthday and photographed the class. He came upon the photo his his mother’s things, made a quick mobile-phone snap of it, and posted it.

What a joy to see this photo! I’d forgotten what a mop top I was, and I had no memories of what that classroom looked like.

But what happened next was truly special. Because I’m connected on Facebook with so many of my elementary classmates, many of them commented and reminisced. And we discovered together that we all felt like our elementary school was a truly special place where we felt safe and cared for. We shared memories of our teachers, of walking to school together, of after-school snacks at each others’ homes, and even of summer fun on the playground. We experienced community in our neighborhood through our school, and we agreed that it was wonderful.

This wasn’t just sticky-sweet nostalgia. We Monroe School alums had a joyful shared experience thanks to this photograph. We compared our notes to find that we all privately felt the same way about our long-ago experience. It validated that experience, I think, for all of us.

In this way, Facebook is like an abusive relationship. It’s good just often enough that you don’t leave.

This gorgeous school building underwent a thorough renovation in 2010. See interior and exterior photos here.

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Happy student

This young fellow is a teenager now. But when I visited his school near Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, nine years ago, he was this lively, happy boy.

I speak very little Spanish. I can ask where the bathroom is, I can order a beer, I can offer greetings, and I can count to 14. And I can say I don’t speak Spanish, which is what I had to say to this boy when he ran up to me excitedly asking a question I couldn’t understand. So he pointed to my camera and then to himself. His intentions clear, I leaned in and framed, and got this fantastic photograph.

And then he wanted to see the back of my camera. He let loose a torrent of puzzled words when he found no screen there. I had no way to explain my film camera!

Happy student, Piedras Negras, Coahuila • Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 • Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 • October, 2006

Photography

Favorite Photos Week: Happy student, Piedras Negras, Coahuila

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Life

Rolling with the transitions

My older son graduated high school on Saturday. It’s a day for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. I was glad to celebrate this passage with him, though he said he felt much as I did when I graduated high school: “Dad, I’m a good student; was there ever any doubt this day would come?”

But I’ll admit it, the day tore open some hard feelings for me — regrets that thanks to the divorce and living apart, I didn’t get to spend every day with him as he grew up. And I see even less of him now as he has taken a job and prepares to go to Purdue in the fall. I really miss him.

When we’ve managed to get together lately, we’ve had some really good talks. He loves video games as much as I love old cameras and film photography. He deeply understands game design and has a remarkable feel for story arc and how it is best used in games. He also has good insight into the business of video games, which is enough like the business of software (what I do for a living) that we can talk meaningfully about the ins and outs of what makes both a video game and other software products successful, and why sometimes a seemingly sure thing fails.

Doing homework, as usual

In college, doing homework, as usual

But I also got to say some things to him about heading into this next phase of his life. I remember going off to college at 17 and feeling not just that I was expected to keep moving forward, away from my parents and into my adulthood, but that the door had closed behind me. I’m sure my parents didn’t mean for me to feel that way, and would have been supportive had I reached out. But I felt alienated from all I had known just the same.

And then I had some typical difficulties of adjusting to college. Because I chose a tough school, I was buried in homework and worked harder than I ever have since. I struggled with some of my classes and briefly wound up on academic probation. I kept getting sick, as the same bugs got passed around the dorm over and over again. I became deeply depressed, and I felt like I had to bear it all alone.

I was unusually fortunate then to know my calling: making software. I pursued it, I pushed through the difficulties, and for the last 26 years have spent my working days doing it. But my son is more typical. He has a general direction in mind, but the picture of his future is cloudy.

But even if he knew exactly where he was headed, I don’t want him to feel as alone as I did. I told him that no matter what, I’m on his team. If things get tough, he should call; I’ll listen to him dump and vent. If he needs to come home to decompress for the weekend, I’ll go get him. If he wants to change majors, he should just do it. If he decides Purdue isn’t for him, then for heaven’s sake don’t stay. Come home and we’ll figure out a next step.

01-001 proc sm

An apple on my former desk in my former office

It’s ironic, then, that I’m not making software at the moment. I was laid off from my job last Monday. My boss came to my office, ashen-faced, first thing to break the bad news.

I joined the company when it was small to build a testing team from scratch. (Programmers write the code, and testers make sure it works.) They make a very useful product, one that has a real chance at changing an entire industry for the better. But the company has always struggled to sell enough of it.

And so I wasn’t terribly surprised when my boss said that the company needed to cut expenses to match revenue, and that it meant my job and the jobs of several of my colleagues.

Truth? I was flooded with relief. I had been unhappy for some time. There were things I had hoped to do there that I thought would deeply benefit the company but in which I couldn’t generate any real interest. It was frustrating and disappointing to see my ideas repeatedly rebuffed. And I just didn’t mesh with my peers in management. The company culture loves bold alpha males, and so the middle-management team tends to be lone wolves who operate independently. While I’m all about moving initiatives forward powerfully, I’m more of a quiet collaborator. I kept feeling steamrolled and countermanded by my high-independence, high-action, high-emotion peers. It was exhausting.

I’m not wealthy — the modest payout the company gave me will run out sometime this summer, and then I’ll have to start paying the bills with the money I plan to send to Purdue. I have plenty of anxiety over that. But fortunately, I’m well connected in my industry in my town, and I’m working my network hard. Right now, it’s very hard to fill open positions in software development here, as pretty much everyone who wants to work in the field has a job. The last time I hired someone, resumes trickled in and it took four months to find a good candidate. So I’m optimistic that I’ll be back to work before the money runs out. Wish me luck.

But there is a bright side: when my son visits this summer, at least I’ll have time to spend with him.

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At the foot of the stage

James Monroe SchoolI last stood in the wings of this stage when I was in the sixth grade in 1978. But I didn’t particularly want to be here. I would rather have been singing with the choir at the foot of the stage.

As part of a concert, a few of us entered the stage from here and danced our way across, strumming ukuleles while the choir sang Fascinating Rhythm. I hated to dance! But Mrs. O’Hair, a teacher who helped with the vocal music program, had considerable will. When she decided you were going to be in a production, there was no discussion.

And so I danced, badly. Then with great relief I returned to the choir.

I loved to sing. I could carry a tune, and I sang out loud. I joined the school choir in the second grade, a year before students were normally allowed to join. Miss Seidler, the music teacher and choir director, wanted my strong voice in the choir and so she asked my parents if they’d mind. They didn’t.

Practice was a lot of fun. I enjoyed mastering new songs and hearing my voice blend with others. I never really enjoyed performing, but the joy of singing every day was worth the two concerts each year. My dad never missed a concert. He still tells people that I carried the choir, but I think he suffers from too much fatherly pride. I was proud to have him in the audience, and I’ll never forget looking out over the dark auditorium trying to find him in the crowd.

James Monroe School

Dad liked to sit in the balcony where he could get the best view.

James Monroe School

I stuck with choir through middle school, where we sang in four parts. I sang tenor, but had enough range to cover the alto and often the soprano parts, much to my fellow tenors’ surprise. Then as my eighth grade year drew to a close, one morning I woke up and found that my voice had changed and I was suddenly a baritone. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to relearn a dozen songs quickly enough, so I just quit the choir and its early-morning practices. I found I really liked sleeping in, so I didn’t join the choir in high school. (It’s funny how things turn out – not being in morning choir practice freed me to spend time in the school’s computer lab instead, which led to my career in software development.)

But I didn’t stop singing. I couldn’t; it just felt too good. It soothed me when I was upset and lifted me when I was blue. When I was out of sorts I’d take long drives in the country, singing along at the top of my lungs to my favorite tapes until I’d regained my peace. And later when I found Christ, I was part of a congregation that sang a cappella in four-part harmony. I found great joy and pleasure in singing powerfully with a group again.

The only time in my life when my voice was still was during the last few years of my marriage, as things got really bad, and in the first couple years after my wife and I separated. But as I began to put my life back together, I found my voice, too. When I wanted to sing again, I knew that the worst was over.

I still sing nearly every day, mostly as I drive around in my car, accompanied by whatever music I’m playing. If I’m ever behind you on the road, if you look in your rear view mirror you’ll probably see me belting out a tune! My sons riding in the back seat are the only audience I ever have. Sometimes they sing along. That’s just how I like it.


Originally posted in November of 2010.

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