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The Stoic Dad

Let’s start at 10K feet.

I was born in Chicago, grew up a latch key kid in Southern California and came to Wisconsin for college where I graduated with a Philosophy Degree and a double minor is Chemistry and Biology. I got married and sired three awesome kids with an Irish Catholic Marquette grad. I worked in distribution, hospitality, and professional services (not a Gigolo) for my first three careers. I professed part time at two colleges, started a sales consulting practice, built a Sales Jedi training academy, and now own a machine shop where I lead a great team of skilled and caring individuals. I’m a Jeffersonian that likes bourbon, the 2nd Amendment, Free Market Economics, and really meaty pizza on Saturday nights. I have some great centers of influence that keep me humble (This means you Judi M!), my pronoun is “whatever”, and I am far from having figured things out.

We have three great kids and we have tried tirelessly to give them a good foundation to grow from. Our oldest is high functioning autistic and has taught me more about management than any other experiences. Think of the relationship Picard has with Data. Our second daughter is as selfless as my wife and the world has always been too small for her; Our son is turning into a fine young man and we try to keep up with his desire to be everything he can be.

One of my main rules for parenting is not to treat your kids like kids. Sure there is the car seat phase and the cotton candy line at the zoo, but we have always been honest with them about the world and involved them in the solutions developed at the kitchen table. There are no questions off limits and we all share how we added value to the world that day and what we learned from it. This philosophy has developed over time and now at a point where we can share it with those that are interested. Sure this may provide evidence for my eventual committal to an asylum, but it might help some of you as well.

Since I fell in love with philosophy and continuously ponder the meaning of life when I’m walking the dogs late at night, I have always been a fan of stoicism. A ‘Stoic’, by definition, is a person who endures pain and suffering without letting out their emotions. Simple. It is visually equal to that cow you see in the field when it’s cold outside and it’s raining hard.

Stoicism is a branch of philosophy created for those that live in the real world. Not the people across the street from me. It’s a philosophy designed to make us more resilient, happier, more virtuous and wiser. By default then, we should be better people, better professionals, and even better parents correct? Key word here is ‘should’.

Stoicism and its core values of courage, temperance, justice, and the wisdom generated has been a common thread among some of history’s great leaders. It has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Names you would recognize include Marcus Aurelius, Frederick the Great, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Theodore Roosevelt, and General James “Mad Dog” Mattis. All were guided by principles that include focusing on what you can control, taking action, being virtuous, leading by example, showing resilience in difficult times, being grateful, and choosing how they reacted to things. Google stoicism and you’ll find plenty out there on the subject and all it entails.

Over the course of my life and as documented in “The Great Book of Peterisms”, I have found many quotes, sayings, and movie lines that are stoic in nature and I finally decided to turn some of my favorite stoics and their thoughts towards a parenting philosophy to pass on to other Dads. The master list can be found here but let’s look as some of my favorite philosophy quotes and apply them to the spectrum of “Dadness”.

Giving a hand up and not a hand out

Be careful to leave your sons (and daughters) well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant. – The Discourses, CXLV

Teaching your children self care, responsibility, technical knowledge and basically how to live will always be paramount. Yes, provide for them, but don’t forget to show them the way. Like a Mandalorian.

Epictetus said “When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.” I am sure they hope for us to pass on tangible riches, but I think they see themselves as rich already given the support they have to be awesome in their own ways compared to some of the unluckier peers around them.

I love the kid who has the new car and the expensive watch from his Disney Dad, but he couldn’t change a tire or put clothes in the dryer to save his life.

Opportunities through difficulties

“If you have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca AND “Don’t aim to be perfect. Aim to be antifragile.”-Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

I am a huge fan of learning from failure or mistakes and not helicopter parenting. That has already set up one gen for failure and I already feel bad for their kids.

Being there for your kids when things don’t go right is a must. Asking after action questions about what should have been done different and what is going to change so the same results do not happen will give your kids a better foundation than giving them the WTF were you thinking approach.

Not everyone gets a trophy for trying and whenever my son complains about a difficult task or taking on a new project I give him the entrepreneur meme I read somewhere about doing the things that others won’t do today so you can do things that others can’t do later.

You don’t deserve anything

“A fit body, a calm mind, a house full of love. These things cannot be bought — they must be earned.”-Naval Ravikant.

Like the final words of Captain Miller to Private Ryan when his life is draining in the final moments of the movie. “Earn this” are his parting words of wisdom.

I am grateful everyday for the opportunities I have had and the experiences I have daily with my family. As I have aged, I do not want to rule to world as much as I want to try to enjoy it and watch those that I am responsible for grow in their own ways. In fact, on the subject of enjoying more, I recently flipped my thought process from complaint based to more appreciation based. Like bitching about the left less and more about being grateful that you have the freedom to bitch. Like bitching about paying taxes but being grateful that I am in a position to pay them.

Some of the things I have could be luck, but as Seneca stated, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Teach your the kids to take nothing for granted, be prepared, and always try to give more than they receive. Givers get and there is no room for takers.

Seize the moment

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, say and think.”-Marcus Aurelius.

This is more than the YOLO crowd and is in line with how I think you should develop vision statements for organizations. You can associate it with the “turd test”, the “mom test”, and the “golden rule” that I have driven into the kids. Same as the thought that you can do 1000 great things but it takes one bad decision to make you memorable.

I like the question “what do you want on your tombstone” for people to remember you by? Keeps it short and sweet. I see way too many vision and mission statements that have hundreds of words but don’t tell you anything. I actually had a standing joke with my philosophy professor, since I did not easily accept being told I was wrong, that my epitaph would read “I told you I was sick”. I win.

This quote is also for taking action. There are opportunities to parent every single minute and missing those opportunities could be harmful long term. You’ll regret not taking them. I am not talking about the Boomer/Millennial failures of coddling and pacifying the world, but rather dealing with problems like an after action report from a military operation. Want to strengthen your kids? Ask what did they learn, what happens next time, what should have happened, and what do you need from me to help?

One of the latest books I have on taking action states that there are no lack of ideas of what to do, but rather a complete lack of initiative in world.

Yes, opinions ARE like A-holes.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”-Marcus Aurelius.

Teaching kids to critically think for themselves is priceless and seems to be in short supply. I’ve watched all my kids regurgitate some of the thoughts and beliefs my wife and I have, but I have made sure that they understand why we think like that and that it is important to have your own opinions but respect others. Respect, objectivity, and pragmatism seem to be missing in the world when you hear opinions and perspectives that are not yours.

Change it

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”-Viktor Frankl.

There are two types of people. Those that let the situation control them and those that can change the situation. Remember what someone replies to you when you state “it hurts when I do this”? I let the kids complain once about something and then they get the previous sentence handed to them if I hear the same complaint twice. Then, if they can’t change something, they need to find a new something.

You’ll be fine

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”-Epictetus.

An operations manager that I worked with had one response for every complaint he heard from others. “You’ll be fine” was burned into brain and is now my first response to others that complain. Shit happens and it will happen again. Milk spills. That may sound Taoist but it’s the truth and I believe that how you react to something is actually a choice and can be up to 95% of the actual problem. Like Jack Sparrow said: The problem is not the problem, the problem is your attitude about the problem. Parenting when shit happens gives you more opportunities to develop your kids foundation to deal with future problems of their own.

Epictetus also said “the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have” and I like what Voltaire wrote about “life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

Patience is a virtue

“No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig.”-Epictetus.

My wife wishes I had more patience for sure. Doesn’t mean you have to like it but our kids are set up for failure by Amazon drone deliveries and the instant acquisition of wants and needs available in drive-thru windows. This goes with the thoughts at the beginning of this post for providing a hand up and even teaching your kids to fish. Involve your kids with projects like painting, gardening, building models, working on cars, landscaping the yard, and even raising pets. There are some things that take time but you can tangibly see the results of your labor.

A wise friend of my dads once said “nine women can’t give you a a baby in one month” and ever since I heard that line, I have used it for projects that have a natural pace that you can’t impact.

Some of the coolest moments I have had as a dad have come through teaching my kids how to do something. Operating the boat, sighting in a rifle, installing flooring, changing the oil, driving a car, and even painting their own rooms can’t be delivered by drones from Amazon or experienced by looking at your silicon master.

Focus on what matters

Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. – Paul Graham

Seems simple but it’s actually pretty hard. It seems like we are always trying to keep up with the Jones’s, buying things out of fear of missing out syndrome, coveting what others post about, and making sure the world around us digs us. Lose the phones, go for a hike with your kids and dogs, watch the sunset from the beach, have some cocktails around the bonfire, and then don’t post anything about it. Donald

Rumsfeld said you should prune your business, services, people, and activities annually. I’m trying to take that to a next level with teaching the kids to prune out the BS.

Do as you say

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it. – Epictetus

Like Yoda said; “there is not try, only do”. I’m an open book and like to think my values and beliefs are mimicked by my actions on work and family life but with so much hypocrisy and superficiality in the world around us, it can be difficult to filter out the BS and easy to get caught up in drama that isn’t yours. But guess what? You can choose to ignore it and it’s choice to even let it impact you.

We talk a lot as a family about the world we are in and our kids actions speak for themselves in sports, school, and even in their own jobs. It’s fun to watch them do the right things for the right reasons the right way at the right time and get recognized for it. Scroll up for a reminder of the stoic principles: focusing on what you can control, taking action, being virtuous, leading by example, showing resilience in difficult times, being grateful, and choosing how they react to things.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.” Marcus Aurelius

Proof I am a Stoic

“No matter how difficult and painful parenting proves to be, it takes me a lot longer to reach for the bourbon bottle now” – Peter Rathmann

Long live parenting!

Leading Against Existential Threats (updated 11/21/21)

Never mind the standard business threats, here comes an existential threat and you need to adapt as a leader. 

An existential threat poses permanent large negative consequences to humanity which can never be undone. We’ll see what the final statistics say about Covid-19 contagiousness, infection rates and mortality compared to other historical viruses but you can be sure the global and national response to Covid-19 will set a new standard for perceived social responsibility versus personal rights, business continuity and global economic impact.

Given the events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, you now get to tackle lockdowns, quarantines, limited services, diminishing support, fear, uncertainty in the supply chain, concerned employees, non-Covid-19 illnesses that make everyone else nervous, returning employees being quarantines, lousy news services, useless politicians, non-specific governing declarations, and new tax and legal policies that give you no integration plan and leave you with more questions than solutions. You didn’t create this game but you do have to play it.

Yes, we are all in this together and it is completely clear that Europe has more balconies than the rest of the world. I appreciate the cute memes, sharing of inspiring quotes and comical videos from my network. I even enjoy how some companies are trying to take advantage of current market conditions for gain even though some of them are below the line. However, there is a different level of leadership and activity necessary for navigating the current times and I would expect to see more of it.  I would consider it the difference between peacetime and wartime leadership. 

The peacetime leader sets big, hairy, audacious goals and tries to grow the business through the entrepreneurial spirit and empowerment of the team.  The wartime leader is too busy fighting the enemy and needs to be in the field leading. The wartime leader is tenacious, committed, responsive, agile, and ultimately accessible to the stakeholders in their efforts. 

Let’s look at some historical figures for some reference; Churchill had courage, imagination, experience, perseverance, the ability to communicate with people and ultimately inspire them.  Reagan had a great capability for adapting to changing realities. He understood growth. He had a sharp eye for danger and recognized the leader’s duty to prepare and protect. He also had a profound respect for the dignity, rights, and responsibilities of the individual.  Lincoln had extraordinary empathy and the ability to put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling and to understand their motives and desires. This gave him influence on friends and foes alike. Military experts list agility, responsiveness, accessibility, adaptability, flexibility, mental and physical resilience, competence, and most importantly character as qualities of a leader. Character is often demonstrated in how closely our actions, decisions and relationships adhere to ethics and values.  

There are, of course, many more examples but these will work to make the point and define what leadership should look like during the Covid-19 pandemic response.  Are we seeing any of this? I would argue we are not, at least not the way traditional news sources are reporting. In fact, those that have tried to speak to objectivity and reason have been targeted and demonized and cancelled.

What matters right now is how you are leading your team and if they are responding.  The business still has to function and produce value to the stakeholders which includes employees.  Think about how you would be described in the history books when dealing with the next existential threat.  Are you living up to your team’s expectations and needs now?

Here is what I see working for the peers that I respect; Honesty, clarity, transparency and consistency in communication with stakeholders. Specificity, commitment, delegation and accountability to driving the mission of the organization. And resilience, responsiveness, accessibility and empathy with employees.

This is an interesting time in business. People are looking to you for guidance and don’t forget, your family still needs you as well.

Addendum:

President Reagan, while addressing the United Nations in 1987, stated that he wished of an alien invasion in the hopes that it would unite people. But would it really given what we have seen? I do not think it would happen after the response to this crisis.  Donald Rumsfeld stated it best: “Governments are good at two things, nothing and freaking out”.  I do not think the government has let us down the past 20 months.

What should have been treated as a health emergency was treated as an economic emergency and has now created further economic and societal disasters of inflation, shrinkflation, labor shortages, supply chain constraints, 50% increases in fuel, unnecessary mandates, polarization of values, and a feeling of insecurity in the globe.  Nice work! Try actual science next time instead of political science.

There has not been nor will there ever be a unifying objective and pragmatic voice that leads the world so my advice is to take care of those directly around you, continue to surround yourself with people that value freedom and rights, and do the best you can to navigate the policies and individuals that try remove those.

The plus side, I have found, is that there are still people that value work and want to add value to the world.  I’m trying to find more of them and will help support the ones I already have found.  By the way, none of them are elected or appointed by those elected in either party. It will be up to the private sector as usual to fix the messes caused by policies and perceptions.

Drive Your Own Car in Your Own Lane

Recently on American Idol, Phillip Phillips sang Stevie Wonder‘s “Superstition” to close out the first “American Idol” finals round.

Steven Tyler said, “you just are…Okay”…. Jennifer Lopez liked how he made the song his own and said “you killed it.” Randy Jackson liked his originality and liked how he interpreted somebody else’s song and told him “You drive your own car in your own lane!”

That hit a point with me about the entrepreneurial companies I work with on a weekly basis and how they have had success doing things their way but are not always fully understood.

When an entrepreneurial company wants to do something new, navigate into a new market, or develops a new way of doing things, they do not always get positive feedback from the direct “stakeholders”  about what they envision or what they are trying to accomplish. Two reasons for this are 1) that they have not effectively communicated why they are trying to do something new, and 2) they do not have the right people in place to execute their vision.

Have a vision, set a goal, create a plan, communicate the plan to all parties involved, inform everyone of their role in the plan, live by example, and do what you say you are going to do.  Once these things are in place, you can hold people accountable to their role in the plan and you will be driving your own car in your own lane and continuing your success.