Lessons I Have Tried to Teach You
To Hayley, Lindsey and Carly
I know my mission.
You’ve heard me say many times that your mission is “To Have Fun”. When I was growing up, that was my mission too and I can report that I have accomplished the mission many times over. I have enjoyed myself and I want you to enjoy yourself too. The pursuit of happiness is a basic human right that is as important as life and liberty. This country’s founding fathers said so. Don’t ever let anyone take away your happiness. Being happy and having fun should always be one of your missions. If you are ever in a situation where you are not happy and having fun, you need to change the situation.
I have another mission in addition to the pursuit of fun. This mission has been hard-coded into my DNA. It has been handed down to me from my ancestors in an unbroken, evolutionary chain. My job is to procreate; to do my small part for the survival of the species. Procreation does not simply mean having children. It means having children who are smart enough NOT to win a Darwin Award. Avoid the “honor” of winning this award. Please.
For many thousands of years, teaching the young was done around the camp fire as the old guys passed on their wisdom gained through experience: 1) The good hunting grounds are over there; 2) bears might kill you; and, 3) be good to your mother. These were important lessons that helped the species survive. The concept here is the same.
All fathers should teach their children certain lessons. My role is to pass on to you the things I have learned so that you will have an easier time going through life. I have a responsibility to teach you ideas, concepts, values and ethics, which will allow you to be productive and contribute to society. I hope I can teach you but I know that each of you will have to learn your own lessons and establish your own values and ethics. You will have to learn things on your own. One day, if you’re lucky enough, it will be your turn to teach your own children the lessons that you have learned in your life. The need to nurture is bred into us. Teaching you three is a central driver in my life right now.
This message, however, is far more about me than about you. I hope by reading this you will come to know me better. It may help you answer some questions. What did I stand for? What were my values? What ethical code guided me? If I’m not around to answer your questions, I hope this letter helps you find the answers.
As I first write this, Carly is the same age I was when my father died. I never got to know him. The time I spent with him was so very short and the memories I have of him are colored through the eyes of a ten-year old boy. I wish he had written me a letter, which I could have read, and re-read, as I grew up. I wish I knew him better. I had a lot of unanswered questions about him when I was your age.
I encourage you to determine for yourself if anything I write here has any meaning to you. These lessons are what I’ve found important in my life. You girls have your own life to live and no one else can live it for you. You’ll have to learn things on your own. That’s an important lesson in itself. Experiential learning is the best kind of learning. You’ll find out that you don’t learn as much from a teacher giving you a lecture as when you experience things. I want you to go out and make some mistakes. I want you to expect mistakes, laugh at mistakes and learn from them.
So, here are the seven lessons that I have tried to teach.
Independence and Free Will – Being self-reliant and not trying to impose your will on others
Taking Risks – Having an entrepreneurial bent
Other Centered – Being concerned about other people first
Curiosity – Asking “Why? Or How?”
Optimism – Developing a belief that things will always get better
Family and Friends – Letting the closest people to you share your life’s ups and downs
Principles – Getting to a point in your life where principles can guide you
Independence, Free Will
You can’t control other people. You can fire them, yell at them, spank them, jail them or send them to their room but you can’t control them. You can’t get into someone’s head and force him or her to believe any certain way. You can never force someone to love you. Or command them to believe, or not believe, in any particular religion, product or political party.
People have free will and I’ve learned that it’s useless to try to force people to do something they don’t want to do. Even kids. In raising you three, I’ve said many times that I can’t force you to do anything. All I can do is ask you to do something and then let you know the consequence of your choice. Sometimes the consequence was nothing more than me being disappointed. I wanted each of you to know that you’ll have to live with the results of your choices. What you do sometimes affects others more than yourself and I want you to learn this. Independence does not mean being self-centered. Having independence means that you can’t blame others for your decisions. You are responsible for your actions.
Within limits, you were free to choose among alternatives. I hope you remember that as far as I was concerned, the only thing that was non-negotiable was anything related to your health or well-being: You had to wear a seat belt; you couldn’t get on your bike without a helmet; you could never ride on a motorcycle… Pretty much everything else that was not health or well-being related was negotiable.
I did not tell you how to behave, but instead I gave you choices. “You can bicker or not bicker. If you bicker, we have to go home. If you don’t bicker, we can stay. What would you like to do?” When you asked me if you could buy something at the store, my answer was always, “Sure you can”, both of us knowing that you’d have to pay for it from your weekly allowance. I wanted to teach you independence. You can make decisions for yourself and you didn’t need to ask me for permission.
I’ve learned that people don’t like to be told what to do. How you talk to someone affects their willingness to do things. Use words that request, not words that command. Ask for things, don’t demand things.
Okay, here’s the really important part: Never let anyone control you, either in a business or personal relationship. People who try to control you are a bummer to be around. Whenever someone tries to do that, they are trying to make you dependent on them. Drop them and move on; and do it early in the relationship.
You three are dependent upon Aimee and me now because you’re still kids. But I want to cut the strings sooner rather than later. My job is to teach you independence and self-reliance so you feel comfortable leaving the nest. I want you to fly on your own and never depend on anyone to take care of your needs.
The trait I admire most about Aimee is her independence. The fact that she goes by a different last name says a lot about who she is. I always chuckle whenever we get a letter addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Presley. Believe me, she is not my appendage.
The best example of her independence was when she got Watch and then, Toby. I was okay with two dogs but when she brought Watch home I was furious. We didn’t need a third dog! I actually had to leave the house to gather my thoughts. I was so upset I couldn’t see straight. Well, a few months later she came home with Toby and we had four dogs. She knew full well how I felt but decided to get a fourth dog anyway. She made her own decision and never asked for consent, much less permission. While I was very hurt and disappointed that she did not consider my feelings, there is another side to the coin. I love it that she had the freedom and independence to make that decision. She is living her own life. I hope you girls grow up with the freedom and independence to make similar decisions.
Taking Risks and Being an Entrepreneur
I’ve also encouraged you to take risks. Risk involves an element of danger. It should also involve an element of reward. If you take risks, make sure there is an appropriate reward. Never take a risk for the risk itself. Also, don’t take a foolish risks. Foolish risks sometimes become fatal risks.
Do you remember the story about the time I fell off Longs Peak? I went up the North Face, a technical climb that included a section right above a rather long drop straight down. Because I used a rope, an ice ax and went with a team, I didn’t die when I slipped and fell. The rope and the guy on the other end saved my life. I had a safety net in place that allowed me to take risks that I normally would not take. It wasn’t a foolish risk. All I got was a little scar on my eyebrow (something I’m proud of, by the way) and the reward was incredible. What a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
The man who has had the greatest influence on my career was Bill Daniels. Throughout his career, Bill was recognized as an incredibly talented businessman and humanitarian. He had a series of print ads developed for the cable TV trade magazines that promoted his personal values, ethics and beliefs. The ads did not promote his company directly, although it was clear that the foundation of his company was built on these values and principles. One of my favorite ads was one showing a turtle, with the caption “Behold the lowly turtle, who only moves forward by sticking his neck out” or something like that. The rest of the copy extolled the virtues of entrepreneurship and encouraged people to take risks and to help others to take risks. Do you remember the Three Sisters Flower Company? You three would leave the house with a wheelbarrow full of flowers and come back with about $20 each. Three cute little girls selling flowers door-to-door is a sure-fire business plan. I hope you learned that you can always make money.
Bill never offered a retirement plan to his “Associates”, as we were called. Instead he gave us equity stock in the company. He once gave me a pillow embroidered with the words “Give me equity or give me death.” Bill taught me that the best way to achieve wealth is through equity. And the best way to get equity is to be entrepreneurial and take risks. You might fail, and if you do, it’s not the end of the world. You can always make a comeback. But if you don’t try, you’re guaranteed not to succeed.
I have come to lump people into categories. I know it’s wrong, but I do it anyway. Others see the world in Black or White, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew. I see the world as Capitalist or Socialist. I am proud to be a Capitalist. I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe competition spurs innovation and creativity. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to succeed or fail based upon a free, fair and open marketplace.
My views now are different from where they were when I was a long-haired hippy in college. Back then, I believed profit was based on greed, corporations were sinister and “The Man” was trying to keep us down. I thought Robin Hood was a good guy.
Now, I believe that free enterprise is the best social welfare program. Businesses employ people and that’s good. Profit is used to either grow the business or provide a return to the investors, which is then used to grow other businesses. Profit is good, not bad. Now, I am “The Man”. Imagine that. Isn’t that funny.
I read somewhere that if you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 45, you have no brain. Don’t be surprised if your views change also, as you grow older.
Other-Centered, not Self-Centered
The very first time I learned about being “other-centered” was when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I visited my brother Bill one summer when he was going to school at Harvard. He had a class one day and a girlfriend of his “took care” of me. We walked the streets of Cambridge and she introduced me to an ice cream sundae with marshmallow, which I had never had before.
I remember sitting on the grass in “The Yard” having the most wonderful time of my life. She asked me all kinds of questions, all about me; what trips I’d been on, what music I liked, what event most shaped my life…. Wow! I loved talking to her because the whole conversation was about me. We probably talked three or four hours and I poured my heart out, and spilled my guts as well. In the end, she really knew me. I completely opened up.
She was the first person outside of my family that I ever “connected” with. Maybe she was pumping me for info on Bill, but regardless of the reason, I thought she was absolutely terrific. I didn’t know a thing about her, other than she was sure interested in me.
A few months later I had a chance to think about that experience. How could I like someone so much when I didn’t know a thing about her? The reason is because she focused on me. We never talked about her. This realization had a big impact on me. As a teenager, I learned a lesson that help shape my life.
When I’m around other people, I typically don’t use the words “I, Me, My” very often. I don’t have a need to impress others with how wonderful I am. Like Bill’s girlfriend, I’m trying to learn about the other person. If I can find out what’s important to someone, I’m more likely to find common interests and make a connection with the person. Generally, I do more listening than talking and when I do talk, I hope my words have more meaning to the other person. We may disagree with each other but it’s important to me that we understand each other.
I wish more people were other-centered but I recognize that most people are self-centered. Perhaps even all of us are self-centered, even me. A fundamental principle of economics is that people will do what’s in their own best self-interest. Perhaps people like me who are other-centered are actually playing the angle simply to satisfy their own needs. That would make me self-centered. I don’t argue the point very often because it gives me a headache thinking about it.
Being other-centered is the foundation of empathy. Empathy is about knowing another person so well that you feel what they feel. You don’t want them to feel pain or discomfort; you want them to feel love and joy because you share their feelings. Empathy is being other-centered to the highest degree.
I’ve heard that good sales people and good politicians are very empathetic. “I just hate it when that happens to you. I feel your pain.” I’ve always viewed myself as a sales person first and foremost. I’ve learned that empathy, real empathy, not fake empathy, is a characteristic that very few people have.
Aimee and I have shared many emotional events, some good and some bad. I’ve learned that sharing such events has brought us closer together because we both were forced to be empathetic to each other. These shared emotional events has helped bond us together. If you ever want to get closer to someone, go tie yourself together and bungee jump off a bridge. You will form an empathetic bond to the person you’re tied to. Aimee and I have had many bungee moments together.
I also have tried to be compassionate. Empathy is about feeling. Compassion is about taking action on those feelings. It is about helping someone when they are in pain. Never underestimate the power of touching someone. A hug and a shared tear can do wonders. Offer your shoulder when someone needs one to lean on.
When I was about 7 or 8, my dad brought home a set of Encyclopedias. There were about 25 or 30 hardbound books, containing what I thought was all the knowledge in the world. Probably five nights out of the week, my dad would read those books. He read them from cover to cover. Then he’d re-read them. I remember when he’d finish one book, he’d ask me to get him another one. “Which one?”, I’d ask. “Doesn’t matter, you pick it”, he’d reply. So I’d go get him a book and I’d hang on his shoulder, as he’d start another book of knowledge. At the time, I thought he was the smartest man in the world.
Have you ever wondered how the sewer system works? How do airplanes get from one city to another in the dark? How is a television program made? What makes the moon shine? How do engineers decide where to build roads? Is your perception of the color red the same as my perception of the color red? How big is the Universe? How small is an electron? What does the attic in our house look like? Did George Washington or Ben Franklin have an English accent? Do our toenails serve any purpose? What makes some people fun to be around? What makes a joke funny? If God can do ANYTHING, can He make a rock so big that he could not pick it up? Are we a creation of God or is God a creation of us?
I don’t think one can develop an optimistic attitude. I think it is something inherited, or at least determined by one’s experiences early in life. I don’t think a pessimist can become an optimist after the age of 20 or so. My mom was the ultimate optimist and she always saw the silver lining in the darkest cloud, perhaps to the point of it being a fault. One of her catch phrases was “Good things always happen to me.”
I also am an optimist and I think I caught that trait from her when I was very young. She was my biggest fan and I grew up knowing that I was okay. I was a good little boy. She was proud of everything I did and I grew up with a high self-esteem. The joke that Bill and I tell is that she saved all of our scabs because it was something that we produced.
Whenever things were bad, I learned that it would always get better. Things never stayed bad. I remember the feeling I had when I made a D on a test or didn’t do my homework. As bad as it felt, I learned that the feelings never stayed. It was a temporary condition. I knew things would always get better and because of this, bad things didn’t bother me as much as they did other people. Wow! I’d think, “Hey, no big deal. I’m okay. This isn’t so bad. Things will get better.”
At one point when Aimee and I were students at the University of Texas, we were flat broke. We didn’t have anything. Zip, zilch, nada. The cupboard was bare, literally. I went down to the plasma center to sell my plasma for $5 but when I got there, I chickened out. It wasn’t getting stuck with a needle that bothered me; it was all the drunks and druggies there. I wasn’t that desperate and if I sold my plasma it was like I was joining their ranks. I couldn’t do it.
Instead, I went to the student financial aid office and took out an emergency $10 loan. I remember that we spent the money on dog food for our Dalmatian, Bree, and the rest on rice for us. We used to laugh and say, “Rice is nice”. I always knew that we could pull out of it. I also knew I could have asked for help from anyone in my family and I’m sure Aimee could have done the same with her family. But we didn’t want to do that. Pride prevented us for asking for help.
We were students and our condition, unlike the people at the plasma center, was voluntary. That’s when Aimee and I figured out that we couldn’t afford for both of us to go to school so she dropped out and got a job as a telephone operator to support us. She became the bread-winner and put me through school. It would be her turn later on. I hope she thinks it was a good investment and I oftentimes ask her that question.
Of all the things I hope to pass along, it is the belief that things will always get better that may be the most important. Even optimists get depressed from time to time. Those feelings are natural and normal. Always remember that bad times are only temporary. Never, ever give up hope. Never.
Family and Friends
If things go as planned, Aimee and I will die of old age many years from now. If we’re lucky, we’ll have all three of you there by our bedside holding our hand. I’d love that. And each of you will probably live another 40 or 50 years longer after we’re gone. Here’s the point: Aimee and I are going to be around for only a short part of your life. We are of a different generation. Your sisters, however, will be around for a larger part of your life because you three are of the same generation. Jim, Bill and Mary have been part of my life for longer than anyone else and I’m very close to each of them.
Remember me saying, “If you’re always there for your sisters, your sisters will always be there for you”? (I can hear Carly say right now, “That’s the 2,787,920th time you’ve said that!”) Your sisters have experienced many of the same things you have at a time in your life that is very important to you. They know you like no one else. They will go through life with you. Be close to them. Be there for them. Let them hug you when you need a hug. Hug them when they need a hug. By hugging them, it’s a way of hugging me. Love them.
I am very fortunate to have married Aimee. I got the better deal. We have stayed together so long because we have come to accept each other for what we are and not tried to change each other. Aimee and I have very different views of life. Her thoughts are wired for AC and my thoughts are wired for DC. She has an aversion to risk and I have an attraction to it. She won’t change my basic nature and I know I won’t change hers. Her epitaph will read, “Are you sure that’s safe?” and my epitaph will read, “Of course it’s safe. Go ahead and jump.” And kids, get this: I really do love her! Our differences haven’t driven us apart. The acceptance of our differences has glued us together. I cannot imagine living the rest of my life with anyone other than her.
It’s important to have lots of friends and it’s even more important to find at least one best friend. A best friend is someone you can tell everything to. It’s someone you don’t have to hold back any of your deep feelings or thoughts. Your best friend will always keep your confidence. They won’t ridicule you and they won’t judge you. They won’t ask those awful “Why” questions. (“Why did you do a stupid thing like that?” “Oh, I don’t know, probably because I’m stupid.”) They won’t tell your thoughts to someone else. Whatever is between you two is between you two and no one else. A best friend will always accept you, no matter the situation. They will always provide you support. The friendship is unconditional. If you are ever lucky enough to have a best friend, just remember that it’s a two-way street; you have to be a best friend also.
Principles – Integrity, Loyalty and Simplicity
A famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, theorized that people have a hierarchy of needs. People move up the hierarchical ladder only as their lower needs are met. The physiological needs are first. You’ve got to have air and water. The highest need is self-actualization, or being all that you can be.
I mention this theory because I believe one should be guided by principles. But the only way to have principles guide your life is if your lower, base needs are met first. It’s impossible to believe that Integrity and Loyalty are important if you or your children are starving; or if you’re feeling endangered; or if you feel alienated; or if you have low self-esteem.
Being guided by principles occurs only after your other needs have been met. It occurs when you have a higher purpose; when you have found your compass. When I have been faced with difficult decisions, I have used my compass. I have learned it’s important to be guided by my principles.
There are just a handful of things I’ve done in my life that I have regretted. (The first is selling my 1966 Mustang convertible. I was only 20 when I made that mistake and I still regret it.) Whenever I’ve made other, more important, boneheaded mistakes, it’s been because I took a short-term look at a situation and didn’t consider the bigger picture. The good news is that I’ve learned from my mistakes. I learned that I should make the little decisions with my head and the big decisions with my heart. You girls may have seen this lesson posted in my office to remind me of this. When faced with a tough decision, some people ask themselves, “What would Abraham Lincoln do? I ask myself, “What would Bill Daniels do?” It would be an honor if you girls would ask yourself, “What would dad do?” There are three principles that have come to guide my life and there is no need to expound. Three simple words explain my principles: Integrity, Loyalty and Simplicity.
At some point in your lives I hope you have the opportunity to think about the principles that should guide your life. If you do, it will be very easy to let your heart make the big decisions. You’ll be at peace with yourself and life will be much easier.
I really find it amazing that you three are so very different. You have the same parents, grew up in the same house at the same time, had a lot of the same experiences and yet each of you are totally unique individuals.
Hayley, I’ll remember you wearing a hat everywhere you went when you were a child. You were always five steps ahead of us, going your own way. You have a terrific desire for adventure. Remember taking that stroll through the neighborhood when you were just three? I want you to be proud of yourself because I am very proud of you. I want you to feel comfortable with yourself, first and foremost. I hope you continue to be sensitive and concerned about others because you really can make a difference to people. I love shooting baskets and playing catch with you. Keep going your own way. Seek adventure.
Lindsey, you are going to grow up as a great negotiator. I can see you buying and selling things and thriving in a hectic environment. You are The Organizer. I’ll remember you buttering me up before you asked for a favor; “You know dad, I think you’re the best dad in the world.” You would say that with a twinkle in your eye, both of us playing along with each other as we negotiated a deal. You had the best hiding places when we played hide-and-go-seek. I love it when you sit in my lap and you’ll always be my little girl.
Carly, I think you’ll have loads of fun in life. You are very creative and I know you will maintain your sense of humor. You have a very sharp wit and it is really fun to be around you. You’re also a risk taker. Remember when you first coaxed me to go on the Sky-Screamer with you? All you had to do was flap your arms like a chicken and make that chicken sound. You are just like me. Jerry Junior. You give wonderful hugs so never be shy about giving them out.
It was fun for me to ask the question “Who loves you?” “You do, daddy!” Well, I know who loves me too. Each of you loves me! The most wonderful feeling in the world was when I’d come home and you three would run towards me and squeal “It’s daaaaddy!” That experience added meaning to my life.
I will be a part of you throughout your lives. A little bit of me is a little bit of you. I remember reading “Good Night Moon” again and again and again. That book was a constant and it felt comfortable.
Like the moon, I may be distant but I’ll always be there. I will be a constant and I hope you feel the warm glow that I have cast over you. You can always count on me to be there beside you. Always.