Advice from a Father to His Son (Leader)

In about two weeks, my oldest son will be leaving for college. I decided to sit down and write a few words of parental wisdom. In sharing the letter with a few close friends, a few of whom are business leaders, I was struck by the consistency of their feedback — namely, how relevant they found this to be to their own lives. I’ve often said that parenting is the best guide to leadership. So I thought I would offer this letter (see below) as a guide to being a more effective leader and to living a fulfilling life more generally.

Dear Jack,

I have so much to say, and yet a big part of me knows that you must discover your own way. Much like I did. With little guidance, other than my soul yearning to fulfill itself through an examination of what it means to be an authentic man and to live my life to its fullest. To the extent that this letter can serve to plant a few seeds in the soil of your fertile mind, then I am grateful to have the opportunity to share with you what I consider to be wisdom. Your job, of course, is to water those seeds through the many twists and turns on the amazing road ahead of you. I am so happy for you and excited for what lays ahead.

1. Cultivate a capacity for awareness

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Victor Frankl

This quote is from Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning. He discovered as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp that the one freedom the guards could not take from him was his ability to choose his attitude regardless of circumstances. One of the most powerful capacities is the understanding of self — knowing when something is driving you, and having the presence to pause, reflect, and choose. This shift from automaticity to choice may be the most important area of growth for any young man. See #7.

2. Don’t worry about what others think of you

“You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you. When you truly understand this, and refuse to take things personally, you can hardly be hurt by the careless comments or actions of others. If you keep this agreement [to not take things personally], you can travel around the world with your heart completely open and no one can hurt you. You can say, “I love you,” without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. You can ask for what you need. You can say yes, or you can say no — whatever you choose — without guilt or self-judgment. You can choose to follow your heart always. Then you can be in the middle of hell and still experience peace and happiness. You can stay in your state of bliss, and hell will not affect you.” — Don Miguel Ruiz

This quote is from the book The Four Agreements. Read it. If you could live by only one set of rules, The Four Agreements wouldn’t be a bad choice. You may not see this yet, but your psyche has been designed for the protection and survival of your ego. That design has served you well. But it will soon reach the limits of its effectiveness. You will likely discover how exhausting it is to live life worried about what others think of you and how freeing it us to unchain yourself from the shackles of external validation. It will take time for your ego to be strong enough to meet its own demise. But I can already see an inner strength in you. Leverage that strength and summon the courage to live life free of the oppressive burden of the judgment of others.

3. Learn to listen deeply

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.’” — Carl Rogers

This quote is from one of the most accomplished psychologists of the 20th century. It speaks to the power of truly listening, a skill that requires one to surrender his or her own agenda in service of the person being listened to. It requires an inner confidence — a deep knowing that, from a place of true listening, the “right” thing to say will always emerge. To master this takes a lot of practice. The reward is immeasurable.

4. Be responsible for your own actions, first and always

“Instead of bothering with how the whole world may live in the right manner, we should think how we ourselves may do so. If one lives in the right manner, we shall feel that others may do the same, or we shall discover a way of persuading them to do so by example.” — Mahatma Ghandi

This quote by Ghandi is often shortened to: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We are wired to see what is wrong in others, and seldom look within to see what is wrong with ourselves. If you slow down and pay attention, you will see how the mind is full of judgment and how quickly we want others to be a certain way. This powerful orientation will rob you of any chance to live a truly fulfilling life. You must learn first to look within and find where the judgment you so quickly apply to others actually applies to you — sometimes more so. If you are truly responsible for yourself and change within yourself what you are so desperately trying to change in other people, others will be attracted to and compelled by you. You will never have to change anyone, and will cease to want to.

5. Always choose to be kind

“When we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

The famous Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, believes that any unkind word or thought can poison the world. Every moment you are confronted with the most basic of choices — to be kind or unkind. I have yet to come across a moment that would ever justify being unkind. See #2 and 4.

6. Honor your word

“Your life works to the degree you keep your commitments.” — Werner Erhard

Werner Erhard has been a teacher of mine. I have chosen to live by this principle. It means that you are your word — nothing more, nothing less. When you give your word, you must do so with an absolute commitment to keep it and with precision. When circumstances change such that you can no longer keep your word, you must honor your word. That means you must immediately notify the person to whom you gave your word and tell him or her that you can no longer keep it, and offer to do what it takes to clean up any mess that you have caused. This is hard. There are no shortcuts. No “maybe next time.” If you commit to doing this, though, you will be massively more effective in life.

7. Be present

“Don’t wait to be successful at some future point. Have a successful relationship with the present moment and be fully present in whatever you are doing. That is success.” — Eckhart Tolle

We spend almost every second of the day excited or fearful of what is next or guilty, nostalgic, or angry about what happened in the past. What a waste. A life fully lived is not measured by the quantity of the time lived, but rather by the quality of the time lived. The more time you can spend truly appreciating each present moment, the more joyful life will become. Any moment can be appreciated for there is no suffering, pain, or grief in the split second of time that is the present. Most of the world’s greatest leaders, athletes, performers, and contributors find some way to cultivate this ability to be in the present. If there were one daily practice I would invite you to explore it would be meditation — a technology that has been available and mastered for thousands of years and available to all absolutely free.

8. Learn to forgive

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” — Maya Angelou

This took me a long time to learn. I finally forgave my mother, though sadly it was after she had passed. I came to realize that there was no sense in holding on to grudges. Doing so robbed me of my power and it was inherently unkind. I can no longer find a reason to not forgive anyone ever again. In fact, the word forgive has lost its meaning for me in that it implies anger, hatred, or lack of love in the first place. I was 11 years old when someone attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II. I learned soon thereafter that the Pope forgave the assailant completely. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how the Pope could do such a thing. I do now. See #5.

9. Be willing to be wrong

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Trust your judgment, have conviction, and when you learn something that causes you to change your mind, do so without reservation. There is no better way to build trust and credibility than to admit when you are wrong and be willing to change your mind. Most people spend most of their lives a slave to the need to be right. Being right is over-rated. See #2.

10. Read — all the time

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” — Charlie Munger

Vice Chairman of one of the most successful holding companies in the world, Berkshire Hathaway, and founder of the law firm where your mother used to practice, Charlie has it right. Books are the opening to new ways of seeing the world. I learned the love of reading by reading Jack London’s Martin Eden. In that book I discovered what an autodidact is, and realized then that I would be a life-long learner. Never stop learning. Never stop reading.

11. Be the cause in the matter

“As long as you think that the cause of your problem is “out there” — as long as you think that anyone or anything is responsible for your suffering — the situation is hopeless. It means that you are forever in the role of victim… Placing the blame or judgment on someone else leaves you powerless to change your experience; taking responsibility for your beliefs and judgments gives you the power to change them.” — Byron Katie

Another teacher of mine, Katie captures the wisdom of an essential principle in life. Psychologists call it external vs. internal locus of control. It may be the most powerful shift you can make in your life — and the most challenging. The most challenging because we find blaming others to be incredibly seductive. It allows us to be right and make others wrong. Yet blaming others or circumstances renders us powerless to do anything to affect our own situation. The next time you feel naturally compelled to blame someone else or complain about your circumstances, ask yourself this — “What would I do if I were 100% responsible.” If you take this question seriously, and truly sit with the question, a whole world of new actions will become available to you to take — actions that would never have occurred to you from the mindset of a victim. It will literally change your life. See #4.

12. Live life to the fullest

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Marcus Aurelius

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the best book on how to live a full life. Packed full of wisdom, I chose this one quote because it captures what I believe to be the secret to life. Namely, to embrace the inevitability of death, the impermanence of our time here on Earth. And then to seize every opportunity to live and be grateful for every moment — the good ones and the not so good ones. As Marcus Aurelius wisely said, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

I am full of love, gratitude, hope, joy, and pride as I think about the start of the next chapter in this amazing life of yours. Enjoy every minute of the next four years. I love you.

Dad