Today would have been been my dad’s 64th birthday. I wrote these words to speak about him right after his passing nearly two years ago. The note has remained completely untouched on my iPhone since then. I realized I didn’t have the strength to actually re-read the words until his birthday today. Surprisingly, doing so provided a sense of relief and perspective I haven’t felt in a long while. Maybe it also helps other who have struggled to put in place a loss of a loved one or friend. I also thought it was a narrative (and my most important one) worth having it documented in a place other than my iCloud.
“In the era of social media and a 24 hours news cycle, everyone wants to speak and have their individual voice heard. I think what’s been lost with the times is the ability to truly listen, analyze, and relate. I bring this up because while my dad represented a lot of different things to a lot of different people — to my mom a lifelong partner and to my sister and I a role model dad. But I think his greatest gift to everyone was his ability to engage with and understand others.
My dad was never the loudest person in the room. He never wanted to be. But what he was was that person in the room you’d find yourself talking to the longest. There was something about Rick Lippel that just drew you in. You instantly felt comfortable. Maybe it was his wide smile, his animated chuckle, or maybe it was just his unimposing stature. Whatever it was, it all just made you want to tell him everything…..all your trials and tribulations, your hopes and your dreams. And one thing was always for certain — you always left that conversation with him feeling better than you did when it started.
I believe it was this rare and innate talent that made him such a successful psychologist. My dad would be able to break-through to the toughest clients with personality and developmental disorders. The ones no one else could reach. He’d later call them sweethearts and say treating them was a cake walk. Somehow no one else thought so. The number and ways in which he reached people through his life’s work is truly immeasurable.
I’ve been told some sons go through their entire life without ever knowing how their dad feels about them. I feel truly sorry for them. I always knew where I stood with my dad. When I was 6 I was the star player on my little league team the year we won the championship. We put “We are the champions” on repeat for hours on the living room stereo. We sung and partied until my mom, who way more often had to serve as the bad cop role in the relationship, sent me to bed a little before 10pm. It was already obvious to me the joy he took in my success.
In business and in life, I have always been intrigued by how great leaders create a vision and get others onboard to support that vision. It’s one of the reasons I’m choosing to pursue my MBA starting this year at Columbia Business School. I can now reminisce on my formative years. How did I become the vision of the young man my dad wanted me to become? He never preached to me. He never dangled rewards in my face for good behavior. And he certainly never yelled. I now realize he simply put a system in place where I could follow my own path. I could test the boundaries. All while knowing he would never let me fall too far or too hard. And each time there was someone on the other end, my dad, willing to share equally in my successes as he was my failures. I can’t possibly think of a better way to lead.
Sure, my dad was my leader during these early years, but he also truly was my buddy. At age 4, my dads snoring got him relegated by my mom to the guest room. That’s when I found my way into that same room. I slept there until I was 14 years old. For those of you bad at math, that’s a full decade sleeping next to my dad. The family jokes about it were relentless. Extended family would say “Sean, you know you can’t take your dad with you to college.” My mom took it one step further. “Sean, you know when you get married your gonna have to sleep next to your wife not dad.” I didn’t care.
Our buddy buddy relationship continued to flourish outside of our close sleeping arrangements. The year was 1994 and Pulp Fiction had just hit the theaters. My mom was somewhere out of town with my sister. Pulp Fiction was receiving all sorts of accolades and of course my dad wanted to see it. So whom did he take? None other than his buddy at the time — his 9 year old son. Sure, my dad rushed to cover my eyes during scenes. But if you have ever seen Pulp Fiction, you would know that my dad would’ve had to cover my eyes for all 154 minutes. It just wasn’t possible. When my mom finally returned home, I’ll never forget the earful he got from her.
The requests and demands from me as I got older were truly limitless. I was both ruthless and persistent. The man’s patience with me was something from another planet. But what I think really distinguished my dad was his ability to serve as a calming force when times got rough. Sure, its easy to be the CEO when profits are rising. Or be dad when your son is getting straight As. But the way my dad could stand in when things were falling apart was unprecedented.
My senior year of high school he got me through my first brush with failure. Despite having a 1500 SAT and stellar grades, I got rejected from my dream school Duke. I was downright devastated. He helped me understand that not each step along my journey would transpire how I had planned. But if I was strong minded and determined, I could still get to the same end goal. Sophomore year of college he helped guide me through a personal battle with anxiety. For the past several years, he’s accompanied me to every specialist appointment as I worked to manage a long standing migraine condition. And just last summer, he helped me come to terms with the passing of his own father, my grandfather, Murray Lippel.
As you get older and life progresses, it’s rare that you get extended one-on-one time alone with your father. This past May the stars aligned for us. He had just retired. I had just taken a new job out in San Francisco. We embarked on a magical seven day journey together to set me up all the way across the country. While the subject matter and depth of our conversation had matured, I quickly realized I was never too old to learn from my dad. My dad was a man who knew how to enjoy the present. I always worry about the future. Had he not come I would have spent those seven days stressing about finding an apartment in San Fran and preparing for work. With him by my side, we toured the city from The Mission District to the famous Pier 39 and all the way up across the Golden Gate Bridge. He reminisced on sites he hadn’t seen since he visited as a young boy in the 60s when the cultural revolution had taken a stranglehold on the city.
But most importantly, I still had so much to learn from him about love and relationships. How did he keep my mom so happy for nearly 40 years of marriage? We returned to the hotel from our first night around the city. And there it was right in front of my eyes — two 62 year olds using Skype to FaceTime one another about their respective days. He truly loved my mom and understood what it took to keep her happy. Over time, their lives had become inextricably linked.
In the end, we all know I’m up here talking about my dads legacy far too soon. That part will never be fair. But I want everyone here to know my dad wanted no one to feel bad for him. In fact, this last week the man could barely walk but was talking about going back to his group home for work. It was his first instinct. He still wanted to extend himself to others even in his own time of need. In closing, I will ask two things of you all here today. Foremost, remember the great personal memories you shared with my dad in the same vein in which I have done today. Secondly, next time you want to rush to get the first word in…..don’t. Do what my dad would’ve done. Take a step back and really listen. You may learn more than you ever imagined you could.”