‘Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?’ Revisited.
Below is my most personally satisfying piece of writing ever.
Re-reading it for the first time in years, I’m happy to see the ‘rights and wrongs’ of modern parenting is embedded in this essay: critiques of over-scheduling kids, points on how very busy parents can still feel available to their children. But honestly I am surprised that there isn’t more in this writing that aligns with the themes of All Star Code. It was actually while I was writing this piece that I first told another person (my husband) that I had an idea for a youth organization to foster black and latino tech entrepreneurs. And my father’s story is at the center of that. Ah well, a story for another time.
This is the first time the preface is available online. I hope you enjoy it.
I love this book.
I did not read it until I was in my twenties — close to ten years after it was published — but since then I have reread it many times, and I refer back to it often, sometimes just to recall the reassuring assertiveness of my father’s voice.
I was only twelve years old when my father passed away, and this book represents for me a collection of his wisdom and an encapsulation of his personality, his drive, and his sense of humor. He wrote it out in longhand, with a black, felt-tipped pen (he was very particular about that kind of thing) on a big yellow legal pad. No ghostwriter consulted. He wrote it himself because he was that kind of guy. And it’s not surprising that the writing is so good because my father was phenomenally successful at everything he did.
Hard-won success is certainly the cornerstone of my father’s career. One of the many lessons that I take away from this book — and from the many things my father told me and my sister through the years — is the importance of dreaming big. But my father wasn’t much for grand castles in the air. His advice to us about how to succeed was very simple: “Do your homework” and “Follow through.” He would repeat these things over and over, showing and telling us the same lessons in different ways. He’d come home with story after story about someone who wanted to interview him but forgot to bring a pen, or of aspiring entrepreneurs who would promise him a grand business plan but fail to send it.
In my father’s worldview, success did not come to the genius. It came to the person who sat down, patiently worked through his problem, and then tested his solutions. He told me many times, for example, that succeeding in math class was as simple as doing the sample problem ten times, and he meant that literally. He’d say, “Take the sample problem in the textbook and solve it, writing your work down on paper ten times in a row.” And like so much of my father’s advice, I’ve found this strategy to be both accessible to anyone and astonishingly effective. Try it. Seriously, it works!
Someone once asked if it upset me that my father did not write more about me or my sister in this book. I was surprised at the thought because this book is not about my father’s entire life, and he certainly was not writing the story of his family. Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? is my father’s answer to the question: How did you make so much money? It is a memoir of his work and career and how he achieved monetary success, not of his life as a father.
But that does not mean that he did not have a family life. My father knew the importance of love and family and he showed me and my sister that in many ways. Indeed, his two great gifts, which came so naturally to him that he may not have even realized their importance, were his ability to love and inspire people and his tremendous capacity to enjoy life.
It’s not an uncommon belief today that in order to succeed one must dedicate oneself wholly and exclusively to one’s goals. Children are pushed to specialize, to become extraordinary in a single thing, so as to stand out and secure admission to elite schools, acquire prestigious fellowships, and land positions at well-known companies. Arts, sports, unstructured time — all are being cut from children’s lives in favor of academics and test prep — unless, of course, these one-time leisure activities can be used concretely as tools of success. And when children raised in this manner become adults, they and the rest of their over-programmed generation tend to put off marriage, family or vacations. Or, even worse, they turn these personal pleasures into yet another opportunity to compete with others.
I think my father would be appalled.
Dad liked to instruct his daughters, and he often shared his business acumen with us. He once explained to me, for example, why it was preferable to send wire transfers rather than to pay by check. When the sums get large, he noted, even one day’s delay in the transfer could become a giant loss due to the interest payments that will accrue. He also brought us to his office on many occasions (my sister was employed there for a time), and he sometimes took me along with him on business trips to show me the factories he owned. But beyond that, Dad left much of our after-school time free and unstructured. His own childhood memories included playing football and baseball with family members and neighborhood kids, so he knew the value of play and of having the freedom to plan one’s own time.
For instance, when my sister wanted to start a band in high school and drive her car around Europe one summer, he supported her in that. He also allowed me, when I was nine, to spend my summer simply biking around East Hampton with my friends and playing with my dogs. Of course, there were tennis lessons and piano lessons, and one summer my parents enrolled me in day camp and I received a couple weeks of tutoring, but that was basically it.
And yes, my father did put in long, long hours on the job, but he was able to do that because he loved what he did, not because he was aiming for some brass ring. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who completed a currency trade in the weeks before he lapsed into a coma. The man just loved his work, and he loved making money too. And I know he would have been successful in whatever field he had ended up, whether he had gone to Harvard Law School or not.
Above all, Dad was a whole person. He had hobbies, personality quirks, and (well before he made his money) he had an appetite for good food, well-made clothes, and fine art. I remember when I was six, Dad brought home to our Chelsea brownstone a portrait of a dark-haired woman with dramatic, kohl-lined eyes wearing a kimono. I thought it was an oil painting he had commissioned of our mother. In fact, it was a Kees Van Dongen original. It probably cost him all of what he paid for all the other paintings that covered the five floors of our house, but my father wanted quality. He had taste.
The point is, my father knew that success in life means enjoying it to the fullest. He cared about his family, and he showed us that he loved us. He was always home for dinner, even though it meant that he would often have to work late into the night afterwards. True, he was away a lot, as much as two weeks of every month in some instances. But still he was always available. It’s not the kind of thing that you might put on a Hallmark card, I suppose, but Dad always told me that if I needed him I could call him anytime, on his car phone or at the office. And whenever I did, he always took my calls and never sounded busy — like he had all the time in the world. I think he was pleased to hear from me.
He did the regular “Dad things,” too. He taught us how to ride our bikes. He came to our school performances. He took us for walks. He liked to sit around the dinner table and eat and drink and tell jokes with us for hours and hours. The conversations often turned to serious topics, finance, politics and America’s racial past. I remember the story he told of the Africans who took over their slave ship, the Amistad, landed in America, sued for their freedom, and won (“It would make such a great movie!” Dad once mused.) And he was fun and funny and smart and thoughtful.
I am grateful to have known him from the very beginning of my life and I wish very much that he were still with us today.
And what would my father make of the legions of people who use his story as an inspirational text, even a handbook, of how to succeed in business? He’d be pleased. But I think he would be dismayed to find that some people use his accomplishments as a cudgel — as in, “Well, if Reginald Lewis could get into Harvard without even applying, surely I can get hired by X company/ace this exam/talk my way into getting this big loan.”
It has taken me a long time to realize that my father was a unique person, that few people can do what he did. That’s because they weren’t born with his talents. Dad had a charismatic personality, an incredible work ethic, and a high tolerance for anxiety and risk. And he was born at a unique moment in American history when for the first time, a black man with his gifts could really go far. A hundred years earlier, a proud, hot-tempered man like him might have met a violent end or become embittered and frustrated. But Dad just naturally had, as he writes in this memoir, “a knack for being a real boy but one who also respected his elders.” This is a rare and valuable talent. Still, the point of my father’s book isn’t that with hard work you can become like him. It’s that if you focus on your own skills and your own natural talents, with hard work and an open mind, you can succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
My father once told a reporter from his hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, that he felt “lucky” to have accomplished all that he did. Considering how hard he had worked all his life and how the odds were and are stacked against working-class African Americans, that seems like a strange thing to say. Shouldn’t he be gloating about how extraordinary a person he must be to have achieved so much? But Dad had the wisdom to know that we all benefit from help and that he had gotten the chance to be successful doing something that he loved. That made him a lucky man indeed.
And we are lucky too, to be able to read Reginald Lewis’s Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? — even after all these years — and get an inside view into how it feels to work one’s way to the top of the world.
Christina Lewis Halpern
October 2012 New York City