Lessons From My Dad

As a salesman, my dad travelled a lot while I was growing up. My mom was charged with fighting the day-to-day battles that shaped me into who I am, but my dad made sure to be around and involved as much as possibly he could. He coached little league, led my Cub Scout den, and was president of my high school baseball team’s booster club.

Anyone who has met my father can tell you that he makes an impression on you, and I am no exception. He is charismatic and knows how to work a room. When my friends would sleep over growing up, he would always check on us at the end of the night and leave us with, “Alright, you boys be good. I’m going to go upstairs and do Mrs. Murphy.” This quip always got a great response from my friends, and a small amount of vomit from me.

As you can see, this skill is mostly directed to humor. Even in his jokes and stories my dad has taught me some important lessons. Don’t pee uphill or into the wind. Big women need lovin’ too. Don’t trust a woman who says she’s on birth control; use a condom anyway.

All of these tidbits are valuable, but there are more profound lessons my father has taught me. These lessons are the sort where my dad breaks character for a moment and gives something deeply sincere and important. Because he generally subscribes to the school of thought that experience is required to learn these kind of things, I took note when he spoke, and, for the most part, I have tried to live according to these ideas.

I think we would all be well served to keep these three of my dad’s principles in mind.

1) Treat others the way you want to be treated.

This one is not novel. It’s the oldest one in the book. But it is essential and one that my father has shared with me repeatedly in word and in deed.

I suspect that in his line of work, the interpersonal stakes are always raised. There is always the chance a salesman gets told off. There is always a chance that the salesman tries to push a bum deal. In both circumstances, someone gets upset. Our guard is raised every time someone tries to sell us something.

My dad has learned to rise above this sales dilemma by committing to treat others well. His sincerity and charm in doing so makes people drop their guard. He has done well, and I hope it is because he has helped other people do well.

Therein lies the secret behind the Golden Rule. If both sides treat each other well, then everyone gets treated well. You don’t have to use advanced game theory to figure that out.

The universality of this rule is no coincidence. It’s the foundation of civilization. We would all be dirt farmers killing each other with sharpened sticks if we couldn’t be considerate of each other’s interests and cooperate rather than acting opportunistically in every situation.

I also find it no coincidence that our financial crisis stems from a culture where this rule is not recognized. This culture relies on exploiting superior information rather than seeking mutual benefit. Sell the home buyer on a mortgage that you know they can’t possibly repay when teaser rates end. Rate the security AAA even though you know its crap because your bread is buttered by the ones selling the security. Sell the security to someone relying on the AAA rating bought with repeat business. Treating others like you want to be treated requires finding a new way to pay for your daughter’s braces.

2) Do it now.

I was never taught this rule explicitly. My mother tried to teach it to me directly, but it never took. I learned recently it through observation.

My dad accomplished requests of an academically-prolonged adolescence with blazing speed. Insurance information inquires, travel arrangements, and bureaucratic formalities were all promptly disposed of.

This sort of behavior is not in my nature. I can’t imagine that it is in anyone’s nature. It is probably learned over that magical time in one’s life called adulthood, when there are bills to pay, kids to chauffeur, and a flight to catch at 6AM the next morning.

Doing it now comes down to this: instead of letting a mundane task fester in the back for your mind until it absolutely has to be done, life goes better when you do it right away. Don’t dread it. Just put the BS in the rearview mirror. I’m still very much working on this one.

3) See the big picture.

This principle is what guides this blog. It was taught through a story that really sticks out in my mind. My father went to Catholic school growing up here in New Orleans. One day, the nuns were collecting donations for the poor. My dad was young, but he worked at the time. Rather than just doing what he was told, he asked the nun why they didn’t just sell a few of the paintings in the Vatican. Then there would surely be more for the poor than a young man could spare. Not appreciating this novel way to question the social order she worked so hard everyday to enforce, she whipped my father with a cat-of-nine-tails, or whatever it is they do for punishment in Catholic schools.

There is an important lesson embedded in the story. Do not take what’s going on at face value. Assess all the possibilities, not just the one’s presented to you. Look at the situation as an integrated whole. I’m sure my dad was thinking these exact words at the time, not about how he didn’t want to give her his money.

Happy Father’s Day. For this lesson, my dad gets this blog post instead of a card. I was taught better than to be manipulated by Hallmark.

  • Jared

    I’m dissapointed. I didn’t see the word poonaner once. Its not a real Mr. Murph story without that word. Other than that, I enjoyed the entry. I think that whether openly or secretly, ever son wants to be like his father (providing that his father was a good dad). Sure there are periods of rebellion, but afterwards, if a man was raised well by his father, he will follow suit with his father’s teachings. I am not sure if this is something man does because of convenience or if its a biological thing or done almost subconsciously. I see myself being more like my own father every day (expect a little less cynical and somewhat thinner). At first, it felt like an inescapable fate. But, while I want to think I make every decision out of my own understandings of life, I accept the fact that I am somewhat a product of my environment and of how I was raised. I also accept that I am more than just the younger version of my father.

    • http://twitter.com/NouveauSouth Ryan Michael Murphy

      You are right on all accounts. “Poonaner” is a grave omission. I don’t know where our moral intuitions come from if not from our parents. Aside from what they say, they are providing examples and conditioning on what is right and wrong from infancy. When you are a kid, they have absolute authority on all questions of ethics. These standards are internalized, for better or worse. Luckily in my case, I think it is for the better, but doesn’t everyone feel that way about their values?