Over the course of our careers, we entrepreneurs spend a lot of time studying other successful entrepreneurs. We try and emulate their good qualities and avoid those traits that are less flattering. This is a smart strategy and can serve us well. However, there is also much we can learn from non-entrepreneurs as well. While this may sound somewhat paradoxical, stick with me here. There is much wisdom that can be gained in our entrepreneurial world by modeling non-entrepreneurs.
My father was a college professor – a scientist who loved research and teaching. As I think back over the course of my short life with him (he died when I was 34), I realize how much I learned from him that has helped me in my entrepreneurial endeavors. My sister and I were both adopted (and we came from different biological parents), so I was not the recipient of any of Dad’s genetics and who knows what was lurking in my biological gene pool. So, I was destined to “learned behaviors” at my father’s knee.
Dad was the most patient person I’ve ever known. As a young boy, I asked him a million questions, and never once did he ever seem exasperated about my constant grilling. Instead, he would smile and remain patient as he explained things for the 40th time. For several years, he performed extensive cancer research, injecting mice with tumor materials and then experimenting with different dosages of a formula that was designed to shrink the tumors. He even drafted my mom into returning to the lab after dinner to help him with this project. He was incredibly dedicated to iteration after iteration, always staying positive and all the while, juggling his other research and teaching assignments. My sense of urgency is extremely high. I certainly don’t have Dad’s level of patience. But by watching him, I’ve learned to be more patient over the long term – it’s patience over the short-term stuff that needs more work on my part.
Unflappable is another word for calm, and my dad was its walking definition. I’ll never forget his best demonstration of his unflappability. Way back in the day, people in my hometown would sometimes burn the grass in their yards in the springtime. The theory was that it helped kill the weeds and promoted a healthier stand of grass in a few weeks. On this particular day, the plan was to create a controlled burn to accomplish this objective. Dad asked Mom to wait for him to change his clothes and they would do this together. Unfortunately, Mom didn’t have Dad’s patience and decided to start the fire without him. A sudden gust of wind caught the flame and a cedar tree on the corner of the house ignited. If you’ve never seen a cedar tree catch fire, it’s a sight to behold. The Biblical image of the burning bush comes to mind. Mom was frantic and raced into the house looking for a fire extinguisher. She passed my dad in the basement but was babbling incoherently, and so he had no idea what was happening. Meanwhile, the next-door neighbor put out the fire with a garden hose; a fire truck showed up; a crowd had gathered, and Dad finally ambled out oblivious to what was happening. I’ll never forget how he reacted at that point. Rather than read my mother the riot act, he grinned and was amused at the commotion that had ensued. Now, some 58 years later, I always remember how I never saw my dad as anything but calm. And I try and mirror his demeanor whenever possible.
Dad was an honest man. Every fiber of his being was honest. We were traveling as a family on a vacation and stopped for fuel. It was a full-service gas station – there was no such thing as self-serve gas in the 1950s and early 1960s. After the gas was pumped, there was the normal scramble of getting kids back in the car from a restroom break; taking the dog to relieve itself and making certain the trailer was still hitched properly. A few miles down the road Dad asked my mom, “Did you pay for the gas?” It was quickly apparent that the we had driven off without paying at which point Dad turned the car around and drove back to the service station and made payment. Interestingly, the station attendant hadn’t even realized that we had left without paying. No one would have ever known that we hadn’t paid for the gas, but Dad’s integrity wouldn’t let this get in the way of doing the right thing.
My father – the non-entrepreneur – modeled many other traits that have been critical to me finding my way as an entrepreneur. His perseverance, his problem-solving abilities, his work ethic, his sense of humor and his passion were all on full display throughout the 72 years of his life. I am blessed to have been loved by him and learned valuable and enduring life lessons from him. Which non-entrepreneur in your life has made a similar difference for you?
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This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.