The Best Lessons I Learned from My Dad


Lessons Learned from Dad 2

“It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.” — Johann Schiller

For this Father’s Day, I thought one of the best things I could do is distill some of the lessons I’ve learned from my Dad.

I didn’t always know which plays I would need from my Dad’s playbook growing up.  Some plays make more sense to me now that I have more experience under my belt and I’m still learning.

Maybe some day  I can even snatch the pebble from his hand.

Follow Your Purpose, Drive from Happiness, and Be Who You Want To Be

Before we dive into the playbook, let me first step back and paint the broad strokes.

In terms of guiding principles, my Dad’s guidance is simple and sound – follow your purpose, drive from happiness, and be who you want to be, while creating the experiences and quality of life you want.

That’s the frame I come back to, whenever I get lost in the details of life.

Great Lessons from My Dad

My Dad really focused on learning how to be smarter than the situation you are in.


Here is my collection of lessons from my Dad.  It continues to evolve and unfold, just the way life does:

1. Aim past your target.

If you want to hit your mark, aim past your target.  If you fall short, you’ll land closer.  My Dad is a Bruce Lee fan so if you’re a fellow Bruce Lee fan you might recognize the point.

2. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Whenever my Dad got into a new hobby, he jumped in with both feet and it became an obsession.

This helped feed the passion, but also quickly find his limits or potential.

As you can imagine, this lead to a lot of adventures, but the thing I really learned was to dive in to something over just dabble.

3. Avoid toxic environments.

Don’t let the wrong people or the wrong environment bring you down.

When a place becomes toxic, it spreads.  Don’t stay.

4. Be able to count on yourself.

Sometimes it’s all you.

The more you can help yourself, the more others will help you.

5. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.

Don’t fall for it.

The trick is to be a healthy skeptic without becoming a callous cynic.

6. Bet on skill.

Whether it was archery, martial arts, music, or business, my Dad always showed me how skill made the difference.

Creativity or sheer will power only went so far, and it was skills that either leveled the playing field or won the game.

7.Bottom line it.

“Results talk, while B.S. walks.”  So simple, but so true.  Find a way to cut through jargon and get to what’s really on the line, or what’s really promised, or what something really means.

Don’t get snake-oiled into situations or things that you could cut through by getting to the bottom line.

8. Collect the things that count for you.

My Dad is a collector.  From coins to baseball cards to guitars to motorcycles to tools, he’s had lots of collections.

I learned to collect and take care of things when I was younger.

At this point, I don’t really collect anything other than insight.

I’m way more into experiences and people, but I will say I enjoyed the journeys of the various collections I’ve had.

I guess I’m a collector of experiences now.

9. Do the things you don’t want to, so you can do the things you want to.

This is a way to look at discipline and duty with a healthy respect.

10. Don’t focus your attention too much on the future things and the long shot moves.

The future is unpredictable and always will be.  While we can plan for it, we have to live for right here and now and make the most of what we’ve got.

My Dad says, “Don’t focus your attention too much on the future things and the long shot moves.

Make frugal changes that can easily be accomplished right around you.  If you are going out to eat often, get your kitchen and dining room in order and make your meals at home.

… If you buy lunch at work, make something and bring it.

Not only are these things cheaper to do, but they also give you an opportunity to consume a cleaner, healthier diet.”

11. Don’t let the means get in the way of the goal.

I remember one day when my brother told my Dad why he wanted to make a lot of money.

He said he wanted to make a lot of money so he could drive a Ferrari, my Dad challenged him.

If he really just wanted to drive a Ferrari, then maybe he could be a parking lot attendant at the country club, and not need a lot of money after all.

Knowing why you want to do something is often more revealing than simply knowing what you want to do.

12. Don’t bet on faith, luck, or magic, but don’t rule them out.

Science and engineering have a strong say … but so do the things we have yet to explain or understand.

13. Don’t just see what’s in front of you.  See what’s all around you.

This comes in handy in a lot of scenarios, especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory or in a dangerous place.

My Dad has good peripheral vision and I’ve developed mine.

This is especially important on the road too.  For example, don’t just watch the car in front of you.

Watch the cars way ahead and look for signs.

If the cars ahead are slamming their breaks, chances are the car in front of you will too.

Looking ahead has saved me from many accidents.

14. Don’t wear clip-ons.

Learn how to tie a tie.

My Dad made it a point that I learn how to tie a tie.

It felt sort of like a rite of passage, and was a big step up from my former clip-on ties.

15. Dress the part.

When you’re a biker, dress like a biker.

When you’re in the office, look sharp.

16. Earn it.

Don’t expect hand outs.  Work for what you want.

I learned how to be a work-horse and how not to be afraid to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

I’ve also learned to deal with the fact that lots of things in life don’t come easy, and that if something is really worth it, then work for it.

17. Find your all consuming passion.

My Dad’s passion is music.  It always has been.  Whether it’s playing in bands or collecting guitars or hanging with musicians – it’s a part of his life.

As a part of that life, we had Magic Slim and the Tear Drops at our Fourth of July parties on the lake.

One of our big road trips growing up was the Chicago Blues Festival.

One of my Dad’s guitars, a Flying V, was sold to G.E. Smith of Saturday Night Live.

18. Focus on what you control and let the rest go.

Don’t stew on the stuff that’s beyond your control.

If you want to make things happen, focus on what you control.

19. Fight back.

The easiest target is one that doesn’t fight back.

Fight back with skill and make any bully think twice.

20. Find a way.

There’s always a way and there’s more than one way to skin the cat.

Never get stuck.

If you really want it, you’ll find a way.

21. Have a navy blue blazer.

A navy blue blazer always look sharp and it’s perfect for lots of occasions.

22. Have your heroes.

My Dad has a lot of heroes and he learns from them.   He studied the science of batting from Ted Williams.

He learned the fighting strategies and philosophy of Bruce Lee.

He learned the musical ways of Jimi Hendrix and other legends.

One of the most amazing heroes I learned about from my Dad was Mas Oyama.  Apparently, Mas Oyama was able to kill a bull with his bare hands.

Just when I thought I knew the limits of human possibility, my Dad would find another person who pushed the limits of what’s possible.

23. If your house can be your home, work for it.

“If your house can be your home, work for it.  If your house will never be anything more than what you were hoping was a good investment, figure out how to maximize your investment as quickly as possible and get out.”

24. It’s all how you look at things.

My Dad says, “While you cannot escape reality, perception does rule.”

25. Judge a person by their character, not their color.

This might just sound so obvious, and of course, since I grew up that way, it is for me.

My Dad taught us to care what somebody makes of their self and who they are, over their lot in life or the color of their skin.

26. Know what you’re getting yourself into.

While it’s great to jump in to things, my Dad always encouraged me to figure out what I was getting myself into.

A lot of problems are easier to avoid in the first place, than they are to get out  of once you are in them.

27. Lead a purpose-driven life.

When you know what really drives you, your priorities float to the top.

When you’re on your mission, you have more energy and staying power to go the distance.

When you don’t know your purpose, then priorities, focus, and clarity are really tough to sort through.

It’s easy to get clouded by all the things that come your way.

When you know your purpose, you can carve out your own path through the fog.

28. Make your money work for you.

My Dad always encouraged me to buy things that would go up in value over buying things that immediately depreciate.

I find that just knowing how quickly something will go down in value helps me make a more informed decision.

29. Marketing is a valuable skill for life.

I was not a fan of marketing growing up since my main experience was used car salesman and guys selling vacuum cleaners.

My Dad’s point was don’t let the foul taste of bad marketers ruin the value of marketing.  Accept that marketing is an important part of life.

Be able to sell yourself and your ideas.  Know what’s relevant and know what people really value.

Be able to match your skills, service, or product to a person’s genuine needs.  I learned this lesson time and again and I get why marketing really is so valuable.

30. Nothing beats the open road.

Growing up with a biker Dad meant I got an early taste for the open road and the simple life.

I’m at my best when I’m on the road.

31. Oak Breaks, but willow bends.

Flexibility is one of the most important ways to survive in the world.

My Dad drew from Chinese philosophy, among others, and this was a timeless piece of advice.

32. Plan for it.

There are many situations in life where having a plan will serve you way better than winging it or making up things on the fly, especially when it counts.

One of my Dad’s super skills is planning for things.

33. Push past your limits.

Never give up.  You don’t really know what you’re capable of until you’ve really given all you’ve got.

Even when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, you’ve still got more.

34. Stay true to you, but blend in with skill.

Sometimes you have to be a chameleon and blend in.

The rules of conduct can change based on where you are or who you hang with.  For example, for my Dad, the construction scene was different than the biker seen, was different than the office scene.

35. Surround yourself with smart people.

Smart people raise you up and help you grow to your potential.

36. Survival changes the rules.

When you’re in an organized sport, you follow the rules.

When you’re fighting for your life, the rules go out the window.

This was consistent with Bruce Lee’s point that when it’s about survival, you play to your strengths and you do what works.

37. The day goes on with or without you.

My Dad says, “and yet the day was born anew with all its grand and graceful beauty; your trials and tribulations cannot keep it from its duty.”

38. The things that don’t contribute to your happiness have to go.

My Dad says, “There are a lot of challenges ahead of us all right now, and many may require sacrifices that we did not think would be necessary, but the most important thing to remember is that this is your life.

Be happy! The things that don’t contribute to your happiness have to go.

Happiness is not fun, it’s a complete sense of spiritual fulfillment.   So, if you’re looking at a problem and you can see a solution that leads to peace and happiness, work for that.

If on the other hand you can see that it’s just one more thing that needs to be done and when it’s done all it is is done, look for the most logical exit and get away from it.”

39. Think before you speak.

This was my Dad’s advice to help avoid the scenario where, “When you open your mouth, stupid comes out.”

Not everything should be stream of conscious.

40. Use the right tool for the job.

My Dad has an extensive set of tools and every tool has a specific purpose.

Having the right tool for the job often makes all the difference for success.

41. Use your mirrors.

It’s such a simple thing, but incredibly effective.  My Dad taught me to quickly and correctly line up the side mirrors on my car by making sure that I can just barely see the tail end of my vehicle in the mirrors.  ‘

Whenever I get a rental car, or if somebody bumps into my side mirrors, I can quickly fix the mirrors using this simple rule.

I also used to have to use my mirrors a lot when I backed up before I got my Jeep, so I learned to trust my mirrors.

With my Jeep though, I don’t really need my mirrors much when I backup since it’s so easy to see out of the Jeep.

42. Walk through the scenario.

To create an effective plan and test his plan, my Dad would walk through the scenario in his mind in detail.

By painstakingly walking through, he would catch mistakes or think of things beforehand instead of regret them later.

As I learned to practice this skill, I found it improves with time and it gets easier to walk the scenario as well as come up with “what if” possibilities and create fallback plans.

What’s nice is that when things go wrong, you can draw from a plan versus make things up from scratch.

43. Write with skill.

You don’t have to be a Twain or a Shakespeare, but be able to write with clarity and make a point.

44. You can do without it.

Whenever we would ask for something, my Dad would ask us if we really needed it.

Short of the basics like water, air, food, shelter, and health, the answer would usually be no.

There’s a lot you can do without.  The key is to distinguish between whether you really need something or just want something.

Everything comes with a  price, so this helps you make more effective trade-offs.

45. You have to be smarter than the paper bag.

There’s an expression that goes “you can’t fight your way out of a paper bag.”

My Dad always encouraged me to outsmart the situation over get beat by it.

When you’re in a situation and it feels like you’re failing or flailing, stop, take a step back and try to come up with a smarter play for the scenario.

46. Your living environment sets the stage for your living experience.

My Dad says, “Realize that your living environment sets the stage for your living experience so nurture it.

You really can make a cave look like home and if you do, going home to the cave can be a heartwarming experience.”

Happy Father’s Day, Dad– Love, JD

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  1. Your Dad sounds like a fascinating character full of wisdom, humor, and creativity. Small wonder then that you’ve turned out to be so full of these things yourself!

  2. @ Jarrod — It’s more of a metaphor actually. Whatever you go for in life, aim past your target so you can still hit your mark. I think the saying goes, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.”

    @ Positively Present — Thank you.

    @ Jean — He’s got a ton of stories. He’s lived life. I think that’s what’s great. It’s a spectrum of trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Thank you.

  3. John Wooden would be proud of your Dad – “Call Yourself A Teacher”
    My Dad taught me many things too, though it was not that explicit – only now I reflect back and decipher him as a model.
    Thanks for sharing! It is indeed great foundation any dad [including myslef] can adopt to teach his offsprings.

  4. Hi J.D.

    This is a beautiful tribute to your dad. He sounds like a very wise man who has learned from life experiences. How lucky you are to have them passed onto you.

    I like all of the lessons you’ve shared, but the one that really resonated with me was #37,

    The day goes on with or without you. My Dad says, “and yet the day was born anew with all its grand and graceful beauty; your trials and tribulations cannot keep it from its duty.”

    That’s awesome.

  5. Out of all of these great concepts my favorite is – “Have your heroes.” I resonate with this because it’s what a lot of my skills are based off of watching other people. From Charles Bukowski, my father, Darren Rowse, to Jason Fried – they all have taught me countless lessons that I use all of the time.

  6. @ Alik — I think it’s hard to know the lessons when you’re living life forward. For me, it’s looking back that I can see them now. It’s 20/20 hindsight.

    @ Barbara — A picture of the morning Sun that taps me on the shoulder saying rise and shine comes to mind as I read those words.

    @ Karl — Having heroes really helped me set a higher bar for myself. I used to want to be as good as “xyz”, but then a friend of mind always told me to aim past that and don’t set limits on what I can do.

  7. Hi J.D.
    A marvelous tribute ! It is a wise father to know his son and be able to communicate such a treasury of wisdom. On the other hand, one has
    to be J.D, in order to put all this wisdom into some neat systematization, as to be learned and applied. Good for him and good for us,the recipients.

  8. J.D., I like that you shared our tendency to get lost in the details of life. Since I am a detailed person, and the emotional aspects can also be a strength (or weakness) sometimes I can get lost here in overwhelm.

    I find sometimes I would be even willing to share something if I could just get out what I am “meaning to say!” and stay clear all the way through. And yet, when I do as good as I feel to see the clarity, I think to myself, that’s it? But the simple takes so long to make it simple and the process can only bring us there!

    I like these parts that you shared:

    Be able to count on yourself. Sometimes it’s all you. The more you can help yourself, the more others will help you. (I am totally learning this lately, and its going a bit rough. I tend to be too hard on myself.)

    Dress the part. (simple but so true! It adds a power-up element!)
    # Fight back. The easiest target is one that doesn’t fight back.
    Fight back with skill (this is a great reminder to not let life get the better of us,.. ever!)
    Find a Way. If you really want it, you’ll find a way. (this is so true. I am digging in deeper lately, willing to do whatever it takes to get this book-baby out there! uggh! it has to fly!) I am sure you can relate to this struggle..

    what a nice post that you shared honoring your Father 😉
    blessings to you,

  9. HEY!! Did I really say all that stuff?? The direct quotes I do recognize though I had forgotten some of them too. I didn’t realize that you were paying such close attention but when you think about it, I should have. Nobody has ever asked me as many questions as you have.
    Thank you.
    That was the best fathers day gift ever.

    Who’s that old guy at the top of your blog??
    I don’t know if I told you, but I had a nice mention in an article about Magic Slim. Blues Review Magazine, October/November issue with Ruthie Foster on the cover. The writer was covering a show at Terra Blues in Manhatten and Slim called me up to sit in. The writer gave me two nice sentences in the three page article. A friend of mine saw it and sent it to me or I would have missed it.

  10. Your post made me cry – it is just the best Thank you.

    My Father died 30 years ago and is buried by the Peace Arch between Blaine, Washington and British Columbia Canada…

    He is there because the cancer was so extensive, he fought a good battle and because as State Director of Special Education he brought hope and education to everyone in an amazing program and with such understanding. Our public schools were in the top 5 in the nation…he was slated to be the next Secretary of Education under President Kennedy, but there was the assassination.

    He was born in Canada – a very great man and a very good father – lost too soon. I needed him still when he left…

    Thank you for sharing

  11. JD,

    Just found your website, love it. Seems like you dad had many great wisdom to share. I like don’t believe everything you hear and half of what you see, many of us just do that unknowingly.

    Thanks for sharing.

  12. Wow JD – your dad taught you a lot of stuff. No wonder you’re so wise.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading these – some of them were favourite rules of mine anyway but I’ve lerned many new things. I guess the last one spoke to me most, cos I haven’t been doing it.

    I really don’t like where I live and I’ll probably try to sell the house this year. But what your dad said has made me realise that I can do things to make this a more enjoyable place to live in while I’m waiting. Thanks J.D’s dad.

  13. JD,
    Wow! There is so much to digest in this post!!!
    So my first thought then is how blessed you are to have such a positive male role model in your Dad–something to be celebrated–as you so clearly have…
    I love the broad strokes: ” follow your purpose, drive from happiness, and be who you want to be, while creating the experiences and quality of life you want. That’s the frame I come back to, whenever I get lost in the details of life.” What an awesome frame to come back to!!! I can see how such a foundation led to the direction you are currently taking…and passing on such insight and wisdom through your work on this blog as well as in life..
    what a touching tribute to your dad, and an inspirational gift to us…thank you!

  14. @ Michael — I only wish I made it more systematic growing up. It’s like I’m growing up backwards now, where I’m learning at a faster pace and connecting more dots.

    @ Jenn — For me it’s a constant ebb and flow of get in the details and then go up to the balcony and take a look. The details is where I live my life for the day to day, and the balcony is where I map out the path and see the bigger picture.

    @ Dad — You said that and way much more. I’m not sure who that old guy is, but with a red hat and a pipe, he could be Santa, and he’s been known to play the part.

    @ Patricia — I know what it’s like to have people robbed from life too young. It’s a perpetual reminder that life is short and there’s a lot of things we have to let go so we can spend more time where it counts. Thank you.

    @ Zengirl — Thank you. There’s a saying my social psychology teacher used — “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re not going to see it”, and I really think he was on to something.

    @ Cath — Wise might just be a by-product of me learning so many ways how NOT to do things 😉 Lately I really find myself looking at my house in a way I hadn’t before and taking my Dad’s advice to heart.

    @ Joy — I really find those broad strokes give me a consistent way to check my path. I’m not always on a mission … I bounce between a river person and a goal person, and more often I’m a river-person + goals. No matter what river of life I travel, that simple little check helps me chart a course or get back on path. Thank you.

  15. Hi JD .. I sure hope he was pleased. It must have been interesting running through the list with him – and getting his viewpoint .. yours v his of ? 20 years ago .. and seeing where you’re at and what you’ve achieved.

    A great post to a wonderful father .. with a son who collects insights .. and who is generous enough to pass his words of wisdom on ..

    Thanks JD – hope you had a lovely time en famille .. Hilary

  16. @ Hilary — I think each time I review this list, I learn a little more. That’s what I like about principles … you can find new insights again and again. Thank you.

  17. Well, I can see where you get your wisdom from. I bet your dad’s proud of you. I like all these points, most of all the clip on tie one – surely no one wears them any more?! The walk through the scenarios is great too. If you can’t practice that’s the next best step – anticipating problems before they arise and working out the best way to deal with them when they do. Happy father’s day to your papa and thank you to him for raising such a fab son:)

  18. Holy Cow — but I always have to begin my comments here with Holy Cow — ’cause this is a Holy Cow kind of blog.

    That being said…

    Holy cow…J.D. no wonder you are so AWESOME!! The post you did on your mom for Mothers’ Day, and now this post for your dad — I don’t know who is luckier to have whom — you to have them or they to have you!

    “…It’s all how you look at things. My Dad says, “While you cannot escape reality, perception does rule.”…” I could live by that thought alone. Well, by that, plus burgers, lemonade and all awesome people in my life!


  19. @ Annabel — Thank you. Walking scenarios really helps me out on a regular basis. It’s such a simple practice, but so powerful, especially for coming up with “what ifs” and risks.

    @ Jannie — Thank you. I think we all leave footprints on this Earth, but I don’t know that we always know how far reaching it is. I’m thinking of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life or The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I think Lessons Learned is a nice way to touch on some of the impact and call it out in an explicit way.

  20. Hi, JD –

    Thank you for sharing so much wisdom . . . what an incredible guy your dad seems to be!

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

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