What Our Fathers Never Told Us

In 1 on March 26, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I wrote this years ago and have had good feedback on it.  It has also been used in grad classes by friends of mine.  I came across it while looking for something else and thought I’d post it even if it is a bit dated.


You’ve done everything you were supposed to do in your life, yet something does not feel right.  You got good grades so you could go to a good college, so you could get a good job, so you could buy a good car and house, so you could support your family. You got promotions and raises, but eventually you hit a ceiling because there simply were not enough openings in the executive suite. Maybe you are an executive.

However, when you wake each morning, something gnaws at you. When you lay down at night, something keeps you awake.

You would talk to your friends about these feelings, but you realize you do not have any who you think would understand. Maybe they have the same feelings, but do not know what to do about it. You realize you do not have a best friend anymore, someone to challenge you, to push you in the right direction. Dogs do not count.

Sound familiar?

I have heard this same story over and over again in my work, I have experienced it myself when I stopped playing basketball and started selling software. I wondered why this happened to so many people and why they kept it to themselves. So I did something about it.  I asked other people, men and women, who have survived these feelings. I asked them how they did it and the answer surprised me.

How we feel matters! Before you stop reading because you think I’m talking about the touchy feelies, answer one question for me. Does how you feel affect how you perform — at work, in relationships, in life?

I have asked this question of hundreds if not thousands of people. Not a single person has told me that how they feel does not affect how they perform. So I always ask a follow up question— So what do you do about how you want to feel? Most people drop their heads ashamed that they have not paid attention to how they feel. This is what our fathers forgot to tell us— that how we feel helps us reach our goals. This is the difference between the people who seek my help and the people who do not need it. The people who live the lives they want, who wake up each day ready to live, who sleep well at night, who know how they want to feel and they make it happen. They take responsibility for it.  They allow themselves to enjoy and experience how they want to feel.

Most of what I learned from these people I had heard before. In fact, I would argue that much of what they told me was Old School in its nature— responsibility, discipline, honesty, integrity. The things our parents told us were accurate, but incomplete. But for men, one simple rule was left out and it was important — that how we feel actually matters.

What do I mean by that? How we feel each day, each moment is a wellspring of data from which we can make better decisions about our lives. As boys growing into men, we were constantly told to hide our feelings, never to cry, to be tough.  We never really learned to say “No.” Now as men, we are told we need to be more sensitive, to open up, to take relationships more seriously, and to listen. How is that working so far?

So what is a guy to do? Simple. Pay attention to how you feel because it is trying to tell you something about your life.’ Maybe you have read all the self-help books. Maybe you have even sneaked away to watch Dr. Phil looking for answers. God forbid, you even taped Oprah to watch late at night when everyone else is asleep. Found the answer yet? Probably not and here’s why.

How YOU feel is the answer and no one can tell you what that is but you. No matter what expert you listen to, no matter what book you read, without knowing how you feel, how you want to feel, you probably will never find the life you want

When you were a kid, you went to school everyday. You complained about it, but secretly, you knew your friends were there. You knew recess and lunch was time spent with friends. You might have loved a class or a teacher. In the summer, you did your chores early so you could get out and play with your friends or you worked for that extra cash you needed for the car you hoped to buy, a car you loved working on at night Guess what— you chose your friends and your games based on how they made you feel. Trust, loyalty, secrets, discovery. So what happened? You started setting goals. You became responsible and no one asked you how you felt each day, including you. You stopped listening to how you felt. You stopped collecting data. You believed that the true feeling of freedom occurred when you achieved your goals. Men’s Health recently polled readers asking what they missed the most from high school. Ten percent of the readers said their hair. The most missed part of high school— freedom.

This is not about your inner child or your soul or even your self unless you decide that’s what it is for you. In my work, I run across people who tell me they are analytical in nature and they do not have time for the touchy feelies. I ask them if they are so analytical, why do they need my help? Their answer is the same every time— because they have done everything they were supposed to do and their lives do not feel quite right. I merely point out that they have not been analytical enough because they have not collected the inner data needed to live. It is even in the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What are you pursuing? As one executive put it, “I realized I was living the American Dream and it was just that—American and not my own.”

Another CEO said, “95 % of people have no idea what they want, what they love.” How can you pursue what you do not even know exists? The first step is to figure out how you want to feel each day. Take two weeks and keep track of how you felt each day. Let go of judgment. Just keep track of your experiences with a journal or a tape recorder. This is simply data collection.

Using that data, you can begin to piece your life together. How did you feel? Who were you around when you felt the way you wanted? What were you doing? How did others respond to you? As one CEO told me “If something feels right, do it more.” A professional coach told me that it was “fraudulent to tell people that success occurs without happiness.”

It might sound selfish, but here is the trick. If you’ve lived a life that doesn’t feel quite right that might feel awful, your focus has probably been on avoiding feeling bad rather than pursuing the way you want to feel. In the psychology literature, former APA President Martin Seligman points out that there are 46,000 articles on depression – while there are only 400 on joy and happiness. In other words, we know a lot more about depression than about what we really want.

Time to raise the bar. Most people I work with have forgotten how they want to feel and spend most of their time simply trying not to feel anything. They self-medicate, distract themselves with entertainment, and eat too much. Or they seek approval-making promises to others, promises that go unfilled because they do not have the energy to do the work. These people live in fear. Giving into fear is far more selfish with greater consequences to others. Knowing how you want to feel and seeking it out makes you and the people around you better. This is true because so much of what we see as irresponsible and destructive behavior does not fulfill us. It just keeps us from hurting temporarily.

Collecting your own data matters because this is about you. Only you can collect the data. You might ask friends to point out when you seem energized, engaged. You might read self help books for suggestions. You might seek out experts, but the best ones will only be helpful if you have the data

Fortunately, there is a group of people out there, many of whom are the best in their fields, who have collected that data. Surgeons, professional athletes and coaches, CEO’s and executives, pilots, Olympic gold medal winners, television stars, etc. More than 500 people who were willing to sit down and discuss their lives with me. If you ask them how they got where they are in life, you will get the standard answer of hard work, perseverance, sacrifice. They say they would do whatever it took to succeed. You might consider them lucky or harder working than you. In listening to their stories though, I found contradictions. They all made mistakes, quit jobs, changed careers, even survived some divorces. When I point these contradictions out they feel that they gave up on some things, they say, “I forgot to tell you the most important thing—you’ve got to find something to love.”

The people I spent time with taught me that how they feel not only matters, but might be the most important data they considered in their decision-making. One CEO said, “How you feel is the only thing that matters.” This from a CEO who is well thought of as a person, who is perceived as treating people fairly. An NBA coach said he checks on his happiness hourly. A heart surgeon told me that friends and blood flow are the currency of life. From choosing a career to raising a family, if how we feel affects how we live, then we need to pay attention to how we feel. We need to collect our OWN data, data no one else can provide for us.

Maybe Malcolm Gladwell said it best in his New Yorker article called The Physical Genius. “A better explanation is that for some mysterious and wonderful reason, (Neurosurgeon Charlie) Wilson finds the act of surgery irresistible, in the way that musicians find pleasure in the sounds they produce on their instruments, or  the way Tony Gwynn gets a thrill every time strokes a ball cleanly through the infield. Before he was two years old, it is said Wayne Gretzky watched hockey games on television, enraptured and slid on his stocking feet on the linoleum in imitation of the players, then cried when the game was over, because he could not understand how something so sublime should have to come to an end. This was long before Gretzky was any good at the game itself, or was skilled in any of its aspects, or could create even the smallest of chunks. But what he had was what the physical genius must have before any of the other layers of expertise fall into place: he had stumbled onto the one thing that, on some profound aesthetic level, made him happy.”

Maybe you are thinking you have wasted the last twenty years of life. I want to challenge that if you have done everything you were supposed to do, you have some resources. With the average life span now close to seventy-five years, you have twenty more years at least. Guess what—only if you pay attention to how you feel. People who feel the way they want to feel live longer. They have more friends. They take better care of themselves. The people who start taking care of themselves before fifty are the healthiest the longest.

Joe Torre once said about his success that he teaches his teams to think small and play big. All of the people I interviewed echoed this sentiment. They found the way they wanted to feel in small doses. They measured it in minutes, hours, and days. They set goals consistent with how they wanted to feel as they pursued them. The musicians I interviewed won Grammys because they loved making music one note, one song, one performance at a time. The CEO’s I interviewed loved the process of shaping their company’s success one employee, one customer, one department at a time. The athletes won championships and Gold medals because they loved competing every day, even in practice.

A CEO told me a story of going to business school and falling in love with advertising in his marketing classes. How did he know? Because he could not wait to go to marketing class, to read the books, to go shopping to see how successful products were marketed He found production and finance boring. A surgeon told me that when he is tired and worn out from long days or too many meetings, he finds renewal not by saving someone’s life, but by choosing one patient to listen to for five minutes, to connect with them. How did he know that? By paying attention to how he felt. An Olympic swimmer learned late in his career that he prepared best for competition by “feeling” the water. How did he learn that? By losing the biggest race of his life because he had forgotten that was why he loved swimming. He recaptured that feeling and went on to win two Olympic Gold Medals.

In each case, they thought small. They thought about what they could feel everyday in a sustainable way, not what they would feel twenty years from now when they achieved something. They also avoided the pitfalls of impulse or entertainment, momentary pleasures that did not last or were followed by emotional or physical hangovers. The more they felt the way they wanted, the less destructive behaviors they engaged in. In each case, the small pieces added up to something great.

Our fathers sacrificed so we could have the luxury of feeling the way we want to feel everyday. They loved WHY they worked so hard so we could love WHAT we did. Most of us will not LOVE doing things that hurt others or that are irresponsible. Judging by the health care problems in our country, something is not working for too many people. Paying attention to how we feel is discipline. Using that data to pursue the lives we want provides the balance between freedom and responsibility. We feel the way we want to AND we perform better.

Does how you feel affect how you perform? If you agree, if you answer “yes” to this question, then not collecting data about how you want to feel is simply irresponsible. Start collecting data. As a World Champion Windsurfer and successful real estate broker told me “Find your passion and then put it to work.” Find it one moment, one day at a time. As Author Brenda Ueland suggested “I learned from them that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes on slowly and all the time. I learned that you should feel not like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten: happy, absorbed, and quietly putting on one bead after another.”


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