With Father’s Day approaching, I asked our eharmony CEO Grant Langston to write whatever his heart desired about being a dad. He’s one of those people who really balances career and fatherhood extremely well – and is truly a great person and father. Enjoy his thoughts below.
On Father’s Day, my kids give me the best/worst gifts ever. Like every dad, I love the gifts because it’s from them, but honestly – there are sox, ties, paperweights, and knick-knacks of every stripe. I have a guitar pick holder, a guitar pick maker, a pottery-based key chain, a dinosaur paperweight, a bow tie, and a number of items that no one can identify, even the giver. I could say to them, “HEY! No more gifts. Really, I’ve got so much.” But, the joy they get from giving me the dinosaur paperweight is so fun for me to watch that THIS experience turns out to be the actual gift. I let them give me something I don’t want or need so I can get something from them that I dearly love.
I’m trying to give them some gifts as well, completely without their knowledge and against their will. I may not live long enough to ever see if the seeds I am planting take root and bloom, but it’s the most valuable thing I have to give. Father’s Day is a good a time to get intentional about the gifts I’m hoping they’ll take from me.
1 A sense that they are enough as they are, and that they have what they need to succeed.
For most of my life, I was plagued by low self-esteem. I have never believed that I was naturally gifted enough to be a successful person, and because I’ve felt that way in almost every situation I’ve deeply believed that I was going to fail unless I worked far harder than the other people involved. I’ve also hidden that hard work so that no one could see me struggling to keep up. If that’s not bad enough, overcoming a certain situation and succeeding never gives me any sense that the next time I will also make things happen. I go right back to zero, even with a back pocket full of accomplishments. This is an exhausting way to live.
If I can teach my children that they have innate talents that make them valuable and likely to succeed, I will have relieved them of a lifetime of worry, dread, and exhaustion. Even more importantly, I want to teach them that no matter what they accomplish, they are worthwhile people. That their value isn’t based on the tricks they perform out in the world. This is difficult to teach in a culture that places value on a person based on their job title and salary, but if I can succeed, I’ll have two people who have the emotional freedom to feel good about the life they pursue. (This is especially hard given my number 7 below.)
2. The wisdom to know when to keep their mouths’ shut and when to speak up.
I come from a very different culture than the Left Coast, Southern California culture in which I currently work and live. I was raised in a small town in North Alabama in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Keeping your mouth shut and your ears open was what was expected of children. There are many times when this philosophy is outstanding advice. “You never learn anything when you’re talking,” goes the old adage.
But I once wrote in a song, “In this noisy town without a horn they mow you down” and boy do they ever. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who will? I love shy, genteel people, but I don’t see them standing up for themselves in a world where so much of the business model is, “Take it and if they complain, give it back.” You have to be able to stand up and say, “I won’t put up with this,” both as a relationship partner, a business-person and a citizen. You need the wisdom to know when to speak up and when to sit back and listen, and wisdom is very difficult to teach.
3. Some techniques to calm their minds and relax in the midst of pressure.
One thing that has changed immensely in the last 20 years is the acceptance of meditation and mindfulness. It isn’t just for Buddhists anymore. If I can teach my children to practice a simple meditation technique to quiet their minds it will, literally, change their life. One of the more interesting recent studies at a Baltimore elementary school has shown that replacing detention with meditation can help children with disruptive emotions, memory, and even grades.
This world isn’t going to get less stressful over the coming years. These two little people need to know how to sit in the midst of anxiety and enjoy 15 minutes of peaceful disconnection.
4. Belief that people and experiences matter far more than things.
Raising children in a materialistic world is hard. I can see Elizabeth and Ethan’s fixation on stuff, and it concerns me. They have families and friends (and parents) who throw lots of things at them and they learn that things matter a great deal. They dream of stuff and wish for stuff and get excited when new stuff comes their way. Of course, this is normal, but if I were to think about a single trait that is commonly held amongst adults I dislike it would be a fixation on stuff. It’s a modern disease.
My goal is to try and focus that young energy on experiences and people. We give experiences as presents. We set up trips to see loved ones as special events. We have periodic purges of toys in order to say, “You enjoyed it, but it’s time for someone else to enjoy it. Things aren’t permanent.” Is it working? This is a seed I’m not sure I’ll live to see sprout.
5. The ability to chat with anyone regardless of their station in life.
As we watch the first generation raised with screens and social media grow into adults, I think we’ve learned some important lessons. Here’s one — social skills don’t grow on trees. If you want to raise children who can talk with the plumber or the mayor and all folks in between, you’ve got to force them into situations where they have to sit and talk to adults they don’t know. I have been terrible at small talk for much of my life, but this has made me all the more aware of how important it is. So, I try to find as many ways as possible to make my children talk to people — waiters, baristas, doctors, store clerks, TSA workers, anybody that gives them a chance to practice. The children generally hate it, and that tells me I’m pushing them in the right direction.
6. A passion for learning that never stops, never even pauses.
If we ever had a world where you’re done learning when you graduate from school, that world is long gone. The only way to stay relevant and to offer relevant skills to the world is to be in a constant state of learning. Cultivating a thirst for learning in children that stuff their homework underneath the dog’s bed isn’t easy. I just try and hide the fact that the fun we’re having is really just learning in disguise.
We play trivia games while we drive. I give them math problems related to food or something else they love. We watch basketball games and I ask, “How many more points do the Warriors need to catch the Nets?” There are a dozen tricks. There’s something about school that beats the joy out of learning for so many kids. I’m trying to get my hands around it, but so far I’ve learned that one cool kid can make a dozen others feel like losers for liking school.
My ace in the hole for this is teaching a love of reading. Catie and I have worked so hard to turn these children into book lovers. I believe that people who love to read are people who love to learn new things.
7. To never be scared of well-directed, hard work.
The #1 item on this list was to free my children from seeing work accomplishments as proof of their value. HOWEVER, well-directed, well-conceived hard work is one of the most fantastic agents of positive change to offer in our world. So here we run against one of the paradoxes of life: struggle and a burning desire to succeed are good things. Building your self-esteem on your work success or failure is a recipe for misery.
There are people I know who will not work hard. They just don’t have it in them to get up early and put their shoulder against the wheel for a day, even if it is in their own best interest. These are typically very fragile people. If I can teach my children to become fearless about doing hard work, as long as they understand why they are doing it, they will always have the power to direct their own lives.
8. The self-esteem to ask for help whenever they need it, and feel good about it.
People who ask for help, get help, yet so many people I know feel terrible about asking for it. They feel great shame about needing assistance and waste so much time and energy thrashing about in silence when they could just say, “Hey, I need help with this.” I think a great deal of that resistance comes from early experiences where people were made to feel stupid for asking. I try to make any request for help a positively reinforced action. Of course sometimes I say, “I think you can do this on your own.” But I want them to perceive no negative feelings about speaking up when they need it.
9. The arena is the place for people who really want to go for it. Those people fail, a lot, and that’s ok.
I grew up thinking that almost everybody got one lucky break. If you blew it, it was gone forever. One failure and you were back to some mundane, grey existence. And even worse, for many people that big break happened when they were 18, 19, or 20 years old. By your early 20’s, the exciting part of your life is over. The part where you play sports, make music, or work on your dream has ended, and it’s time for you to “get serious” and settled into the doldrums of life.
What a terrible way to look at life.
I want to teach my children that chasing success is a road full of failure, but it is a long road. And if you can get past the fear of failure and the fear of humiliation, the failures hardly even matter. They’re just lessons to help you do better the next time. Of course, the biggest news of all here is that when you finally succeed, you won’t care about all the failure. The world will hardly notice. I want my children to know that succeeding is often just about being able to get up from another failed effort, dust yourself off and press on. People that can do that find a way to have a life they love.
10. An enduring love for art. All of it. And a willingness to make it important in their life.
Finally, I want to help grow two people that look at the fruits of human creativity with appreciation and love. After all, what is all the work and struggle for if we can’t take in the art all around us, appreciate the beauty and be inspired? In fact, my dream is that both of these children can contribute to the creative legacy of our world. Making art gives you a deeper purpose and a stronger appreciation for your humanity and that of others. Of course, I can buy the piano and pay for the lessons, but I can’t make them embrace it. That’s up to them.
When we’re on the couch watching “Paw Patrol”, it seems pretty hard to imagine that my 7-year-old will ever love Mozart, or even Prince, but I’m hard at work daily with my School of Rock lessons. It’s important to me that they know who The Beatles are and can sing along with Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap. You have to start somewhere.