A Kid, a Jeep and The Meaning of Greatness

When I was a kid my dream car was a vintage Jeep CJ-7. I had Matchbox car replicas and books on classic off-road vehicles. It wasn’t an obsession, but it was a passion.

In our family, though, my parents didn’t buy us nice cars. We drove old road warriors whose odometers had seen six figures more than once. Even having a car that I didn’t have to pay for was an incredible privilege, so I didn’t let my dreams of a Jeep get too far past “maybe one day.”

I’ll never forget that one day when my dream actually came true. My dad drove home in a beat-up, bright-orange CJ-7. I was a freshman in high school.

He couldn’t have paid much money for it, but to me it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I remember asking him, “Dad, what’s this?!” He said, “this is going to be your Jeep after me and you rebuild it.”

The next four years were some of the most formative of my life. Every day after school I’d spend an hour or two, often more, taking the Jeep completely apart, repairing and upgrading it, and putting it back together bolt by bolt. Not only did my dad teach me the fundamentals of mechanics, engines, and tools, he taught me how to solve problems, how to think well about a project before you start it, and, most importantly, that he loved me. His patience and mentorship were daily proof of that. He is still one of my closest friends today.

Later on as I went to college and started working, I noticed my dad tried to do similar projects with my two younger brothers. They were much less excited about grease and air tools at that point, and both played on traveling sports teams for several years, so the time he spent with me wasn’t replicated in his relationships with them. My dad noticed this, and one way he remedied the situation was with motorcycles.

Both brothers grew out of their sports phase, and when they did my dad bought three motorcycles—one for each to ride. They went to motorcycle driving school. And they started riding. They loved it then and they still ride together today. (For the record, I’m still waiting on my bike…)

The cumulative effect of time with my father has had an incredible impact on my life. From the way I love my wife to how I handle my money, run my business and spend my time, his consistent investment in me has been one of the single most important reasons I am who I am today.

Unfortunately, many people would say that my relationship with my dad is probably more rare than common.

What’s the point of me telling these stories?

There’s a lot of talk these days about balancing work and family in the context of demanding digital work. Anyone who has worked at a startup knows that tension: it’s palpable on a daily basis.

Earlier this year Bijan Sabet wrote an article called “What if Steve Jobs was happy and balanced?” He observes what seem to be the two most common outcomes for people who fight the pull between work and family.

What if Steve Jobs was happy and balanced? Could he have turned around Apple? What would have become to Pixar? Could he have it all?

I don’t have complete data but they basically fall into two camps for the most part.
-stressed out of their minds, loving their work but wiped out. Relationships strained or worse.
-relationships stronger than ever but the work isn’t what it used to be.

We want to believe we can have it all. It’s the dream. Some of us make it work.
But most of us are picking our paths and living with the results of those choices.1

Not long after, a fellow named Ben Pieratt wrote a post called “Work versus Life. Greatness versus Family.” Here’s an excerpt:

Yes. I have faith that it’s possible to accomplish great things and also to be a great family man.

I’ve run this by a few people, and the inevitable response comes back “So you’re seriously saying you can do something other Great Men haven’t?”

The hubris is difficult to stomach.

But while it’s a temptation to put myself in the shadow of other’s Greatness, (as doing so removes the pressure of having to ask the question at all), whether or not Rockefeller or Curie or Jobs or Carnegie or Welles or Earhart or Buffet or King Jr. or Aurellius or any other historically Great Person could have been great while also being dedicated and present for their family is ultimately irrelevant to the question.

The question isn’t whether they could, the question is whether I can.

In which case the answer becomes Yes. Absolutely yes.

The amount of efficiency and opportunity baked into my life makes anything less than the pursuit of greatness in both my work and my personal life an insult to the people who got me here.2

I agree 100% that we should make use of every opportunity we’ve been given—we live in a truly incredible point on history’s timeline.

What I don’t agree with is the premise that greatness is a dichotomy between work and family.

I like to tell stories about my dad, but what’s truly amazing is that he didn’t have a dad around growing up. My grandfather was a materially successful alcoholic who dissolved his marriage before his kids were done with grade school. The oldest of four, my dad was forced to face leadership at a very young age and had only a bad example to start with. (Fortunately, his uncles filled in gaps as they could, but it still wasn’t the same.)

Another fact about my dad: many people wouldn’t consider his job glamorous. He owns a transmission shop. He’s closing in on 60, and he still lifts heavy metal several days a week. (I probably won’t ever beat him at arm wrestling. I try every year on his birthday.)

There are worse stories and probably better ones. The point is that despite his less-than-ideal relationship with his father, and what many would consider a blue collar job, my dad has become one of the smartest, most well-read and tech-savvy entrepreneurs I know. He’s a loving family man who broke an absentee-dad lineage by deciding to invest in me and my siblings. That took sacrifice—time, money, job offers and more. By some standards my dad would be far more ‘successful’ if he’d taken advantage of every great business opportunity that came his way.

If there’s one thing my experience has taught me, though, it’s that being dedicated and present and providing for my family is greatness, no matter what I accomplish when I’m at work.

Right now, I love what I do for work. In fact, I told someone the other day that I couldn’t have dreamed up a job like the one I have. But I ask myself a question fairly often that keeps things in perspective: what would happen if the whole thing came tumbling down and for some reason I had to take a job that wasn’t ‘cool,’ that didn’t employ my most valuable skills and that didn’t fulfill my desire to create like my current work does?

Or, to take it a step further, what if everything I’d ever accomplished at work that was visible to the world were gone?

If greatness is a dichotomy, losing those things is bad news.

Long term relational investment is certainly less sexy than building an empire, but most people have never heard of the greatest man that I know, and he’s made all the difference in world.

1. Read Bijan’s full post about Steve Jobs and balance.2. Read Ben’s full post about work, life, family and greatness.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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