5 Important Lessons I Learned Growing Up

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There’s nothing like grandchildren to get you reflecting on your life. This last weekend I was talking with a grandson about what it was like for me growing up. That conversation got me thinking about the many lessons I learned before I joined the Marines and left home. Here are five important lessons that I learned before my 18th birthday.

You can always get better.

My father was a Lutheran pastor and a first-rate preacher. No matter how good he was, he was convinced he could get better. On Sundays, we had family dinner after the final service.

Every week, without fail, my father would ask us what we thought of his sermon that day. At that point, my mother would chime in with the statement that she thought it was the best sermon my father had ever preached. With that compliment out of the way, we got down to an energetic discussion of what was good and bad about that day’s sermon.

Dad always wanted specifics. You couldn’t get by with just saying you liked or didn’t like something. You had to explain why. He listened and took notes.

No matter how good you are at something important to you, you can always improve. It won’t happen by accident. You have to seek out feedback and make a conscious effort to evaluate it and use it.

There is always somebody better.

I was a pretty smart kid if I do say so myself. In fact, for most of my young life, everybody told me that I was really smart, and I believed them. Then, in the fall of 1959, I showed up for my first day at the Bronx High School of Science. It was a shock to the ego.

I realized that I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. In fact, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be the smartest person in any room at school for the next four years. I was right.

That was a tough lesson, and I haven’t learned it as well as I should. But things go better for me when I tamp down my ego and pay attention to how the other people around me are smart.

Hard work can often overcome lack of talent.

Speaking of, “there’s always somebody better,” let’s talk about playground basketball. I loved to play basketball and I was willing to stand in line along the fence and wait my turn. That meant I didn’t get nearly as many games as I wanted.

We played 3-on-3, winners out. That meant that you could get to play, never take a shot or score a point and have to go to the back of the line. I did not like that. I realized that the next person in the line could pick anyone to play with him, but they were usually smart enough to pick the really good players.

Then, one day, I had a revelation. Actually, I didn’t have a revelation I had a friend named Larry. Larry and I were standing along the fence waiting for our turn. I was grousing about not getting to play much. Larry reminded me that I wasn’t good enough. Then he pointed out a guy who seemed to play all the time even though he wasn’t very talented.

“You could do that,” Larry said. “See how he does all the dirty work. He rebounds and sets picks and passes and almost never shoots.” That’s what I started to do. After I’d established a reputation as somebody willing to do the dirty work who didn’t care about being a star, I got to play a lot.

Yep, this is another one of those lessons that I haven’t learned as well as I should. I’d really like to be the star. Sometimes I can be, but the main thing is to concentrate on helping the team and other team members succeed.

Questions get you farther than showing off.

When I was in high school, my dad was the pastor of a church in Manhattan where many of the worshippers were UN diplomats and successful business executives. There were many receptions and other social events that my parents hosted. My sister and I were expected to attend and help make it work.

My mother’s direction to us was simple. Ask questions. She helped us by going through her index cards for people who were likely to attend an event. She told us a little bit about them and suggested questions we might ask. She even shared a couple of tricks for getting people to keep talking.

Guess what? At the end of the event, several people would always compliment my mom on what great conversationalists my sister and I were. That’s one benefit of paying attention to questions. In later years I learned that there’s another benefit. You can’t learn when you’re talking. So, ask questions and encourage others to talk.

Good manners smooth out many a situation.

There was one important lesson that I learned growing up that I didn’t realize until years later. My parents demanded that we respect other people and treat everyone civilly. We learned to say please and thank you reflexively. I use those words when I talk to Alexa.

Being polite and respectful can smooth out potentially volatile situations. That’s still true today even when so many conversations resemble rock fights. One lesson I’ve learned from life is that conversation is not a blood sport, it’s the way we build relationships.

I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. I learned all those lessons and they were important ones but that doesn’t mean I learned them well. I backslide from time to time. I can be rude to people without thinking and then have to apologize. I’m still working on that. After all, I learned from dad that you can always get better.


You can always get better.

There’s always someone better.

Hard work can often overcome a lack of talent.

Questions will get you farther than showing off.

Good manners smooth out many a situation.

Conversation is not a blood sport, it’s the way we build relationships.

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