The American Dream

The American Dream According to My Father

Image courtesy of Andy Warhol

My father is my hero.  The greatest man I know.  Honestly.  As I have matured through the years, I realize this more every day.  And I am more and more grateful for him every day.

He is a quiet and reserved man… a hard worker, and very successful in most facets of his life.  He spent his entire 45 year career at one company, starting out as an intern making 75 cents an hour to spending the last several years as CEO.  Surely he has weathered several economic recessions, witnessing and even overseeing his fair share of lay-offs, salary cuts and disgruntled employees.  He was fiercely dedicated to his work, and sacrificed a lot of time with his family to fulfill his responsibilities and accomplish his career goals.  He traveled often and spent endless hours at the office.  He was never a 9-5, 40 hours a week, employee.  More like 60-70 hours.

He raised four kids with my mom to whom he is still married, and surely bares a few grey hairs as souvenirs of our ongoing antics.  He has had his fair share of personal challenges as a father and a husband.  And although I am not a mind reader, as most people do, I assume he probably has a few regrets along the way.  Yet, everything he has ever done, he has done with his family’s best interest in mind.  He spoiled us… but not rotten.  He sent us all to college and grad school, and gave us every opportunity to better ourselves through education, travel, community service and family responsibility.  During the summers, he sent each one of us to work once we turned 16 because he felt it was important for us to learn the value of a dollar.  We learned a lot more than that from him.

In fact, more than my BA in Literature or the 18 months I spent in grad school, it’s what my father has taught to me through his own experiences that makes me a better person.

As a kid, I didn’t recognize any of this.  I just thought… “He’s never around.  He must love his job more than me.”  I was horrified to be working all summer at his office while my friends hung out at the beach.  And while he went on and on with his ‘life lessons’, I just thought he was trying to ruin mine.  I was never ‘daddy’s little girl’ because I didn’t think he had time for me.  Until very recently, I never realized he was preparing my two sisters and me to be women, not girls, and my brother to be a man.

Now, I am not saying my dad is perfect.  In fact, he’d be the first to tell you that he is far from it.  He has made his mistakes, facing his own personal and professional challenges.  And he has failed.  He is human.  But in light of my own personal and professional difficulties these days, I find myself reflecting on some of those life lessons of his that I used to ignore.  And they actually help me get through the really rough times.  I’m not claiming that any of my father’s ‘lessons’ or anecdotes are wholly original… and maybe you have heard them before from your own father or another influential figure in your life.  If not, I’ve decided to share them with you, in case, as you read this, you are having one of the really rough days.

  • Never measure your own success against another person’s success.  The man who shovels dirt all day long and LOVES his job is just as successful as the millionaire CEO. No matter how much money my dad made, he never put a monetary value on his accomplishments.  A successful career, as he told us, is never about the money but more about your achievements, more about loving what you do.  Achievements and accomplishments, personal and professional, make a person rich not money.
  • Remember the people you meet on the way up, they are the same people you meet on your way back down. Being king of the mountain can be really lonely at times.  And you will never be king forever.  All along the way of your personal success story there are surely people – teachers, coaches, bosses, co-workers, family members – who have taken a moment to pay you a compliment, show you support and even those who dedicate their time to walk along side you as you climb the mountain of success.  Never forget them.  Ever.  A salary increase, a promotion, more corporate responsibilities… these are all great things, but they don’t make you any better or different than the accounting clerk, receptionist or the woman who serves you lunch in the office cafeteria.  Furthermore, every time he received an award or made some sort of speech, my father always thanked my mother.  He made sure to let everyone know that his success was always a team effort… and that team is his wife and his children.   He couldn’t have done any of it without us.
  • Keep your head down, do your work and let the crap fly above. Office politics are a drag… family politics are a drag.  Focus on what’s in front of you… keep away from gossip and arguments that do not concern you.  Extract yourself from these meaningless and energy depleting situations and you will be better off in the long run.  Never allow pettiness to derail you from your goals or compromise your values and integrity.
  • Always give back to your community. If you are fortunate enough to give, then do so.  Simple as that.  Give your money… or give your time, but give to your community.  Your community is who you are, a community is what you make it.
  • People are not born lucky, they create their luck. With hard work and persistence anything is possible.  My father doesn’t believe in luck… he never has.  He believes in diligence.  He believes that through perseverance, no matter your obstacles, you can accomplish anything you want.  It wasn’t luck that saw him climb the corporate ladder from a file clerk in the accounting department to the CEO of a major company.  It was dedication to his job.  It isn’t luck that my mother and father are about to celebrate their 47 year anniversary, it is the hard work they put into being a couple… being a family.  And you don’t get a day off from the work you do as a married couple, as a family.  Luck, for my father, isn’t something that just happens to a person, it’s something a person has total control in creating for themselves.
  • You don’t ever want to be the richest guy in the cemetery. Money isn’t everything.  In fact, it really isn’t anything.  In the end, you’re no more rich or poor than the guy buried next to you.  If all that you have left behind is a fortune and no one with whom to share it, then what was it ever really worth?  My father, no matter how much time he spent in the office, rarely lost sight of what was truly important… family and friends.  Love.  As much as he loved his job, and he loved his job, he has always loved his family more.  We always came first.  And surely this, he learned through my mother.  My father, no matter how busy, and with my mother’s little reminders, always took time to enjoy the people who matter most.  Time, as we know, is fleeting… and we can never get it back, so there’s no use in wasting all of it on building a financial fortune if in the end that is all that you have to show as your legacy.

Whether it’s this difficult economy, and being unemployed for the past year, or searching for someone with whom to share my life, I find myself thinking to these lessons, and to my father, often now.  Many people who know my father, or hear about him, just see him as a very wealthy man, a corporate success story.  A suit.  A CEO.  They define him by how many zeros are at the end of his paycheck.  His career is quite a story, without a doubt.  It’s the American dream come true.  What they fail to see, what I, as a child, failed to see is what it took to make this dream a reality.  What we fail to see is that the American dream is not about the money, but about the ability to accomplish our goals, to raise a family and be able to provide for them, to better ourselves by bettering our communities, to give back, to love ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors and our community.  This is the American dream… and anyone of us can make it come true, no matter how many zeros are at the end of our paychecks.  This is what I learned from my father.

Melisa Verrecchia is a Guest Blogger for PickTheBrain and a freelance writer.

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