I met my wife in a bar when we were both 22, and we got married three months later. I had no money, no bed (I slept in a mattress on the floor of an income controlled apartment) no bank account, and 50 community college credits. I drove a Hyundai Accent with a salvage title that hadn’t had an oil change in 30,000 miles.
Stated simply, I was ill-prepared for the responsibilities of real adulthood. And even less prepared for the responsibilities of fatherhood. My future wife had a 4 year old daughter named Elizabeth, who I fell hard for immediately.
Becoming her dad has been the single best experience of my life, but a small side benefit is that I learned some of my best management lessons by being Elizabeth’s Dad.
1. How to Win Someone Over Who Doesn’t Trust You.
The first time I played with Elizabeth she assigned herself the role of princess, her mother the role of queen, her biological father (who she hadn’t seen for 6 months at the time) the role of King, and me the role of castle guard. And then she fired me.
We repeated this scenario a few more times, until one night when she asked me if I knew anything about superheroes, because she didn’t know anyone who did and wanted to learn. Having been a comic book nerd before it was cool I was happy to share my knowledge with her. Things changed after that conversation.
Lesson Learned: When you go into a new situation you will likely be rejected. Stick with it, try not to take the rejection personally, and take the first chance you get to show a unique and valued skill set or bit of knowledge. It will pay off.
2. How to Be the Bay, When You Really Just Want to Be Liked.
One day, before we got married or even lived together I went to my wife’s parent’s house. As soon as I got out of my car my future wife (Megan) told me that I needed to talk to Elizabeth about some sort of minor infraction that needed correction. Megan was leveraging a child’s inherent fear of a man, and my desire to be a good boyfriend, to change the way Elizabeth was acting.
I had no idea how to discipline a child. I was still a child myself, and desperately didn’t want to have that talk. I just wanted Elizabeth to like me. And I had just barely been rehired as Castle Guard. But I did it, because we were going to be a family, and I had to get used to it. And it turned out okay—in fact, I wasn’t even fired. And when I was giving Elizabeth “the talk” I think she actually liked experiencing a Disney-style family moment.
Lesson Learned: Everyone knows being a leader isn’t about being liked—but most people still want to be liked. Or at least not disliked. That said, when you have been placed in a position of leadership people expect you to act like one, even if that means having to take disciplinary action. Don’t shy away from it.
3. How to Be Patient
In my first few months with Elizabeth I went from Dustin to Daddy Dustin to Daddy, back to Dustin on occasion. I never expected to be called Daddy, but I loved it when it happened, and it hurt when I would go back to being just Dustin on occasion. Most of the time things were amazing, but there was the time she ate hot dogs and fruit loops, and then intentionally threw up on me.
Those initial ups and downs seemed to last forever. But in reality, they didn’t. We became very close quickly. That said, I wanted to be good at being her dad, and I wanted us to be a family. I wanted the good parts to be there all the time, and to get even better all the time.
Lesson Learned: When you are doing something big and new, whether in your personal life or at work, there will be a period of “3 steps forward, 2 steps back”. There will be ups and downs, and you have to learn to ride them out, and as a leader keep at least the appearance of an even keel. In other words, if someone throws up fruit loops and hot dogs on you (whether in reality or metaphorically), you need to do your swearing alone in a closet.
Even the Worst Will Pass, if You Believe in Your Vision
From the moment I met Elizabeth I wanted to be her dad, and wanted to make sure she had the experience of having a dad. I wasn’t going to fail at that, even if I have failed at plenty of other things.
If you are truly committed to your goals you can make them happen.
For the most part those early days were amazing, but there was the steep learning curve of having to figure out how to be a dad before I could really grow facial hair.
There still is a big learning curve.
She is entering her freshman year of high school, and I’m only 33. In other words, still young enough to know the thoughts that lurk in the dark corners of the minds of all those boys. In fact, the other day I had a 17 year old neighbor boy stop by to say “hello”.
Here we go again….