March 2022

Lessons from Daddy

Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

On February 3, 2022, my father passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 77. I’ve always been the quintessential daddy’s girl, sharing that special bond only known between father and daughter, and I will miss him terribly. Through our relationship, he had a profound impact on who I am, how I work, and how I run my business. He assured me I could do whatever I put my mind to, he taught me to work hard and play hard, and he encouraged me to be a person of integrity. In tribute to him, I want to share a small selection of important life lessons learned at his knee from his loving example.

Life’s not fair

I can’t even begin to count the number of times the words “That’s not fair” came out of my mouth in conversations with my dad. As any child would be, I was filled with righteous indignation at the injustices that I encountered, often at the hand of my father — my very own flesh and blood! I was being held to a higher standard or a different rule set than my friends. My little brother was being given privileges that I did not have at his age. I couldn’t do whatever it was I wanted because we couldn’t afford it or because I had responsibilities at home.

Clearly, in some cases, I was in the wrong, measuring fairness by a childish and selfish perception of right and wrong. In many other cases, I was right. No, it wasn’t fair that my mother was very ill and that, as a result, I had to grow up a bit faster than some children, taking on extra responsibilities for household chores and watching over my brother. No, it wasn’t fair that my dad was laid off, so we had to move to a new state or we didn’t have the money for some kind of special toy or event. I’m sure he often thought the same thing — it’s not fair — but regardless of the situation or the correctness of my statement, inevitably, his response back was always the same: “Life isn’t fair.”

Fortunately, he didn’t just teach me this trite phrase, but also how to deal with the inherent inequities of life. Through his example over the years, I learned that while life wasn’t fair, I still had control over my choices for how to deal with that fact:

  • I could continue to rally against the inequity, whining and moaning, portraying myself as a victim, and telling all my friends and family how rotten and unfair my dad was. This route never accomplished a single thing. Sure my friends might sympathize and agree with me, but even if they had stood in solidarity beside me in front of my father (no one ever did), they had no power to change the situation.
  • I could resign myself to the situation, taking on the role of martyr, quietly suffering for adolescents everywhere. Although this route could occasionally make me feel better, (knowing that I was taking one for the “team”), it also got me nowhere. My martyrdom did not inspire a revolution to avenge my treatment; no hunger strikes to bring about changes in the parenting world.
  • I could work to understand the circumstances that caused the inequity, learning to see things from another angle, from another’s perspective. Often understanding led to acceptance, an empathy for the inequity that the other person might also be experiencing. Sometimes it led to a clear path for rectifying the situation to be fairer in the future or avoiding the situation in the first place. I learned not to blindly cling to my beliefs, but work to understand all sides. It was only then that I might see a path to make things better or to make the most of a bad (read, unfair) situation.

It would be a lie to say I took the high road in all situations. It was (and still sometimes is) a hard lesson to learn, and human instinct is to demand justice and fairness. However, I can look back and easily see that my dad wasn’t always given the recognition or rewards he deserved, and he often got the short end of the stick; nevertheless, he taught me to play the cards I was dealt.

That lesson was taught both figuratively and literally. My dad loved to play games and he taught me several trick-taking card games at a young age. My favorite was three-handed cut-throat pinochle. I learned to turn bad hands to my advantage, to strategize and bid appropriately. Every hand wasn’t fair; sometimes, you were dealt lots of aces and you could coast your way to victory. Sometimes your hand stunk, but if you worked at it, you could still make forward progress toward the end goal of winning. Cards aren’t fair, but you can learn to play them anyway. Life isn’t fair, but you can learn to live it anyway.

The lesson certainly carries over to my career and my business. Sometimes, things don’t go the way I expect or hope. A deadline requires me to work a weekend or a holiday. A project scope unexpectedly expands or collapses. An employee requires a long-term absence. A pandemic cancels all in-person conferences. It’s not fair. But I remain in business because my dad taught me not to dwell on the unfairness of it all, wallowing in self-pity, but to change my perspective: to make the most of the situation, do the best with what I have, not to be afraid to try something new, and, of course, if I don’t succeed with my first approach, to try again.

Take it or leave it

As I learned perspective and how I might try to transform situations that I perceived as unfair into tenable solutions, I encountered my next lesson. Negotiation wasn’t always an option, as sometimes my dad would dig in his heels and let me know my only options were to “take it or leave it.”

Early encounters with the phrase “Take it or leave it” were almost always in the context of my dinner. I am now and have always been a picky eater. Honestly, my parents tried a number of methods before resorting to this phrase, including arranging the food on my plate into a smiling clown face and later, putting me in the chair that faced the outside window where I could see them playing catch while I was left to finish my dinner. As I grew older, however, they worried less about whether I would be malnourished and adopted the “take it or leave it” approach. I didn’t have to eat what I was given, but I wasn’t being given anything else.

The take it or leave it mantra showed itself in other situations as I grew up. You can invite this many friends or none at all. I’ll buy you these select (non-designer) clothes or you’ll get nothing new for the school year. You’ll be home by ten or you won’t go. In virtually all cases, the choice was a no-brainer – something was better than nothing (although there were definitely situations where not eating was preferable to what was being served).

The lesson has mixed results in my life. I am a horrible negotiator at garage sales or with street vendors in foreign cities. If I want the item, I will buy it at the listed price because I assume the price is offered with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Similarly, it annoys me when someone offers me less than what I asked for on Facebook Marketplace. If you don’t want it, fine, but I already told you what it would require for you to take it.

On the other hand, the take it or leave it mantra has taught me to clearly evaluate what’s important to me: what things, projects, or people are priceless, that I must have at any cost, and what can I live without. It’s a black and white prioritization system that reminds me never to assume I can change something – I take it as is or I walk away. If the situation is unacceptable now, and the circumstances do not allow immediate negotiation and rectifying, it is unrealistic to think they will somehow change in the future. The ham and cheese sandwich may look extremely appetizing and I may be really hungry, but it is foolish to think that I can somehow wipe off the mustard thoroughly enough to enjoy the taste of what’s left.

To protect my own self-interests, I must be willing to walk away when something isn’t in line with my expectations, and should I choose to accept a situation, I must be willing to work within its given constraints. Can I work with this potential employee as they present themselves today? Not, do I think I can train the bad habits away after I hire them. Can I meet the demands of the contract as they are written? Not, can I convince the client after the fact that they need something else or somehow delay the deadline to be more realistic. The mindset avoids a plethora of problems.

If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out

My dad also taught me to avoid problems by not causing them in the first place. My actions sometimes prompted situations that made me unhappy, and in fact, often led to my complaining about the unfairness of it all. In addition to learning that life wasn’t fair, my dad also gave sage advice that what goes around comes around, and if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.

As I mentioned, my dad loved to play games. I loved to play them with him and I loved (well, still love) to win. My aggressive strategies, however, were not always appreciated by my opponents. For example, we played Risk a lot, and I would gleefully work at amassing my armies to take over one opponent at a time, picking on the underdog in some manner to further my cause. How I hated the resulting reaction from the rest of the players in the game. Suddenly, all eyes were on me and all opponents worked in conjunction toward my eradication from the game. I spent many a game in tears because everyone was against me. No sympathy came from my father, just the statement, “if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.”

I am four years older than my only brother. For the entire time that I lived full-time in the same house as him, I was taller and heavier than him. It was safe to pick on him – I could pin him to the ground easily if he came after me for my teasing, my smirky faces, or my pushing, punching, or pinching when parents weren’t looking. My parents weren’t blind to the situation, and I certainly got in trouble for my actions, but in conjunction, I was also warned repeatedly, “if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.” These were nonsense words to someone of my infinite wisdom. Take what? Yes, I knew my brother would eventually get bigger and stronger than me. I also figured that would happen after I went to college. I was right on both counts, but failed to think about my breaks at home between semesters, when my fully grown little brother would gain his revenge. During that time, little punishment was actually doled out. My brother received no words of wisdom; instead, my dad would smile at my pleas for help as I was pinned to the ground and simply say, “I warned you.”

When you think about it, the expression, “if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out,” is a corollary to the golden rule – treat others as you would like to be treated. If you don’t want to be picked on, don’t pick on others. If you want respect, give it. It’s an important lesson for playing games, but even more important for running my business. Would it be easier without competitors? Of course. I could take the stance to ban such competitors from my conferences, refuse to let them advertise or speak. But how does that serve the community and what does that do to my reputation? If I can’t take the disrespect those actions would afford me, I better not dish it out. Instead, I can recognize that there’s room for us all. My competitors actively participate at my conferences. They invite me to speak with them at other events or to have a chat on a podcast. We refer clients to each other based on the strengths we each offer. In direct competition, sometimes I’ll win a bid; sometimes I’ll lose. But in the end, we all gain – the industry is better as we all work together and in competition to improve technical communication practices.

My dad’s passing reminds me that we only have a limited time on this earth, and our best hope is to leave a positive legacy before we go. It is my prayer that the lessons I’ve shared here are apparent in all I do, and that I am a living tribute to the man my father was.

About the Author: Dawn Stevens, is CIDM’s Director and President of Comtech Services. She has 30 years of practical experience in virtually every role within a documentation and training department, including project management, instructional design, writing, editing, and multimedia programming.