My Father’s Wisdom: A Father’s Day Reflection

Peter Bregman reflects on the great advice his father has passed on to him over the years.

Peter Bregman22 June 2009
Photo by Sam Wheeler

According to a recent study, chewing gum makes you smarter. Eighth grade math students who chewed gum during homework and test taking had, on average, scores that were 3% higher than the students who didn’t chew gum. So, the researchers advise, chew more gum.

But wait a second. Who paid these researchers? Let’s see here. Oh look: it’s funded by the Wrigley’s Science Institute. That’s right, a gum company is advising us to chew more gum. Hmmm.

That’s like taking advice from the beef industry about what to eat. Or from your commission-based broker about how often to trade your stocks. Or from your car dealer about which new car to buy. They’re all going to give you the advice that meets their needs, not yours.

The most important thing to know about any piece of advice is where it comes from. That’s advice I got from my father.

My father has given me great advice over the years. Like when I was in college and I wanted to do a semester in France. He asked me if there was something in France I was seeking, maybe a professor I wanted to study with? Or was I simply bored in college? I told him I was bored. He told me to figure it out where I was; that I would face boredom the rest of my life and I shouldn’t run. I followed his advice, stayed on campus, experimented with different activities that might re-engage me, and found my career teaching leadership.

Sometimes his advice was born from his mistakes. My father is a soft soul. He loves books and music, interesting ideas and conversations with strangers. He would have made a fabulous professor. He often spoke of wanting to be a writer.

But he was told he didn’t have the talent. So instead, he joined his father’s business on the stock exchange. Which was a terrible fit for him. He did it for the money and, financially, it paid off. His advice to me? There’s nothing more important than doing work you love. So when I was told I didn’t have the talent to write, I ignored it and just kept on writing.

My father has had tremendous ups and downs. He made millions and lost millions. And through it all, he stayed calm. Centered. Loving. And that drove some of us crazy. How could he be so calm? But success comes and goes. Presence? That’s always available.

And watching him all these years has taught me that there’s nothing more important than presence, whatever the circumstances. The one thing I knew, the thing I could trust, is that he would be there for me, willing to listen without judgment.

That turns out to be the best advice he’s given me and he never actually spoke it. He simply lives it. I’m Jewish and my wife Eleanor is Christian and the families we grew up in had a hard time adjusting to the interfaith nature of our relationship. When we told them we were getting married, all hell broke loose. Most of my extended family refused to come to the wedding.

But I remember several conversations I had with my father where he listened to me, empathized, explained why it was hard for others, and then told me that Eleanor was an amazing woman and that while people were not accepting of us now, they would in time. Because that’s what time does if you let it. Allowing other people to have their reactions and then—this is the hardest part—being open to them if, and when, they catch up. Eventually they all did.

My father taught me that while life changes—and it always changes—it doesn’t have to unsettle us. If we listen with curiosity, love fully, and stick with ourselves and others, we will live well.

My father is still here and for that I am deeply grateful. I’m forty-one now and have three children of my own. I only hope I can live my life with the same courage, presence, and generosity of spirit that he lives his. And that I’ve learned enough from his advice—spoken and lived—that I can be that example for my children.

However my life turns out, whatever ups and downs I experience, I hope I can live with the same grace my father emanates. Because even though I do periodically chew gum, my research shows that it’s my father who makes me smarter.

Peter Bregman

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. He is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.