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Fathers & Sons (and Daughters)

January 26, 2015

Frogs

My oldest son graduated from college in June. He’s already started his own company.

He’s found a technical co-founder, lined up financing, found work space in San Francisco, and is already hard at work validating ideas. To paraphrase Harry Chapin: he’d grown up just like me.

But to tell the truth, I’m a little bit creeped out by the whole thing. You see, I’m the kind of guy who barely suppressed a smirk every time I bumped into another career-paired family; like the dentist whose son “just decided” to go to dental school or the lawyer whose daughter just passed the bar “without any encouragement from me”. Just yesterday I found out that the young man installing our new furnace is the previous installer’s son.

And now that it’s my own son who is following in his father’s footsteps, how should I feel about it?   Am I somehow responsible for his career choice? Did I put pressure on him to pursue my interests? Or worst of all, is he doing this to unconsciously “please” me?

I’ve been thinking as well about other apparent dynasties where second generations seem to find success more frequently than pure chance would have it. Consider for example the modern day dynasties that one finds in Hollywood (Sheens, Curtis’, etc, etc) or Washington (Kennedy’s, Clintons, Bushes, Udalls. Etc.)

In acting, politics and entrepreneurship, is all this talent hereditary or is there something else at work here?

Clearly, there is an element of privilege at work, in that success in one generation certainly provides a stronger platform for the next, whether that be education, introduction, or whatever.

But I’ve also  come to think that there is another answer: all three of these categories require an exorbitantly large amount of luck. At least in acting, politics and entrepreneurship, the path to success requires making dozens – if not hundreds – of small choices, each of which has to be made with little or no information upon which to make it. In many ways that is why the prize is so substantial when someone successfully runs the gauntlet.

But what if there was someone you trusted, who could stand behind you at each juncture, help you pick which fork in the road might hold more promise and know so with the authority of someone who had been down that road before.  Maybe following in your father’s footsteps is just a straightforward way to improve your odds of not getting knocked off the path?

Obviously being a parental advisor is no assurance of success and there is undoubtedly some survivor bias in my choice of examples. And I certainly don’t mean to underplay anyone’s talent or effort; Charlie Sheen undoubtedly had to read for every role he got and without acting talent he wouldn’t have gotten past that first audition. But talented actors are a dime a dozen, and there is seemingly no logic as to which talent strides purposefully toward waiting limos and which toward waiting tables.

But . . .what if one of those random actors was able to get advice from a parent about how to approach that first audition. How to respond to the director’s questions. How to follow up. Who else to contact as part of the process. Wouldn’t that person greatly increase their odds? It is never a certain path and there is a huge element of luck, but as the old saying goes, “luck is only opportunity meeting preparation”, and there is no denying that Charlie Sheen was exceptionally well prepared to take advantage of any break that may have come his way.

In politics as well, G. W. Bush had to press the flesh and raise the money himself and by all accounts he was remarkably personable and charismatic – but he unquestionably had H. to ensure he was speaking to the right people at the right time. Pappy was also probably there when there was a difficult decision about what to say, where to travel to, or what side of an issue to be on. There are huge elements of luck, but the more you can minimize the choices, the better the odds of them breaking in your favor.

In my son’s case, there is no question that the things he has accomplished he has done on his own initiative. But it’s hard to quantify the importance of the preparation he may have received watching me wrestle with my own experiences as an entrepreneur, hanging out with my silicon valley friends at a backyard barbecue, coming with me to the coaching sessions I do with young CEOs, or sitting in as an occasional silent observer in my board meetings. When he’s stuck on something, he knows he can come to me with the question about timing, tone, and approach – all helpful as he seeks to increase the odds that a single wrong decision doesn’t set him back irrevocably.

And as I write this, I’m realizing that perhaps the even greater benefit of being a second generation comes from the value of seeing that what appears effortless, seldom is. My son knows first hand how hard, lonely and scary the life of an entrepreneur can be, just as Charlie and W have seen first hand the brutal aspects of their fathers’ professions. So when they choose to enter their father’s field, they do so knowing full well what they are in for, they are doing it for the right reasons, and they are fully prepared to take on the challenges that lie ahead..

It’s still long odds that my son’s venture will succeed, just as it is for every young entrepreneur. But I’m excited that he’s so well prepared and that he’s doing it for the right reasons. And I’m even more excited that I get a front row seat to watch.

Postscript:

As I’ve written about before, any entrepreneurial talents I may have, I almost solely attribute to the lessons I learned as an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), where for many years I worked leading 30 day mountain expeditions teaching wilderness skills, environmental ethics and leadership.

So I’m undeniably proud to say that this past summer, my daughter was dropped off at a wilderness road head in the mountains of Northwestern Wyoming, where she (along with two other instructors) led 12 students off into the mountains. It’s her first course as a NOLS instructor. She’s the youngest of nearly 600 active instructors. And I swear I had nothing to do with it.

Well OK. Maybe a little.

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2 Comments

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    Although my first son won’t be born until April and I’ve been a failed entrepreneur so far, I had the same thinking going through my head. Will I put pressure on him to pursue my interests? Can I build a successful startup before he grows up so I can give him better preparation if he chose to follow my footsteps? Don’t know if I should be creeped out or excited about all these thinkings 🙂 Anyway, thanks for your sharing and it will be a good reference for me in the future.

    One other thing to take into account…

    Because of you, your son has a network. Powerful (and not so powerful… like me) people know who he, trust him and are there to help him.

    It takes most people years to develop the kind of network that your son had the day he got off the plane. Don’t discount the power and the advantage of that.

    Without his network, would he have gotten funded as quickly as he did? If his business hadn’t been funded, would the team have lasted long enough to build a product and get funded the old fashioned way?

    Things to consider.

    Regardless, your kid is pretty lucky to have you as a dad, money & power aside.