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Know Thyself

canstockphoto15726743 Self knowledge is important.

We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.” — Don Draper of Mad Men

My buddy Joe’s dad was a pretty cool guy. I didn’t know this but I had heard it. Joe talked about him in glowing terms and when I went to his house there were heads of elk, deer, bear and wild boar all over the recreation room walls. Joe’s dad was a hunter and clearly a tough guy and the head of the household. The rules of the house were something Joe’s mom was always quoting and they had been sort of “written in stone,” by Joe’s dad. They were quoted all the time because Joe’s dad was a salesman and was always out of town. In order for Joe’s mom to have the hammer-like authority that her sons needed for guidance, they had to be informed and reminded all the time that dad would be home at some point and justice would be swift. This was the way Joe’s parents decided raising children worked best.

I was too young to notice the difference but in retrospect that family made it work for them. A dad that is gone a lot leaves a mom who has no choice but to become both parents from time to time. And for mom to operate with any authority, she has to have dad’s 100-percent endorsement. At least that’s how Joe’s parents saw it and looking back, I respect they way they persevered.

Now my parents worked differently. Their plan was to be united on everything. Not necessarily kids versus parents but a united “adult” front, always. They knew that divided they would fall so they backed each other no matter what. “Did you ask your mother?”  Yes. “Then it’s okay with me.” Not that I couldn’t exploit the softer side of mom or the frank, bottom-line position of dad now and then, but most of the time they ruled by being consistent and of the same mindset. That was what worked for them and that’s how my sisters and I were raised.

Flash forward to me as a college freshman in a business major at a state university.  They’re asking me what I’d like to do when I graduate and I am told I could make a nice buck as a salesman; company car, travel, expense account, etc. I opened the files in my mind, “Salesman, salesman, salesman--uh oh--that’s what Joe’s dad was and he was never home, wife learned to do without him, he was always on the road, had to phone in to see what was happening in his own house--not good, not good, that was not good--NO WAY--I don’t want to ever be a salesman!” That was my assessment based on my youthful insights. No matter how logical or illogical my conclusion was, I knew I could never shake that impression of the life of a salesman. I knew that if I pursued it as a career, the first time something went wrong I’d say to myself, “See? You knew it would turn out like this!  Why didn’t you listen to yourself?”

But I’ve had a lot of friends who did get into sales. They make good money, have successful marriages and nice families and my frame of reference from third grade is certainly to be challenged. My point is this--just because my interpretation of the life of a salesman looked unstable and risky doesn’t mean that others see it that way or can’t perform it differently. What my logical conclusion can only arrive at is that I should probably not get into sales because I don’t want to be a long-distance dad. I want to be there with my wife and family making collective decisions based on my total awareness of these situations.  Why? Because I know who I am! I know myself and that is the key to everything.

I know I can’t feel comfortable driving a car that requires a big monthly payment. I want a decent car; a handsome one that cools in the summer and heats up in the winter but beyond those basics, I can’t see the logic of putting a lot of money into something I drive to and from places. Maybe if I drove more I’d want more but I don’t so I won’t. When I was a young dad and filling the car with kids I wanted room and safety--not much more. So, now that they’re grown and on their own I don’t need all the room or a big monthly car payment. It is just not something I would ever get comfortable with. I know that about me so I will always drive something in that same class. Affordable payments to render good, clean, safe cars but nothing that would make your jaw drop. It’s just not me.

So these things that resonate should become sort of a list for you. The more familiar you get with the list the easier it is to make decisions. You pour the facts in the top of the sieve and let it filter down. It passes through all of the gates you’ve established and in the end you are left with something that fits your profile.

My youngest son will graduate high school in 2015. He’s getting a lot of mail in anticipation of that. Colleges asking for visitation, photographers asking for his senior picture to be taken, stationary vendors wanting to provide his graduation announcements--all the conventional exercises and rites of passage. But Sam isn’t a very conventional guy.  He shuns attention and hates having his picture taken. He’s already told me if he doesn’t have a major picked out by Christmas break of his senior year he will plan to go to the community college for his prerequisites. He thinks paying top dollar for the basic classes that transfer everywhere is a waste. The only people he would prefer to announce his graduation to are the people that will be there any way; parents, siblings, grandparents, his favorite uncle, his rugby coaches … see,  I’m going to have to honor that part of him as he is already “self-actualizing” at a very young age.

I had a friend who was a lot like him when we were in middle school. He was perfectly comfortable with who he was but his parents wanted him to be more accessible, more mainstream, more “like them” and as we aged he rebelled in everything that came across his path. He reminded me of that old 1960s cartoon where the businessman was talking to the hippie and he asked “What are you angry about?” and the hippie replied, “Whaddya got?” Well this fellow struggled with everything when under his parent’s rule but he was 18 years and one week old he moved out and went on his own. He stayed in touch with his parents out of respect but when they began to advise him on ANYTHING he hung up or walked away. Clearly he had a problem with authority but it was rooted in the plain fact that he knew himself and simply wanted the freedom to stumble along, make mistakes and learn. Later he would marry, have two daughters and maintain a solid career in the insurance industry. He moved three or four hours south of his folks and did just fine but the point is he could only truly function when he was doing what he knew resonated well with him. He knew himself and didn’t like being told there was anything wrong with that.

I don’t see any logic in pushing back against that. When my wife and I were raising children there were always people reminding us about the “time-lines.”  They’d say, “He’s still taking a bottle? He should be done with that by now.” Or, “She’s not walking yet? You were walking well by that age.” Or, “Why would you give a child that old a pacifier, you’re ruining their teeth?” Cindy and I typically let them grow out of these stages on their own.  Maybe you disagree and you are entitled to your opinion but it worked for us. So one day Sam was drinking a bottle and someone whispered something about our lack of parenting skills and I looked at them and said, “I promise you he won’t take it to college.”

A month or two later he threw away the bottle forever. No trauma, no emotional scene, just the natural progression of growing up with the implied peer pressure of older brother and sisters. It’s the same way they came to walk, toilet train, speak--they were urged but not commanded and our method raised independent thinkers who know themselves.

Have you gotten there yet? Do you see things for what they are and filter them through the screen that is you? Knowing thyself may not deliver the most popular answer every time but it’s likely one you won’t have to do over. Shakespeare knew it well and said so in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com .

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