Editor’s Note: The goal of this article and YouTube interview with Jeff Hoffman, a serial entrepreneur, academic innovator, and motivational speaker, is to encourage dads and their children to get curious, open up, and talk about life experiences and their emotional connections to the people we’ve become.
The end of this article and the video both have extensive tips and advice for children, fathers, and children of fathers who have passed on how to learn more about your dad (or share more with your kids) right now.
We encourage you to take Jeff’s advice, and learn something worth celebrating. Then, share your stories with us online using the hashtag #RememberRemarkably.
Here is Jeff’s.
The conversation on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is so very different. I think that’s because, especially with older men, there was this certain way of thinking they were taught growing up that said that sensitivity or vulnerability is a weakness.
They just didn’t share things –– they just didn’t talk about them –– and it’s a shame.
And let’s be honest: the societal message today for men isn’t where it needs to be yet either. There is still this macho-ism we see every day.
For instance, in high school today, who are the heroes?
The most celebrated boys are the sports stars. If you’re a high school quarterback, if you’re a sports star, you’re a big shot. We still live in this age where, unfortunately men and boys are judged on things like physical ability. Being big and strong apparently makes you more of a man, which is insane, right?
It’s a horrible message. The things that we still judge “manhood” on are all the wrong things.
I try to work with young men to teach them that sharing their feelings and being sensitive or crying isn’t weakness. In fact, I always tell people, especially young men: “Don’t be ashamed to cry, be ashamed to not have feelings.”
Crying means you actually care about something and you’re passionate about it.
I’d much rather see you engaged with the world and have a passion for something than to be so closed off that you won’t share your feelings.
We need to keep working on that message, though, because we’re not there yet.
Happily, I do see change in this next generation. I think it’s possibly the good side of social media that this generation is used to seeing people sharing thoughts and feelings more than they did before social media, even if it’s for the wrong reason.
The reason people share more is because people feel they can hide anonymously behind the internet. The widespread sharing of feelings, though, still has a positive effect in that people are willing to express more than they ever would if they were standing face to face, looking you in the eyes.
We’re making progress but we have more to go, and it takes a mindset shift for all of us to get there.
To do my part to help, this Father’s Day I want to share the story of my dad, who passed a few years ago.
- Born to Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.
- Raised poor –– so much so that he had to be sent off in the summer because his parents couldn’t afford to feed him.
- The first of our family to go to college…
- …where he had to work in the college cafeteria kitchen and was ridiculed by the other students.
- The end of a cycle of never saying “I love you” to his children, he fought against a strict Russian upbringing to embrace sensitivity and vulnerability.
- When he died, he was my best friend and my parent.
Here is how he did it.
Here is how he fought against the odds to stop a poverty-stricken, emotionless cycle of manhood to build a legacy for his children.
And here’s how you can do the same:
- For your children.
- With your own father.
- With your father’s friends if he has already passed.
My Father Before He Was a Father
My father was the son of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. He was a first generation American. Because his parents were born in Russia and the Ukraine, they started off with a little bit of a different cultural background than we are used to in the States.
They were very blue collar. My grandfather was a cobbler that made shoes, and a tailor. As a result, my father was raised in a low income family that was very traditional. They did manual labor and made a living with their hands.
With that Russian background, his father wasn’t the kind that spoke a lot. They weren’t super affectionate or outgoing because that just wasn’t how his father was raised.
That was the role model my father saw.
- My grandfather didn’t speak a lot.
- He never hugged anybody.
- He wasn’t friendly.
My father decided early on that he wanted to break that cycle, even though it was not easy or obvious for him to hug his own children and say “I love you.” He pushed himself to do that.
Dad’s Decision to Start a New Vulnerability Cycle
My father had to change a lot about the mindset of his upbringing.
First, he developed a huge belief in the power of education. He grew up poor. So much so that once he came home from school on the day before the first day of summer and everything he owned was packed up in the front of the house.
He asked: “What’s going on?”
His parents said: “We can’t afford to feed you this summer, so we’re sending you away to Easter Seals camp. At least there you’ll have a bed and food. We love you, but we can’t feed you.”
He was devastated and didn’t want to go, but understood they were trying to take care of him. He didn’t want that for his kids, or to have that kind of economic insecurity. No offense to being a tailor or a cobbler, but my father wanted a better career to be able to take care of his own parents.
He learned very quickly that his way out of this cycle was education. He worked really hard and was able to get an engineering scholarship to Cornell, to an Ivy League school.
He’s the first in the entire family tree to ever have gone to college and he went to a really good one. Of course, he had to work in college. They made him work in the cafeteria serving the other kids and cleaning their dishes. He was subject to a little bit of ridicule because the other kids would see him there. He was the poor kid. He was scrubbing their plates while some of the more to-do, better-to-do kids ate.
Once before he passed, I got really interested in this time of his life. But I couldn’t just ask about it. I couldn’t just say: “Share your feelings with me.”
That was foreign to him and difficult.
Instead, I said: “Tell me what it was like when you were washing dishes in college.” You could immediately pick up the emotion.
- “Wait, kids said that to you?”
- “Wasn’t that humiliating?”
- “Didn’t that make you feel horrible?”
- “Of course. I would go in the back and cry, but I’d finish washing the dishes.”
My father understood commitment, which at this point in his life was to get this engineering degree to be able to take care of his parents. He finished that. He became a civil engineer and went in the construction industry.
He also built a new legacy for his future kids and lineage.
The Dual Work of a Father and a Best Friend
When I lost him, it was as much losing a best friend as it was losing a parent. I always understood that the father son relationship he and I had was certainly not the same as the one he and his father had.
I spend a lot of my time these days in an inner city school where, recently, a young man asked me to mentor him. He said he’s afraid of his father.
- “Does your own father speak to you?”
- “I’m scared to death of him. I don’t even talk to him. I just say ‘Yes, sir’ and do what I’m told.”
A lot of the other kids I speak to don’t even know their father.
I know that having my father as a best friend in addition to a father was such a blessing, but that kind of relationship takes real effort –– on your end and it takes effort on your father’s end.
Always searching for our common interest.
When I would reach out to him, I was conscious to look for our common interest no matter what. For example, he was in the construction business and he loved to drive me around, stop at construction sites and explain everything.
He said: “Let me tell you how this building was built. We used this technique.”
I loved it. He loved talking about what he learned and all about the discipline of engineering. For me, I just loved the chance to learn at my father’s side.
Sports was also a good way for us to connect. It was a place for just me and him. I have two sisters, and sports was where he and I could go away from the sisters and mom and everybody else.
He was a Chicago guy, so we spent all those years hoping the Cubs would win it.
Despite that, when we go to a sporting event, it was just us enjoying a unique memory that was only ours.
I loved attending sporting events with him, and I loved when he would take me to work and speak to me like I was an adult and let me ask questions and educate me.
Those were great memories for me. And we both made the effort to make more of those moments happen.
How Dad Teaches Life Lessons (and the One That Really Stuck)
My father also taught me the importance of true friendship and how to recognize it, which has been one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. My mother was always telling me what to do and how to do everything right. My father, on the other hand, gave less advice and was much more salient and to the point.
One day he said to me:
“Don’t worry about being everybody’s friend. Realize that the number of people in the world that would do anything for you, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Do anything for them. Be there for the people that would be there for you most and don’t worry about pleasing everybody.”
And he kept at it. As I grew up, he would continue asking questions about my people.
He’d ask: “How’s your life going? Who is in your life? Why are those people in your life?”
A lot of times he would ask me about the people that he didn’t love and I mean that in a friendly way. He had a great sense of humor, and he used that to deliver messages clearly, but in a more gentle manner.
He’d say: “Why are you still friends with that guy?”
Once, about a particular friend, he said: “I give that guy a total score of zero as a good friend for you.”
From there on out, he would call this friend of mine Zero. That was his nickname.
- “Don’t tell me you were with Zero this weekend.”
- “Dad, that’s not his name.”
- “All he does is want things from you and he contributes nothing.”
Or, he’d pull out his sarcasm and say something like: “I checked around and it turns out you’re the only person anywhere that will actually talk to that guy.”
And then, he’d laugh and I’d walk away and would think, “Geez, maybe he’s right. Maybe.”
Turns out, he was right. I really took that advice into my adult life and focused on the people who were important to me.
That line of questioning, the constant, to-the-point questioning made me start to see that I needed to not spend time around negative people or the wrong influences, and instead focus on positive people.
That lesson helped me become the person I wanted to be, to really look at how I spent my time in life. It helped me achieve a lot of the things I wanted to achieve because I stopped wasting time with people and things that didn’t do anything for me.
Overcoming Societal Macho-ism and Learning to Open Up
I was lucky, too, that I wasn’t the only one he did this kind of stuff with. He had a gentleness in the sense that he was friendly to everybody. He was the one that knew every waitress’s name, because he took the time to ask them.
That did not come from the culture he grew up in.
There’s a favorite restaurant he had in Chicago that we’d go to called the Cambridge House. There was always a giant line on weekends and a waitress or two would spot him and light up. They’d say: “Sid, your table’s ready.”
We never waited in line.
- I remember asking: “Do you know the owner?”
- “No, son, I know the waitresses.”
It was so clear to me that he was so open and accepting of everybody and friendly to everyone. He judged nobody, but he was private about his own struggles and his own backstory.
He didn’t share that, because I think he thought it sounded like complaining, even though it was actually impressive he overcame it.
The advice he always gave me was: “Don’t worry about where you came from. Focus on where you’re going.”
It makes me wish he had shared his story with more people. It would have inspired them to do just that, to focus on where you want to go and quit complaining about where you came from or where you are. Just do something about getting to where you want to be.
Questions About Dad Exercises for All
So, what can you do now?
- What can you do now to get more stories out of your dad?
- Or, if your dad has passed like mine, how can you find more stories out about him even though he isn’t here?
The key is storytelling.
Sometimes it’s really hard work, of course, but you have to meet your dad where he is at. As I wrote earlier, if I were just to say to my father, “Share your feelings with me,” that was foreign to him and difficult.
But, if I said, “Tell me what it was like when you were washing dishes in college.” I could immediately pick up the emotion.
- “Wait, kids said that to you?”
- “Wasn’t that humiliating?”
- “Didn’t that make you feel horrible?”
- “Of course, I would go in the back and cry but I’d finish washing the dishes.”
All of that is a lot different than me saying: “Tell me about a time you were crying.”
If you are the son or daughter…
So, if you’re a son or daughter, don’t ask your father straight up to just tell you how he felt at any given moment. Instead, ask him to tell you the story.
Ask about stories that shaped his life, and then listen for the emotion and draw it out by thoughtful questions.
If you are the father…
If you’re a father, I think it’s the same thing. Share a story with your kid. When your kid is in college, say: “You know, when I was in college this is what happened.”
They can start to see how it was the same or different than theirs and they can ask you questions like: “How did that make you feel?”
Storytelling is the key to opening that door.
If your father is no longer there…
Now, if your dad has passed, I think a lot of what you can learn about him is more of the “why” and not the what.”
You may know what your father did and where he did that. He worked in the construction industry in the big city, or whatever.
But learning a little bit more about the why is important and you can do that by asking as many people as possible to tell you stories about him. Maybe his parents are still living, or his siblings, or any of his friends.
I had a chance to speak with so many of my father’s friends at his funeral. They would come to me and say: “Man, Jeff, everybody loved Sid.”
Perfect moment, I thought. So I’d ask them right there: “Why did you love him?”
- They said: “Well, funny you should ask; Let me tell you a story about what your father did for me once when I was down and out.”
- “My dad did that for you?”
- “Yeah, I’ll never forget your father for being there when nobody else would.”
I hadn’t ever asked any of his friends that question before. I never thought to ask, “Why are you even friends with my dad?” Exactly like he used to ask me.
Everybody had a story, and I wrote them all down.
Those stories are the definition of my father.
Now my job is to continue to share those stories so that we understand more about the why of who he was, not just the what. Men are too frequently defined by their career and less their heart and soul. I learned much more about him by asking the people around him why they liked him than I ever did just knowing the facts of his life.
Your Turn: Share Your #RememberRemarkably Story
There’s so much more to someone than their career or what’s put in an obituary. That’s why I am so excited about the #RememberRemarkably movement.
It’s a chance for all of us to get to know our fathers better, to let their stories into the light so we can honor them, learn from them, and share them with others.
Please join us, try out some of my tips, and let me know how it goes @SpeakerJeff.
What’s Next for Jeff: The Ultimate Symbolism
Finally, I am so thrilled about the ashes to diamond process. There’s so much symbolism. I think my father was literally a gem of a human being.
The fact that every time you turn a diamond in the light, you see a different facet is 100% reflective of the experience I’ve had, especially since his passing. Every additional person I talk to about him shines a light on a different part of him. The facets of a diamond totally make me feel like the many aspects of my father I didn’t know.
The physicality of a diamond is so great too. He’s in my heart all the time, but I’m a visual person and we live in a visual world. Being able to see a diamond is something that every time I look at it I can say: “Wow, he’s right here and we’ve never left.”
I think that’s absolutely fantastic.