Three business lessons I learned from my father

My father is retiring today.

My father is leaving his working life as I feel that mine is getting started. It seems fitting, then, to use may father’s retirement as an occasion to look back at the lessons he has taught me over the years, and that continue to shape how I approach business and life. There are many. Here are three.

Don Harfield
Don Harfield

You can’t steer a parked car.

You can’t steer a parked car. This is great advice for surviving and thriving amidst conditions of uncertainty. None of us know what the future holds. Increasingly, we need to expect the unexpected. Rather than be paralyzed in the face of the unknown, what I have learned from my father is the importance of passionately pursuing a goal, committing yourself to a particular direction, while also being flexible and open to changing trajectory (sometimes radically) as conditions change. As my father retires, his advice continues to be relevant regardless of your stage in career and in life.

Don’t be risk averse. Be risk aware.

Being risk averse produces fear, and leads to an inability to act. Being afraid of risk leads to decisions that are as bad as if risk is unacknowledged. What risk aversion and its opposite have in common is a kind of laziness. If you don’t understand a project and the factors that condition its success, then you are stuck with temperament, simple heuristics, and ‘intuition.’ It is important to put in the work necessary to understand potential risks as much as possible, establish mechanisms to mitigate those risks, and build contingency into any plan to account for risks that you may not have identified or fully appreciated.

Do the right thing. Put people first.

In many ways, I feel like my belief in the importance of virtue can be traced back to the model my father set for me. Do the right thing. Put people first. Have faith that, in doing what’s right, success will happen as a matter of course. An important part of this is to avoid overdetermining what success looks like. It might mean fame of fortune, but it might also mean forming important relationships, achieving a sense of peace, or leaving an indelible mark on your community. If you go about your life chasing after success, whatever it is you’ll always miss the mark. If, on the other hand, you seek only after what is good, you’ll achieve success every time.

Twitter, Smug Intellectualism, Trolls, and Philosophical Charity

Yesterday, I witnessed an exchange on Twitter that continues to bother me.

In the interest of citing sources and providing evidence, my first inclination is to embed the public conversation here. But, especially in this current climate, citing a personality in association with a controversial piece of content frequently serves to distract from the specific issues at hand. It is also not my intention to ‘call out’ any particular individual, but rather to use the situation as an opportunity to think through some issues related to philosophical charity, social media, and anti-intellectualism. Continue reading

Death is a Fact of Life

“Phamous is dead”

Those were the first words I heard my wife say as she entered the house after morning chores. She had obviously been crying.

It had been a tragic accident, most details of which are still a mystery. Strong and magnificent though they may be, horses are also surprisingly delicate. Like gigantic toddlers, horses also have an uncanny ability to get themselves into trouble and in the most unusual ways.

This was not the first time I have been exposed to equine death. A year or so ago, I witnessed an accident during an event on cross country.  I was called to assist in restraining the horse as veterinarians were faced with no other humane alternative than to give it the ‘pink juice.’ It was hard. I cried. Continue reading

Lines in the Sand: Putting Family First

Nana passed away last week.

Nana was my wife’s grandmother. After battling cancer, and finally beating it with the removal of a kidney, she eventually succumbed to infection — a side-effect of her immune system having been decimated by chemotherapy.  

I am fortunate that I have not had to deal with death in my family since I began working full time. But a consequence of this is that I have never had to really decide how to balance related family affairs with the demands of work. In fact, I’ve never really had an experience where family and work collided. I’ve never had to answer the question: work or family. I’ve never had to draw a line in the sand.

In the absence of principles, decisions are hard. Every choice is new and has to be wrestled with singularly. I appreciate that life is complex, and that there are ethical positions that would have us grapple with every decision in this way. But values are important, and values should immediately translate into at least a small set of default positions.

I am fortunate to have a boss whom I also consider a friend and mentor. As the funeral was scheduled and I learned that it would conflict with work and work-travel commitments, I gave him a call. What he said was that, for him, family and religion are areas in which he refuses to compromise. Sure, work commitments might mean that you can’t make it to every one of your kid’s soccer games, but when it comes to things like funerals for close family members and religious holidays, he refuses to compromise, even it it might be moderately inconvenient.

I like to make the distinction between compromise and sacrifice. Compromise is what happens when preferences and tastes come into conflict. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, since compromising is often necessary for the sake of establishing, maintaining, and strengthening relationships. The art of compromise is the political virtue par excellence. Sacrifice, on the other hand, is what happens when you make a decision that conflicts with core values. To make a sacrifice, then, means calling who you are into question. It creates a significant dissonance between what you believe and what you do, and forces you to re-evaluate both. Compromise might be inconvenient, but sacrifice is unacceptable.

I have incredibly fond memories of Nana. She’s my wife’s grandmother, and so I have only known her for a relative short time. But in that time, I have enjoyed her sense of decorum (a true Southern Lady) and her authentic laughter punctuated by little snorts. I have enjoyed her cooking and her love of history. She, along with her husband ‘Papa,’ are committed to family above all else, and so it is fitting that her passing would itself leave this legacy: the fact that I am in Mississippi for Nana’s funeral and spending time with family as they recount stories and rekindle old relationships is a function of a decision precipitated by her passing.

I didn’t make a decision to take off time from work to spend with family in celebration of Nana’s life. The fact that I am here is a consequence of a decision that goes much deeper. It is the result of a line in the sand that I have drawn and now refuse to cross. (A line that I am embarrassed to say that I had not, strictly speaking, made sooner).

Family first.

Of Fresh Starts and Spider Webs

During my weekly run around around Rock Creek Farms today, I couldn’t help but reflect on new beginnings. The day was perfect. Cool and crisp, smelling of grass (and manure), I could feel the dew through my shoes without my feet actually getting wet. As I looked around, I saw new growth everywhere…and then I got a face full of spider web.

The trails that I run are more like corridors, with tall vegetation on either side. During the winter, the usually hard-working arachnid population lies dormant, but when spring arrives and they see a beautiful day like today, they awaken from their slumber and resume the loom.

I imagine the spiders and I are thinking the same thing: “What an amazing day, marking the beginning of a new year, full of new possibilities.” And then I imagine we think the same thing as I come crashing face-first through each finely woven tapestry: “Aw crap! Not again!”


What is the lesson here?

It is the Spring, and not January, that is the best time to think about the year ahead, and to really consider how to optimize one’s performance in pursuit of particular goals. It is a time for pruning, for clearing out old growth so that the new can flourish, while at the same time continuing to build upon existing foundations. Spring is full of possibilities, and, for me, is a time of tremendous optimism. Anything seems possible. But, as enlivened by possibility as we may feel, it’s important to remember two things:

1. There are always spider webs. There are always going to be inconveniences. No matter how straight the path might be, there are always going to be inconveniences and frustrations that you won’t see or anticipate. Half way through my run, I was half inclined to stop, turn around, and buy a treadmill. But to put an end to an otherwise well-conceived plan because of a few minor frustrations would have been silly.

2. There are always spider webs. As we pursue our own plans, with excitement and a single-minded sense of focus, we must constantly bear in mind that our actions have consequences for others. When inconvenienced by the spiderwebs of life, we must remember that the things that we do to achieve or own designs may at times be destructive of the designs of others. Just as spider webs may be inconvenient, so too can they be inconvenienced. The greatest obstacles we face as we pursue our goals will be a function of the goals of others.

What, then, are we to do about the spider webs of life? We shouldn’t seek to avoid them entirely, since doing so would mean giving up on our goals, making sacrifices that would radically limit the scope of our ambition. Nor should we ignore them, closing our eyes, holding our breath, and simply crash on through. Instead, we should be vigilant in our pursuits, looking out for inconveniences as we approach them in order that we might, neither avoid nor destroy, but rather negotiate them as we navigate a space we share with others.

Blue Apron: Solving Problems I Don’t Have

Blue ApronI am looking for ways to become more efficient with my time. Living on a farm 60 miles north of where I work at Georgia State University means that, during the week, my commute puts me on the road for a total of about 4 hours each day. I try to be as productive during that time as possible (making calls, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, using Pocket to listen to articles, etc), but there is only so much I can do. Between working on other projects and wanting to spend time with family, the last thing I want to do is cook dinner and do dishes (I HATE doing dishes).

So I have a problem: how do I feed my wife and myself in a way that is economical, healthy, and quick. How do I further reduce the amount of time I need to commit to after-work errands like grocery shopping? If I lived in the city, I would have a lot more options. I could use a grocery delivery service like instacart, for example. (I could also take advantage of laundry and other services not available to more rural folks). But up here in Jasper, Georgia most of the conveniences of the big city are woefully absent.

This first meal I prepared from Blue Apron.  Chicken meatballs & creamy polenta with tomato sugo &  lacinato kale.  In the end, the dish was nothing to call home about.  It looked good, but the flavor was pretty uninteresting.
This first meal I prepared from Blue Apron. Chicken meatballs & creamy polenta with tomato sugo & lacinato kale. In the end, the dish was nothing to call home about. It looked good, but the flavor was pretty uninteresting.
So this last week I tried Blue Apron, thinking that it would solve my grocery problem and maybe save some time in the kitchen. Nope. I like cooking, and I cook a lot. The recipes from Blue Apron are a good idea, in a way, because they may encourage some to venture outside of their culinary habits. It is also nice to give people the opportunity to try new recipes without having to purchase exotic ingredients in quantities much larger than would be necessary to feed two people. Minimal food waste is a good thing. But these are solutions to problems I don’t have. I am already adventurous in the kitchen, and I already waste very little. The problems that Blue Apron doesn’t solve are the problem of time — it takes as long to prepare and cook a recipe from Blue Apron as it would for me to cook as I would normally (about 30 minutes) — and the problem of dishes — I still have to dirty dishes, plates, and silverware, which leaves me with the chore of having to clean up when all is said and done. (I am solving this problem generally by entrusting all dishes to my dish washer, refusing to give in to the temptation to pre wash, and increasing my ‘spot tolerance.’ Running the dishwasher every day means that dishes get cleaner, and there are fewer dishes to put away each day). It also doesn’t solve my grocery problems, since the 2-person plan takes care of only 3 meals per week.

So I’m still looking for ways to optimize the time I have outside of work and commute. During the week, what I think I want is a service that will provide pre-made, fresh, healthy, and economical meals delivered directly to my door. Again, options are limited in the country. Something like meal delivery from Forks over Knives seems promising, but at a cost of ~$880 / month for 5 dinners a week, this option would mean a significant increase in my monthly food budget. My sister has suggested one-a-week cooking as a possible solution, but the prospect of committing a large chunk of my weekend to preparing meals for the following week makes my heart sink. In the end, it may be that what I am doing right now, spending 30 minutes preparing a meal at the end of each day, is the best that I can do (woe is me, I know), but I continue to actively look for other solutions.

What tips and tricks to you use to optimize your meal time? What meals do you prepare that are fast, healthy, and economical?