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

My father, 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.