To Thy Own Self Be True: What I Learned About Work From My Dad

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Jay KilbergThe author's father and daughter
My father, Sam, made his living selling computers back when they took up entire floors of buildings and took their instructions from punch cards. He loved the art of selling. I remember his favorite coffee mug said "Peddler" with the image of an old man selling goods from a pushcart. He taught me how fundamental driving revenue is to the health of a business. "Nothing happens until somebody sells something," he'd always tell me.

Sam practiced consultative selling before consultants coined the term. He understood that when the buyer and seller both benefited, everybody was a winner. The satisfaction he got from the act of putting a deal together where everyone benefited from the transaction far outweighed the pleasure he got from winning the trip to Hawaii or cashing the commission check.

My father was a child of the Great Depression, and like many of his generation, was shaped by that experience. He constantly preached the importance of hard work as a requirement for success. When I was a young boy, he gave me a sheet of paper with a quote from Calvin Coolidge that remained on my desk for years:

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

In a way, Sam was unconventional before it was cool to be unconventional. On the surface, he seemed the poster child of convention -- the Eagle Scout and Korean War veteran commuting into New York City in his three-piece gray flannel suit and highly polished wingtips. In reality, however, my father was no Company Man. He disdained the corporate hypocrisy and hated playing the politics that corporate life required. Family came first. He turned down career opportunities if it meant moving to another city and disrupting his family.

His ethics were sacrosanct -- even if it meant losing a big promotion or a fat commission check. "Put your integrity first," he would always say. "To thy own self be true." (For years I thought this was another Samism until freshman English Lit when I learned it was Shakespeare.) "No matter how much they pay you, it's not worth it if you can't sleep at night. You have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning so you better like the person you see."

The lessons my father taught were not only critical in shaping me as a leader and as a man, but were also imprinted on my sister who became a global marketing executive at multiple major Hollywood studios.

Although today's business world is different than the one Sam did business in, the lessons he passed on to us are timeless. I will certainly do my best to pass them on to my son and daughter. Thanks for everything Dad. Happy Fathers Day.

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