One of the many lessons my father taught me through example.
He didn’t invest in stocks. He didn’t invest in property. He didn’t start up a company or run a business. Instead, he invested in himself.
My father invested in himself because it promised the highest chance of return. You can lose money, you can lose your house, lose your job, lose your car, lose your wife, but you can never really lose yourself.
I can remember a horrid sight when I was a child. It was around 5am on a cold, cold winter morning. I was sitting at the kitchen table, suffering through a bowl of Total cereal or something. We were in the middle of an ice storm, which was an annual event in Western New York state in those days. It was snowing so hard that visibility was reduced to a solid white blur — which was moot to me anyway as the windows had frozen over days ago.
I have no idea now what I was doing awake at that time in the morning, but what I do remember was my father crashing through the door in front of me. I remember the burst of frigid air that overtook the kitchen. I remember shivering. I remember the old worn snap-on black hood that was over my father’s head, the old torn black snow suit beneath his old oil-stained tan Carhartt coat, the giant snow boots on his feet that had duct tape patches over the toes. His mustache and beard were frozen, snow fell off of him everywhere.
He was coming in from brushing the snow and chipping the ice off of his truck, and he only paused long enough in the warmth of the house to pick up his mug of coffee and mutter, “Get an education, boy, so you don’t have to do this shit for the rest of your life.” He was going to work at the factory, where he would be outside all day in the cold and snow, fixing shit that broke in the storm or something awful like that.
I simply couldn’t fathom then what could compel someone to go outside into weather like that. I was struck by a strange awe as I watched him slap the door shut behind him.
But that’s just what he did. There was never any question about it. That’s just what he did. He’d explain it as if he didn’t have any other choice, that his lack of an education set him on a one way professional track. But that’s not entirely true.
When I was younger he was offered an apprenticeship as a tin knocker. I can remember the decision process between my mother and him. It would mean that he’d have to go to school, take classes at night at the local community college, and be more involved in work than he previously was. I couldn’t picture my father sitting in a classroom. I remember how odd it seemed when he brought home his first test and stuck it proudly on the refrigerator next to my report card. He got an A.
Before that, he was more or less a grunt. He went to work, did his thing, went home, got paid every two weeks. He seemed to have had a job that he like — he drove a fork lift and didn’t quite want to give it up. But he knew that taking the apprenticeship was the best option. He saw the writing on the wall.
Nearly as soon as he finished the apprenticeship the factory began another round of mass layoffs, and he was cut, along with ten thousand other workers.
I can remember the family meeting when my sister and I were notified of the situation.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked him.
He looked at me as though my question was preposterous. “Get another job,” he said with a laugh.
The following week he did some much needed repairs around the house. The week after that he put in some applications. A couple of weeks later he was doing some temp jobs. In a matter of months he had something regular in the facilities department of a university. Not long after that he was hired permanent. Five or so years later he was the foreman of the metal shop — sending other guys outside to work in the snow.
What really strikes me when I think about his laid off period now is that he didn’t seem worried. He seemed angry to have been part of a wholesale dumping by a company he worked 20 years for, but he didn’t seem worried or unsure at all. He knew that he would get another job. He was a technician, he knew how to do something useful — he’d invested in himself.
I watched this as a teenager and it changed everything for me. Although what I do is very different from my father I’ve ultimately followed a similar ethic: I’ve invested in myself. I acquired skills rather than assets, gained experience in multiple professions rather than piling cash in banks, I figured out ways to be useful rather than figuring out ways to find security through an employer.
My father is 58 years old today. He wakes up before 5 am each morning, goes down in the basement, and does 300 pushups and a thousand crunches before going to work. He invests in himself.