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Letters from Father to Child

By Marty Nemko

Bill Jensen asked thousands of men and women, “What’s the most important insight about work you want to pass on to your kids?” He assembled his 100 favorites in, What is Your Life’s Work (Harper Business, 2005). In honor of Father’s Day, here are my favorite excerpts from my favorite letters from that book.

Dear John, Corinne, Janean, and Julia,

One of the most difficult decisions of my life was to leave American Express. Once I realized I worked with some people who did not value what I had to offer, and whom I could not trust, I knew I couldn’t waste another day there. The most significant lesson I could pass on to you is: “Be someone who can be trusted and know who you can trust.”


Your Dad (John Harvey, former Senior VP at American Express. Now, he sells fish.)

* * * * *

Dear Alec,

I am often told that I am lucky to have built a career I love. Luck has nothing to do with it. My career has been built on a great deal of commitment, hard work, and persistence, even when work was not fun. I worked nights as a parking lot attendant to pay for graduate school. While more privileged students were musing about how to find work that spoke to their souls, I showed up at the parking lot without fail. After a year of consistent results, I was promoted to a day job. A decade and several career moves later, I now manage operations at a major airport and have discovered an intense love for the aviation industry. My major lesson is that rather than making a search for passion the cornerstone of your career development, passion evolves as a side effect of developing expert knowledge and demonstrating leadership...Alec, honey, there are no shortcuts!


Dad (Michael Civitelli, Manager of Airport Operations at Seattle Tacoma International Airport.)

* * * * *

Dear Christopher and Matthew,

In both your professional and personal lives, stay close to people who exhibit passion…They care deeply about life and will change their world for the better….Learn to ask questions. Many of them…It will keep you ever young. Being curious might annoy some, but don’t be deterred. I’ve come to believe that half of what they teach you in business school is wrong. Unfortunately, I’m just not sure which half it is. So don’t give too much credence to what you’re taught. Go out and experience on your own.

Stay close to ordinary folks. I’m forever meeting everyday workers who are impressive and inspirational. The vast majority of them don’t hold high corporate positions. They are average employees who have humor, commitment, and a good dose of common sense. These are people who struggle daily with the vicissitudes of life, and they do it all with valor and a profound sense of the sacred enveloped in the common. They also just happen to be the ones who do most of the work and make the business prosper.

Oh, and one final thing. You’ll also endure pain and suffering. You’ll be overlooked, unrecognized and taken advantage of at times…Keep your optimism intact. And always keep moving forward.

I love you,

Daddy (Kenny Moore, former monk and currently Director of Human Resources for Keyspan, a Fortune 500 energy company.)

* * * * *

Dear Lucy,

“Follow your heart and the money will come." “Do what you love.” That's all great advice and people love it…The problem is, most of us never get it (a career they love.) No one really sets out to be a customer service rep, account manager, sales rep, or accountant, but that’s what most of us do for a living. We just sort of end up there because, at some point, it became the best we could do. My advice to you is, don’t worry if this happens to you—because it’s okay.

But first, if you are one of those people who are touched by the career angel—you know what you want to do, get to do it, and succeed on your own terms—I will support and help you in every way I can. Man, I hope things turn out like that for you.

But the odds are they won’t. So be ready to turn the clichés around—instead of doing what you love, trying loving what you do.

Always do your best and be proud of what you do. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living…If someone asks you what you do for a living, answer clearly and loudly and make no excuses. If you can’t, change jobs.

I don’t love my job. It’s okay, and it pays well. I’m still listening for my calling, but I do know what I love more than anything in the world—you. So, “Okay and still trying” is just fine with me.


Dad (Mark Ritzmann, works in the software group for IBM. Prior to that he was a dot-com paper millionaire, who, in the end, walked away with $738.)

* * * * *

This letter (edited for space) does not come from Jensen’s book.

Dear Daughter,

It's Christmas and I have the usual problem of deciding what to give you. I know you might enjoy many things: books, games, clothes.

But I'm very selfish. I want to give you something that will stay with you for more than a few months or years. I want to give you a gift that might remind you of me every Christmas.

If I could give you just one thing, it would be a simple truth that took me many years to learn. If you learn it now, it may enrich your life in hundreds of ways.

The truth is simply this: No one owes you anything.

How could such a simple statement be important?

It means no one has to love you. If someone loves you, it's because there's something special about you that gives him happiness. Find out what that something special is and try to make it stronger in you, so that you'll be loved even more.

No one has to respect you. But once you realize that people don't have to be good to

you, you'll learn to avoid those who would harm you. For you don't owe them anything either.

That understanding reminds me that I can get what I want only if I can enter the other person's world. I must try to understand how he thinks, what he believes to be important, what he wants. Only then can I appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.

And only then can I tell whether I really want to be involved with someone. And I can save the important relationships for those with whom I have the most in common.

It's not easy to sum up in a few words what has taken me years to learn. But maybe if you re-read this gift each Christmas, its meaning will become a little clearer every year.


Harry Browne (former Libertarian candidate for president of the United States.)

* * * * *

Here’s the letter I’d write to my daughter,

Dear Amy,

You’re probably still too young to believe it, but time is your most valuable commodity. Make the most of every minute.

For me, that first involved figuring out my core skill: the ability to think on my feet. You can figure out your core skill by listing your life’s half dozen best accomplishments and identifying the skill you used most often.

Next, I figured out ways to use my core skill to serve values I hold dear. For example, I believe that work is extremely important. So, I do a radio show about work, write a column about work, and coach people about work.

My final key to making the most of each minute is that I don't think, "Is this the best way to do the task." I think, “Is this the most time-effective way?"

All that enables me to accomplish as much as possible. And for me, accomplishment is the key to a meaningful life.

Amy, I fear you’ll find this advice too sober, but it’s the most heartfelt I can offer.



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