10 Life Lessons from My Dad

life lessons

Have you met someone, or known someone close to you, that ‘woulda been, coulda been, shoulda been’ great?

I do.

It’s painful to say this, but it’s my father. Born on July 20th, 1939, he passed away on September 9th, 2008, only 69 years old.

He was smart, funny, and hard working. But those talents were, in my opinion, squandered. For whatever reason, my dad’s envy, bitterness, and alcoholism stopped him from being a great man.

I loved him. I wish every day he was still around. As much as he embarrassed me with his drinking, he was still a good dad. But I know he could have been great. He taught me a lot, but not in the traditional sense. I learned most of his lessons through observation, more often what NOT to do if you wanted to live a good life.

So as we approach what would have been his 78th birthday, my dad’s going to share with us 10 life lessons for success. I wish he was here to teach them, but we’ll have to learn through his stories instead.

Today you’ll discover how to live life on your own terms from the success rituals and many failures of my father. You’ll learn why you must not suffer in silence, and why you must communicate, ask for help, and treat others well. When you learn what NOT to do from my dad, you’ll have powerful routines and habits in place for a life well lived.

Here are 10 life lessons from an unconventional man, Howard Ballantyne. If you would prefer to listen to the 10 lessons you can access my podcast here.

1) Work Hard, Work Early, Work Wisely

When you’re a farmer’s son, you learn what a good day of honest work looks like.

Cattle don’t take holidays from eating… or pooping. That meant dad was up early every morning, hungover or not, feeding the cattle before feeding himself. Every day. Rain, shine, sleet, or snow.

Not only did he have to feed the animals, he had to grow the feed. A farmer’s life is a perpetual cycle of plant, grow, harvest, and feed. It’s like a treadmill you can’t get off, but one that is simultaneously rewarding and peaceful.

My father was not just a farmer, but a welder, electrician, plumber, and mechanic. He could fix engines, build machinery, and keep the house running. He was also part veterinarian. He delivered calves, tended to sick animals, and spent plenty of time chasing them, too, especially when it came time to send them off to the butcher.

His hands looked like they had lived three lifetimes and represented his protestant work ethic. There were parts of fingers missing from being caught in machinery (which was common in our community). In the summer his hands and forearms were tanned a dark brown from days spent in the sun, while in the winter his fingers were cracked from working in the bitter cold.

This life lesson of always working, and working hard, sunk in at an early age, although I took a little detour. My father worked manual labor all day, every day. But much to his – and my mother’s – dismay, I worked all day every day to avoid manual labor. Today it doesn’t bother me to start work before sunrise and go until past sunset. That’s not something I should be doing, but I’m not scared of it… and it’s all because I watched my father do the same thing for many years.

Our friend Bedros Keuilian learned a great line from his Armenian father, “Work is holy.” My father certainly wasn’t a holy man in the traditional sense, but when it came work, he was as righteous as a man could be.

2) Be a Consistent & Present Parent

Father of the year, my dad was not. That said, in some ways, he was a better parent than many dads are today.

He loved to attend my hockey games. He tied my skates for years when I was young. And he caused me enormous embarrassment in my teenage years when he’d show up at the rink for my games in a drunken stupor.

But he didn’t go to a single one of the hundreds of soccer games I played as a kid. I didn’t care. All I wanted from my parents was a ride to the game. I was there to see my friends, not perform for mom and dad.

That’s why I don’t understand helicopter parents, the ones who suffer from great guilt and shame if they can’t make every single piano practice or football game. Your kids probably don’t care. Let them go and have some fun. All that matters is that you drop them off and pick them up on time. Consistency is king.

Of course, when kids are really young, they want to spend time with you. And they want you, the parent, to be focused on spending time with them, not checking your phone.

“Wherever you are, be there,” said the great Jim Rohn.

My dad never had a cell phone. He never used the Internet. I don’t even think he ever touched a computer. But even if he did have a phone, I can’t imagine him checking when we would play catch in the backyard.

He was present. Every day in the summer, right after lunch, we’d play catch. He’d teach me how to throw a curve ball. Sometimes he’d pitch to me, and when he’d hit me with a fastball, he’d say, “That’ll toughen you up.” We’d play until we lost all of the balls in the garden, not until he was distracted by a cellphone. Jim Rohn would have approved of his presence, although perhaps not his attitude about fastballs.

3) Live Life On Your Terms

My father didn’t care much for other people’s opinions. He was as comfortable in his own skin as anyone could be. Comb his hair? Dress up? Follow convention? Not unless he was forced to by mother when attending a wedding or big event.

There was only one rule in my father’s mind. And that was, there are no rules. Not many people have courage to throw caution to the wind, but he did, and I admire him for it. It’s not easy to take the road less traveled, but when that road is chosen wisely, you’ll often be better for it.

4) Overcome Mental Obstacles

While he didn’t care for convention and what other people thought about him, he struggled with his opinions of other people. For some reason he destroyed many of his relationships; Friends today would be gone tomorrow.

I remember my father cycling through drinking buddies on a three-month schedule. One day I’d get home from school and there’d be a new truck or van in the driveway. Dad would be in his shop with some stranger, and they’d be sitting around with beers. This would go on for months until one day, suddenly, that drinking buddy would disappear from dad’s life.

As I grew older and noticed this happening time after time, I finally realized that my dad was destroying relationships. He had bitterness and jealousy towards his old friends, criticizing them behind their backs, or making fun of them in their presence. These internal demons destroyed his relationships and eventually destroyed him too.

5) Ask for Help

My father was born in a generation where a man didn’t show weakness or ask for help. What a shame. If he had only… But we can’t play the “What If” game. He didn’t. And he paid the price.

Fortunately, today is different. It’s still not easy to ask for help, but it’s easier to admit when you’re down. It’s okay to be vulnerable. In fact, I’ve found the more vulnerable you are the less you hurt. It’s a paradox.

If only my dad had been strong enough to say to my mom, or anyone, that he needed help with his drinking, and whatever it was that drove him to drink. If only he had gone to the doctor every couple of years. If only he spoken up about the fears, anxiety, and worries in his head.

From asking around it sounds like my dad’s side of the family long had a history of mental health struggles. My dad’s dad died in suspicious circumstances that sounded a lot like suicide. And my dad held that in forever, and that fear and anxiety festered like a psychological cancer. It ate him up inside because he never let it out.

Maybe that’s why I talk so much about this, and my anxiety, and why I’m willing to look high-and-low to continually evolve. It’s because I’ve seen what can happen to you stay still.

Suffering in silence will get you. It gets everyone. It’ll bring you to your knees no matter how strong you think you are. I’ve never seen anyone come out of it better.

Take it from my father (even though he didn’t teach it directly), and ask for help. Otherwise you’ll pay a severe price.

6) Treat People Right

My dad never understood how hurtful words could be. I picked up this trait and it nearly destroyed my relationships. Fortunately I had friends like Bedros Keuilian, Joel Marion, and Matt Smith who were strong enough to make me aware of my problem, and who were kind enough to support me as I worked to overcome it. But my dad never did… or he just never listened when wisdom came his way.

If only he had heard this quote from author Maya Angelou who said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As cliché as it sounds, this quote truly changed my life. I learned long ago that you can be smart and give good advice to people, but if you’re a jerk when you do it, then all they remember is that you’re a jerk, and the good advice goes out the window.

People will give you a second chance, but as my father found out the hard way – and as I did too – they aren’t going to take a bad attitude forever. Eventually you run out of people.

When I saw that happen to my father, I vowed to never let myself be like him. I opened my heart and mind just enough so that I was able to get help and fix this area of weakness.

7) NOT to do List

Ah yes, what NOT to do. This is where my father excelled in instruction.

Some days I can’t believe he lived as long as he did. He drove like a maniac, often drunk. He climbed 80-foot silos, dangling one arm and leg off the rungs as he reached the top. He raced snowmobiles at 70 miles an hour without a helmet. One drunken afternoon while cutting wood, he hit himself in the face with a chainsaw. He was lucky to escape with just a scar down his nose and under his eye.

To my father, a “Keep Out” sign meant, “Come on in! All the good stuff is back here.” Perhaps his recklessness is a reason for my conservatism.

He lived on a diet of beer, coffee, sandwiches, and candy. Each night he’d eat two chocolate bars and half a bag of cherry licorice. Yet he never had more than 160 pounds on his 5 foot 10 frame. He didn’t have many teeth though, either.

Dad didn’t visit a dentist or doctor for over 30 years. Eventually it caught up to him. In 2007, my mother dragged him to the hospital. The doctors said he was minutes from death. It was there that they discovered his body was full of cancer. He’d lived unknowingly with colon cancer for nearly a decade, our family doctor estimated. By then the cancer had spread to his liver.

He spent the next 18 months growing weaker. It hurt to see the man I once saw as a superhero slowly turning into skin and bones. The bright side is that my mom bought him an extra year-and-a-half of life that day.

It’s one of the greatest gifts she’s ever given me, but one that could have been avoided if dad had only done the right thing and gone to the doctor regularly.

8) Communicate, Don’t Isolate

Over those 18 months my dad and I spent a lot of time together. We’d drive down dirt roads checking out the corn in other farmer’s fields. I’d take him to check out used tractors, and we’d drive hours to various hospitals for his tests and treatments.

We didn’t talk much during that time. When we did, it was superficial. When I wasn’t with him at home, he’d call me at my home in Toronto every day at 4:30 p.m. to ask about the weather. We’d then stumble awkwardly through small talk until he’d abruptly say, “Alright, I’ll let you go.”

We were both too stubborn and uncomfortable to probe deeper, to ask serious questions, or breach topics of significance. I’m not sure if either of us would have been open to it anyway.

His consistency in life was reassuring, but his isolation in his communication was his downfall. He needed to talk. He had demons in his mind and obstacles in his way that held him back, that left him emotionally immature, and stunted his relationships. I wish he could have broken through, but I was not wise or strong enough to help him.

The big lesson is that communication beats isolation when there is something bothering you. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way, through experience and failure, over the last ten years because my father was unable to teach it to me.

Whatever it was that led him to alcohol and recklessness, it might have been resolved, and certainly helped, had he just been able to drop his guard and open up.

Don’t make the same mistake. Communicate, don’t isolate.

I nearly made the same mistake, but when I finally opened up, set aside my ego, and spoke from the heart, it started a personal transformation that has made all the difference in my life.

9) Keep the Child Within You Alive

My dad never spoke of dying. It’s like he didn’t believe he ever would. Or perhaps he was too scared to confront it.

He never was much of an adult. He avoided adult conversations. He didn’t take life seriously. He liked being a simple farmer. He didn’t make a lot of money, but he was free. He didn’t have a boss. Then again, I don’t think he could have had a boss. No company would have tolerated my father, and my father wouldn’t have tolerated any company.

He was a wild kid at heart that just never grew up. In some areas of life, that’s inappropriate. He neglected certain important responsibilities. However, had he lived well and communicated better, he’d have won the game of life and been at peace.

10) Rituals

Rituals made my father effective, but rituals also brought him to his knees. On one hand, he knew the value of rising early and working hard every day. He understood the literal concept of reaping what you sow. Had he only understand the figurative concept, his personal relationships would not have been such a mess.

His poorly chosen rituals, those of suffering in silence, avoiding communication, and drinking to excess each afternoon, robbed a talented man of a life well lived.

Even in error there are things to admire and remember. Rituals are consistent actions. Consistency is what we crave. We want to know that dad’s coming home at a certain time. We want to know that, if we needed him, he’s around. That’s why, even though my father failed in so many areas, he was still a good dad after all.

My favorite of my father’s rituals was his lazy summer afternoon routine. Each day around three o’clock, he’d get the paper, put a lawn chair under our old willow tree in the backyard, and sit there in the shade with his shirt unbuttoned and a beer beside him. I can still see him now, the breeze rattling the paper, and him in his happy spot.

When my father passed in 2008, I wrote a poem about this ritual and that lawn chair that he’d sit in on hot summer days. You’ll find it a fitting conclusion to his 10 life lessons.

The Chair

The chair is where my father sat,
On sunny summer days,
Beer in hand, shirt undone,
The paper had his gaze.

The grass was never greener,
Than in my memory,
The shade was always coolest,
On the days he sat with me.

The Willow tree kept him in comfort,
It wept in gentle breeze,
We’d sit there without speaking,
Happy in each other’s company.

The tree has grown in time,
And the years had taken toll,
The chair has been replaced,
My father had grown old.

He no longer gets to sit there,
He lies at rest instead,
But place a chair under that tree,
And it’s like he’s there again.

A chair, a tree, a father,
You have these in your life too,
Though they may not be the same things,
They matter much to you.

When it comes time to count your blessings,
Remember this in life’s race,
The things that really matter,
Exist in plain view of your face.

I’d love to hear your favorite lesson from my dad – and from your dad, too.

  • TC

    Craig, this story was packed with important lessons and heart felt memories. Your Dad was a hard working man. He reminds me of my Dad with his hard work and drinking habit. I connected and enjoyed this. Thank you.

    Tammi Walker

    • Thanks very much, Tammi

  • Jan

    I can identify 100% with your comments about your father. My father too was an
    alcoholic and though some of the details and circumstances are different, I
    also look back on my father’s wasted life as a drinker as teaching me some of
    life’s biggest lessons. One of the more constructive ones is to be able to forgive. For a long time as a teenager, his meanness, spiteful tongue, and some of the things he did as a result of
    drinking simply riled me inside. His alcoholism was like a major stain through
    my childhood and teenage years and when I left for university, it was really
    the last time I was at home. I was glad to be out of that atmosphere.

    He was aware of his problem and that he was destroying himself and the lives of those
    around him. He never really talked much about how he had got to that point but
    reading between the lines, it was probably the result of being shuffled around
    from foster home to foster home and being brutalized as a child.

    One evening he admitted, in tears, what a terrible dad he had been and apologized for it (after a fashion). It really changed nothing, in the sense that he did not give up drinking, he
    couldn’t explain why he couldn’t stop, it did not prevent me from leaving home,
    and nothing else about the past changed, but I managed to find it in my heart to forgive him. I
    tried to steer him to Alcoholics Anonymous and sent books and pamphlets dealing
    with the reasons why some people don’t communicate and what you can do. I don’t
    know how they were received (they were probably tossed aside) but I thought I
    was trying to help in some way. He died young (51) in a hospital bed, swaddled
    like a baby, being drip fed with chocolate drink. So, while living with an
    alcoholic is not an experience that I would wish on anyone, I did not withhold
    forgiveness and I came to reframe my view of him as a weak, not an evil, man, and that, in effect, removed the stain that had blighted my earlier life.
    I know one or two people who cannot forgive their father for sins and misdeeds that seem to pale into comparison to some of the things I experienced, but the rot that has resulted from their lack of forgiveness is not simply internal but runs right through the family.

    • Wow, thank you for sharing, Jan. Stay strong!

  • Luciano Del Monte

    Dear Friend Craig, I had my arm around you, figuratively speaking, as I read this. Not sure how much emotion this drew out of you but it was outstandingly honest, raw, full of respect and love for a not so perfect dad.

    Your love for him oozes out of you.

    As I read this St. Paul’s words came to mind, Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures ALL things…love never fails.

    Your dad may have very have been talking to my late Dad Vincenzo, who my son is named after, in that garage shootin’ the poop.

    Your dad exhibited many wonderful traits albeit marred by his own unspoken scars.

    God bless you, comfort you, and may the Lord continue to heal your memories.

    • Thank you very much, Luciano. That means a lot.

  • Mallory

    This is some of your best work.

    • Thank you very much, Mallory!

  • The podcast was fabulous. Today (7/17) is my dad’s 88th birthday. He is currently experiencing Alzheimer’s and we have him enrolled in a treatment protocol that is cutting edge…and very very hopeful. Already noticing a small improvement. But I will do whatever it takes if there IS something that can bring his capacity back because his body is strong and his experiences and stories are so so valuable to me and to my sons. Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your story.

    • Thank you Christina, wishing your dad some more good days!

  • Lori Palmieri

    Wow, this was your most heartfelt, well written article yet, and they’ve all been really valuable.

  • Norman Lieberman

    one of the best stories and most impactful ever! Thank you for sharing and being vulnerable.

  • Don Thompson

    I couldn’t help crying while I read this. This almost perfectly describes my dad. He died in 1986 from congestive heart failure. He had just started to admit he had a drinking problem but it was too late. After his doctor said he had 2 years we started to have a few awkward talks but then he died. He was difficult to get along with but I still learned a lot from him. Thank you for sharing your (my) story.

    • Thank you for sharing, Don, sorry to hear about your father.

  • Kevin

    Best lesson from my dad, “Son, there will always be those smarter and stronger than you, but they will only out work you if you let them.”