“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Such sayings allude to the commendable personal characteristics of positive thinking and perseverance. Sadly, these have never been my strong suits. I’ve always been more of a glass-half-empty kind of guy. It’s not that I go looking for the black cloud around every silver lining. It’s more that I spot the downside of situations and wonder why things can’t be better. I’ve also never been long on tenacity and patience. I get frustrated easily when things don’t go well. It’s easier to give up and move on to something else than to keep pushing through the challenging situation.
Our personalities are heavily shaped by the role models around us. Of course, our first role models typically are our parents. My father was always highly impatient and not a positive thinker. He had many capabilities, but he quickly became irritated with people and situations that didn’t shape up to his liking. We learn from and emulate those who are closest to us, for better or for worse. Dad asked me once where I got my sarcastic mouth. All he had to do was look in the mirror for an answer.
As I reflect on my youth, I remember several times when my father missed an opportunity to help me cultivate an attitude of patience and perseverance. Such times are called “teachable moments.” Ideally, a parent or mentor will exploit those opportunities to impart an “Aha!” insight to the young person.
Here’s an example. My father loved football, so I naturally developed an interest in the game. When I registered for ninth grade, I saw that students could sign up to play football. I had never played on youth or school football teams, and I wasn’t athletic in the least. I was tall for twelve years old but skinny and uncoordinated, a typical early adolescent boy. On the spur of the moment, I signed up for the lightweight football team, trying out for the position of offensive end.
I imagine my father was both surprised and pleased that I went out for football. My parents bought me the necessary gear. I began attending practices after school, not having any idea what I was in for. Having never played before, I wasn’t sure what to do. Not being in any kind of physical condition, I got very sore (no one taught us about warming up or stretching). Despite my total lack of ability I gave the sport a shot for a couple of weeks. I participated in just one game, only from the bench. After a few more days of practice, I concluded that it was a hopeless exercise and decided to quit the team. A week later I told my parents.
I’m sure my father was disappointed, but he didn’t say anything. Looking back now, I wish we had sat down together and discussed my reasons for quitting football and the implications thereof. This could have been an opportunity for him to instill a stronger sense of tenacity in me. He could have explained the importance of sticking with something either until I succeeded or until it became clear that I just couldn’t do it and wasn’t enjoying myself. Instead, I simply felt guilty about quitting and about the money my parents had spent on equipment. I’ve always felt that my father thought less of me for quitting the team. This was a missed teachable moment on his part, though I didn’t realize that at the time.
Here’s another example. My father declared that he wanted both of his sons to reach the rank of First Class in the Boy Scouts, the third rank (of six) from the bottom. I had been an outstanding and enthusiastic Cub Scout. Moving into Boy Scouts was the logical next step.
I was probably the worst Boy Scout in the organization’s history. I tried, but I was inept. I couldn’t seem to pick up the necessary skills easily, and I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other boys in the troop. On my one camping expedition, I fell into a stream before we even reached the campsite, tripping over my own outsized feet. Eventually I achieved the rank of Second Class, earning the pitiful total of just a single merit badge. I wasn’t having fun and it didn’t seem that I was going to succeed, so eventually I dropped out of the Boy Scouts. Again, my father was disappointed.
As I got older, I understood that my father didn’t have the opportunity as a youth to do many of the things he wanted to do, such as team sports and scouting. Perhaps he was attempting to relive his youth vicariously through his sons. When I dropped the ball (literally with football, figuratively with Boy Scouts), it seemed to let him down. But he never asked me why I quit the scouts and explored whether there was some action we could take together that could help me succeed and achieve the goal — albeit his goal — of achieving First Class. Maybe I would have become more resilient if we’d had some of these discussions about goals, commitments, obstacles, and tenacity. And maybe we would have learned to understand each other better.
Perhaps another role model could have made a difference. My Uncle Carlin — my mother’s younger brother — owned a dairy farm in Iowa. We didn’t see Uncle Carlin, Aunt Mary, and my five cousins often, but it was always a great treat when we did. Carlin was just the coolest guy in the world to me. Farmers work extremely hard for modest compensation. Carlin never complained about the challenges and hardships of the farming life, though. He was always good-humored, funny, and upbeat.
Carlin fell on hard times in later years. A nasty divorce cost him a lot of money. Back pain forced him to give up farming, so he became a truck driver. Later he opened a small pizza restaurant that became a teen hangout in a small town in northern Iowa. Ultimately, he became the town’s mayor. One day a major pizza chain moved to town. His soft drink supplier informed Carlin that he could no longer sell to him because the soft drink company and the pizza chain belonged to the same corporate empire. I thought this was a shoddy way to do business. So did Carlin, but he switched to a competing soft drink supplier and kept on rolling.
Not surprisingly, the competition began sucking away his business. Needing another source of income, Carlin launched a carpet-cleaning business. He did well, but it was a physically demanding job. One day he fell while cleaning a carpet and badly tore up his knee, an injury from which he never fully recovered.
As I observed Carlin’s tribulations over the years, I admired his resilience. No matter what kind of ugliness life threw at him, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, looked around, and said, “Okay, what should I do now?” Whenever I spoke to him during those later years, he was the same old Carlin, smiling, good-natured, and tough as hell. When he injured his knee, I sent him a few hundred dollars to help out. He returned the uncashed check to me with his thanks and a warm, loving letter that I still keep, decades later.
Talking to my mother about Carlin years later, she told me that during some of those difficult times, he really didn’t know what to do next, but I never got that impression from him. He reminded me of one of those big inflatable clown dolls that you can punch and knock over but that keeps popping back up again. That was Carlin. He just kept getting up.
I wish I’d had a chance to observe and try to emulate Carlin’s perseverance and good humor at an earlier age. Perhaps studying his role model would have made it easier for me to think of lemonade instead of lemons, to push through barriers instead of bouncing off. I only saw Carlin every few years because we never lived near each other, but I always felt close to him.
One day Carlin went to the hospital to have surgery for a blocked carotid artery. He died on the gurney before they even got him onto the operating table. I cried when I heard the news. This time my cool, tough, and ever-resilient Uncle Carlin didn’t get up. Now, I think of Carlin every time I’m tempted to abandon some effort, and I stick with it until it’s done.