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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Three Early Lessons From My Dad

Comments (30)

Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”

We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”

I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.

Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”

Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”

Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.

I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.

  • http://www.bopreneur.blogspot.com Paul Hudnut

    Brad- Nice post. I got similar advice from my parents, although maybe with a twist… they were supportive when they saw effort (compared to participation), and they expected me to figure out how to get to races, buy equipment, etc. And they asked a fair number of questions… that seemed quite annoying at the time. And I agree, those one liners stick. Probably something we could remember as mentors, board members, teachers…  ;-)  Paul

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I like the notion of supportive when they saw effort. My folks did that also – and when I wasn’t putting effort into something (like piano lessons), the let it drop rather than forcing me to stay with it.

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    (I just read Eric’s post here http://www.defragcon.com/2011/general/the-tao-of-brad-and-defrag/  + I’m having trouble commenting, so this reply is a synthesis)

    You may not have kids, but you have a whole set of folks that learn from you, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, whatever.  That’s the point Eric made: you (+ he) are passionate abt learning, and that’s contagious.  It infects the people w/ whom you interact… and speaking for myself, I don’t won’t to ‘get well’.

    I’ll save the mushy stuff for the private emails later, but will say this as a father: I hope the job I’m doing w/ my boys results in them some day recounting stories like this one.

  • http://twitter.com/dan_osullivan Dan O’Sullivan

    Sage.

  • http://twitter.com/Sterner Christian Sterner

    Parenting is a definite juggle: I went to my oldest daughter’s parent teacher night and it reminded me why I never really dug school (although I could always test very well, which is what saved me from falling through the cracks). I had parents that could recognize when I would light up about something and supported me to no end to pursue these things (like lacrosse, soccer, technology, surfing etc) that I loved. But, our school systems are not meant for this: they are meant to fix kids’ insufficiencies rather than harness their passions — they are not equipped to harness passion unless it fits into their curriculum or weak budgets somehow. 

    Your post is great Brad because it really gets to the root of good parenting/mentoring etc. It’s about finding the light in people and sticking with them patiently until it shines like the sun.

  • http://twitter.com/durginpark Scott Durgin

    Wisdom is wonderful when doled out in small, digestible nuggets; it seems you’ve inherited your Dad’s gift. I share two pieces of advice to parents (when asked) – and I’ve found these applicable to business as well, which are:

    (a) it’s never (hardly ever) about you! You may think it’s about you. Your name may be used. The anger may be directed at you. But it’s hardly ever about you. So don’t react like it is. It’s about them, your kids (your employees). They are learning and sometimes fail, and haven’t learned how to fail gracefully. If you don’t take it personal, you will be able to help them through whatever they are failing at.

    (b) it’s never that urgent. It may seem like it is. Your kids (and spouse and others) may think it is, but unless there is imminent harm, there is nothing that requires immediate response. Take the extra minute, hour, day or week to find that one-liner, that they’ll be able to digest, use and recount later in life.

    Thanks for always sharing…

  • http://kirklove.tumblr.com/ kirklove

    Great post, Brad and great advice. Wise man your dad.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Wise man he is!

  • Anonymous

    The best advice my dad gave me “What do you think you should do?”

  • http://twitter.com/sta2999 Stephen Albright

    Great advice.  LIke Scott, I appreciate that it’s broken down into “small, digestible nuggets.”  This will make the points easier to remember when I’m a father.  Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    Great great one. I loved learnings 2 and 3 in particular. Thanks for sharing.. :)

  • Anonymous

    great posts as always.

    My dad taught me many things. One statement he made to me when I was young still resonates with me ‘To each his own’ or ‘Each to his own’. My dad got through life by not judging people. He had a business at the time of Apartheid in South Africa and in order to keep business flowing and keep the status flow he was always the in between man. He would try make all parties happy. This was at times where there were boycotts and strikes. He could afford either of these things so he had meetings, managed to be political but not become political. He spoke and listened and was tough. My dad worked like a demon and has taught me insurmountable lessons. But the one I still cling to is ‘Each to his own’ and took this as be open to all people and dont judge. There are exceptions to this as their are bad people who do bad things, so the balance of this statement is very important and complex.

    My mom’s temperament is one I have never witnessed in another human being before. She has zero agression, she deals with anything and everything excellently. Works her butt off and cant express her qualities enough. 

    Then there are grandparents of course and one can go one forever about there wisdom.

    I have briefly delved into the phycological effect of parents love on a child and it only leads to positive outcomes. Parents are everything to us, they are the reason we exists and these lessons you have shared with us are a tribute to that.

    I love the surprises I always get from your posts, and p.s. so damn excited for another book.

  • Girish

    Brad, a good one.

    But also made me think how culture makes a big difference, in the way the upbringing happens, I mean getting a chance to make a mistake is not always a perk got in some cultures.

     

  • http://www.buywigonline.com Yesuifen20

    could always test very well, which is what saved me from falling through
    the cracks). I had parents that could recognize when I would light up
    about something and supported me to no end to pursue these things (like
    lacrosse, soccer, technology, surfing etc) that I loved. But, our school
    systems are not meant for this: they are meant to fix

  • Jean Scheid

    This is a story to touch hearts of kids everywhere. My Dad’s three thoughts to me? 1) Never disrespect your Mother; 2) I am first a man, then a husband and then a father; 3) If you teach your children 100% of all you know and they pick up 20%, then you’ve done a good job. God Bless my Dad Andy! Thanks for the inspirational story!

  • http://www.growdetroit.com Grow Detroit

    There is so much heart in this post, Brad. Thanks so much for sharing this, and the transparency in your writing. I think what you describe when you were at age 13 is one of the most crucial parts of a kid’s development and approach to life going forward. 

    We have been conditioned in traditional education to be risk adverse, by doing things like:

    - Making the response to failure be poor grades/marks in school in subjects where the ‘answers’ are largely subjective
    - Telling kids to ‘be practical’ in their career pursuits and not stray outside the ‘norm’ 
    - Promoting linear thinking as the only way to achieve a desired result…

    Really excited to meet you and Jason when you come out to Ann Arbor next month. -Alex

  • http://twitter.com/CindyOKeeffe Cindy Moret O’Keeffe

    Thanks Brad.   As the parent of an 11 year old I  love this succinct advice.  It can be easy to second guess yourself when your in it.  Esp. good timing and perspective as I “enjoy” this beautiful autumn weekend inside at a waterpolo trouney.

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  • Emma White

    Our Parents are really awesome! They know what’s good for us. They give advices and support us all the way. We’re lucky we have good parents. Don’t you all agree?

  • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

    Love these kinds of stories about life! thanks.

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  • Ann H

    Excellent!  Just hope we came up to the mark with you!! (by the way you turned out, I don’t think we did a bad job and I am very proud of you!!!) xx

  • http://twitter.com/vijayrnathan Vijay Nathan

    Brad – I literally had chills reading your post, especially regarding Age 10.  I had the exact same experience with my father as a child and have vivid memories of sitting in the nurse’s station playing my game boy at a young age.  Visiting home this past week, I’m still amazed at how there is really no one who can inspire and get me excited about what I’m doing more than my Dad.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      That’s awesome. I love hearing stuff like this – as do dad’s all over the world.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      That’s awesome. I love hearing stuff like this – as do dad’s all over the world.

  • http://twitter.com/vijayrnathan Vijay Nathan

    Brad – I literally had chills reading your post, especially regarding Age 10.  I had the exact same experience with my father as a child and have vivid memories of sitting in the nurse’s station playing my game boy at a young age.  Visiting home this past week, I’m still amazed at how there is really no one who can inspire and get me excited about what I’m doing more than my Dad.

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