Happiness is a slippery fish


Pray for a difficult life

By

Years ago I read a study that said one of the most stated regrets of people on their deathbeds was that they hadn’t built a better relationship with their parents.

The oft repeated quote ‘no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more days at work’ has also been slyly directed my way more than once, enough that I might even start to listen.  The other regret, however, weighs heavily on me.

I’ve watched with some concern as my parents get older.  As a kid, time passes so slowly that you take everything for granted.  Your parents have all the answers, I was sure my dad could beat up anyone else’s dad, and it just seemed like they’d both be around forever.  Watching them age, even as gracefully as they have, has been a stark reminder that those regrets are rooted in a harsh reality.

I’ve had a front row seat as they both crafted entrepreneurial ventures from the ground up.  They took big risks, worked hard, and eventually those ventures grew strong enough to pull us out of crippling debt.  Some years later, they co-signed a loan to help me start my first restaurant.

The circle of debt continues…

My folks are the people I aspired to be.  Self-made entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and still found a way to achieve their dreams, they were proof that you didn’t need charity, or luck, or a silver spoon.  Coming from an Alberta farm, my dad’s solution to every problem was hard work, and my mother, fresh off the boat from Denmark, was always crafting, innovating, and thinking of new ways to approach old problems.  Together they were a formidable pair, and watching them flip the bird to the corporate establishment and do it themselves felt like the greatest ‘fuck you’ to a world that I was just starting to realize wasn’t built to be fair.

A few years after they co-signed my first business loan, I had three busy restaurants, a social calendar filled with wine dinners, fashion galas, poker nights, wrap parties, and all the other bullshit I thought was cool at the time.  I barely saw my folks in those days, I couldn’t manage to find the time to cross town and have dinner once a week, and was losing touch despite living a 30 minute drive away.  It couldn’t have been any easier to stay in touch, and yet, I didn’t.  I started to realize why those regrets would be on the lips of every person as they took stock of their existence.  It was just so damn easy to take it for granted.

Forever isn’t forever, and time is a thief that distracts you, so that it can more easily steal your most precious moments.

I could see myself following in the footsteps of millions who came to regret their apathy, and I resolved to do something about it.  Something drastic.

I moved into my parent’s basement.

It started off as awkwardly as you can imagine.  The house was in a quiet suburb, populated by lousy chain restaurants, with nothing but raccoons and a long commute to keep you entertained.  Restaurant life was hectic, social, and wildly unpredictable.

It seemed like I was walking away on a life that had enough booze and badly behaving people to stay interesting for quite some time.

After working for years to build the lifestyle I wanted, I had traded it in for the hope that I could avoid that single regret, the lingering wistfulness of memories that were never created, the opportunities forever lost.  In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Today is my father’s birthday.  He is turning 74.

I’m broke, completely invested in a new business adventure, and I can’t afford to buy him a gift.  I find myself quite humbled, and I’ve justified to myself that perhaps the better gift has been this time together.

It’s a lie, of course.  That gift was a gift I gave myself, and keep re-gifting without guilt, year after year.

My father was my first mentor, my first business advisor, and the best sounding board I’ve ever had.  He built Canada’s first microbreweries (Granville Island Brewery, Upper Canada  Brewery) with a group of friends, starting one of the greatest movements the modern world has ever seen, craft beer.  It was an impossible dream, an unlikely success, and was beset by obstacles, challenges, and an unproven market (there was beer, and light beer, brewed to taste ‘cold’…seriously, wtf does ‘cold’ taste like).   That he did it at a time when our family was struggling with the fallout from the housing crash of ’82 is a constant reminder to me that our family is at its best when our backs are against the wall.  I can still remember at 9 years old stuffing beer bottles into six pack containers to help out opening week, and getting my first hangover off batch #1 of GI lager (parenting was a little different back then).

My father’s father, Farley Sherwood, was rather persuasive about him getting a college education, so he came out west to earn a degree in forestry from UBC.  He went back and landed a job on the radio, leveraged that fame to marry the local hotty, went on to sales (Imperial Oil), and eventually became the Marketing Manager for McDonald’s in Western Canada.

That was the job he quit when I was six, and to this day it remains a vivid memory.  He checked out, mid way through a great career, in his prime.  I remember him telling me and my brother that he was unhappy, his job wasn’t fulfilling, and he hated the politics.  Confused, I struggled with the notion that your job was something you could enjoy, not just a paycheck.  I was also more than a little concerned that we had just broken up with McDonalds.  Even in the pre-nugget era that place had a grip on my heart, and I was pretty stoked to have happy meal connections.  I was literally on a first name basis with the Hamburgler.

At six years old, I was served a reality check that indoctrinated me into the entrepreneurial ranks, and I had no idea.

We flirted with bankruptcy.

Actually, it was more of a long, drawn out affair.  My folks had bought their dream house, and, counselled by their realtor into keeping the old one as long as possible to ride the rising market, they got caught in the crash.   They owed twice as much as the houses were worth, and were getting crushed by 24% interest rates on two mortgages.

Just like that, happiness became a luxury we couldn’t afford.

We moved into the basement, and rented out the rest of the houses to help cover the mortgages, and Dad called a family meeting to craft a plan.

My brother and I got paper routes, lots of them.  We stuffed flyers, mowed lawns, and did other odd jobs.  My mother pulled a page out of the 3 Amigo’s script, and when asked what she could do to help, she said ‘I can sew’.  Her little craft business grew into a sportswear business that grew into a national fashion company with an impressively innovative distribution model.  It was the precursor to companies like Indochino, long before the digital age, and as my dad tells it, it was the rope that pulled us out of hell.

He was good at what he did, and he picked up gigs as a marketing consultant.  Then, maybe because crazy plans were something he’d grown far more comfortable with, he and his friends came up with the idea to build a brewery, using the fresh Vancouver water, with all the heart and soul of being for locals, by locals.  There were three large brewers at the time, and they paid the little upstart no mind.  Within a year, however, they saw market share escaping, and combined forces to crush the microbrewery movement hard.  It was too late, the market had gotten a taste, and soon small craft breweries were opening faster than Molson’s, Labbatt’s and O’Keefes could squash them.  Unionizing plants, controlling bottle regulations, even excise and production limitations were successfully lobbied for, but microbreweries found a way to make it work, something that’s easier when you have customers clamoring for your product.

Happiness was a fish he had once tossed back into the water for being too small, and now he had hooked the big one.

My dad’s tolerance for risk had put him in deeper waters, and we almost drowned, but I’m convinced it was going through the struggles which gave him the hunger to appreciate every opportunity he had, and land that big fish when it counted.  With my mom’s business thriving as well, they had pulled off the rare double, and there wasn’t a doubt left in my mind who my heroes were.  The seed had been planted, my mind had been made, I saw the difficult path as the most attractive, with the biggest payoffs, and I was determined to be an entrepreneur just like them.

After 50, he started to look tired, and sometimes I wondered if he had grown a little weary of the world.  He was supposed to be pushing retirement, and seemed to be genuinely considering it, even though there seemed to be lots more left in the tank.  His signature glint in his eye didn’t appear so much, and I was wondering if it would ever return when the colleges came calling. That started a change.

I’d like to believe that being around young, idealistic students who still hold the notion that the world is theirs to change, was the reason he sparked up, and maybe it was just that he could stand in front of a room full of cute college girls and they’d believe every word he said (…and, I just realized I want to be a teacher), but he had a renewed energy, and the glint that had lived in his eyes for so many years was back, and brighter than ever.

He taught marketing and sales all the way up to 65, when they forced him into retirement.  It was an outdated union rule that would end up being changed a couple of years too late, and I think he would have continued teaching to this day if they’d let him.  The amount of his former students who still come up to me to tell me how much they learned from him, how important he was for them, and how much they loved his stories, is staggering.

I had one of them doing his best to vigorously convince me of how cool my dad is, and all I could do was nod, smile, and think, you don’t even know the half of it.

My dad’s retirement party was bittersweet.  He didn’t want to celebrate it, as much as everyone wanted to celebrate him.  He was getting pushed out, just when he was having the most fun.  I remember thinking how odd it was, how broken the system, that its greatest contributors are removed when they’re at their most effective.

A man provides.  He contributes.

We measure our worth by our ability to be the mind or muscle that moves mountains, even if it’s only a single stone at a time.  We measure our lives by what we did, our contributions, and our impact. Take that away, and you take a fundamental part of our identity.  We need purpose, and when we have it, we will build, we will act, we will overcome.  When we don’t, we start losing our curiosity, our ambition, and our willingness to tackle anything but a ham sandwich and an afternoon nap.

When my dad retired, his signature spark, the glint in his eye, started to fade again.  Without the regular influx of young idealism, boundless energy, and world changing ambition into his daily routine, I think he struggled to find a reason to give a shit.  The chores around the house became the problems he needed to solve, and everyone knows that trimming the hedges doesn’t solve sweet fuck all.

I think often about carrying on the family name, of doing it justice.

My brother and I both have daughters, and that means the surname attached to our future generations won’t be his. I’m ok with it now.  His surname has power to me because of who he is, who his father was, and all the fathers before him who worked their asses off to move the sticks a few yards further.  They had different surnames, with different meanings to the sons and daughters who bore them on.  The name represents those men, their sacrifices, their risks, their failures, and their successes, and while the name will change, their legacy will not, because of what they invested in their children, who invested it into my father, who has since invested it in me.

I’ve realized now, that as I was building my companies, my family, and my career, I thought I was creating a legacy.  I wasn’t.  I’ve inherited his.   It has made me even more determined to measure up.  I inherited a legacy from a long line of people who struggled and sacrificed to move the sticks a little further, and I’ll be damned if I’m the generation that fucks it all up.

The birth of my daughter was unexpected, and life changing.  I’ve never been more scared of anything than when she first stopped breathing, seven weeks premature, and I was completely helpless to do anything about it.  My parents were there for every minute, and without them I’d have been a complete wreck.  (I was still a wreck, just with the support to ensure I could fake it appropriately)

From that moment on, my father’s choices in life made perfect sense.  It wasn’t ambition, or pride, or even greed, which fueled his decision to chase happiness.  He had learned the stakes of the game, that once you have seen how frail and impossible happiness is, how delicate and improbable its survival, you realize you need to fight for it.  You need to put the bullshit on the line, the houses, the cars, the jobs and the fancy titles, and you need to put all that shit on red and spin the fucking wheel because the cost of having it far outweighs the cost of reaching for it.

I know my parents would like me to learn from their mistakes, I just can’t.

I ignored their mistakes, I forgot the times they yelled at me for fucking up (there were more than a few of those).   I wrote over any memory of my father not being the man I wanted to grow up to be like.  I saw every challenge he endured only through the successful outcome he wrestled from it.

It sounds naïve, but it isn’t.  I studied everything he did that made him my hero, and tossed the rest.  What do I need to know about mistakes he made?  I know enough about pain and struggles, I’m a fucking connoisseur of the curveballs life can throw, and the only shot I’ve had of overcoming those is from studying someone with a demonstrated expertise in overcoming them.

I’m lucky, I know.  Perspective is everything for me now.

I’m lucky that my parents would put up with my shit, give me a shot at avoiding this one regret, and teach me how to bait the hook and reel happiness in.  Evangeline, our daughter, has inherited her Grandfather’s signature spark, and in turn, rekindled his, and they’ve formed a two person, cookie-snatching conspiracy.

I don’t know that this was the happiness that my father had in mind when he quit his job to start us on this adventure.  I do know that on my deathbed, I will have one fewer regrets to list off before I pass on the torch to Evangeline.

Today is my dad’s birthday, and when I grow up, I want to be just like him.

Go post a dirty joke on his wall, he could use some new material.  https://www.facebook.com/larry.sherwood.50

You see the glint, don't you...

You see the glint, don’t you…

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About Sean Sherwood

Serial entrepreneur and startup coach at www.startupathlete.com View all posts by Sean Sherwood

3 responses to “Happiness is a slippery fish

  • Al Dales

    Thanks for this Sean…What a great legacy your Dad and you have continued. I’m so glad I was finally able to make peace with my Dad before he died. And just on the off chance your dad hasn’t told you, I am VERY proud of you for your heart, your spirit and your humanity. You’re a good man…Don’t EVER forget it!!

  • Sylvia Jurys

    There was never a doubt in my mind that your Dad and Mom right behind him were very special people. Without them we would not be where we are today. I love your tribute to Larry, I know it took a lot to put this together but the legacy will stand forever. Love you all. Sylvia and Ray.

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