My parents have been married for 54 years today. That’s 19,710 days. Mom / Dad – happy anniversary!
Your relationship is an inspiration to me. You have set an incredible example of a full and equal partnership that I know has deeply influenced my approach to my marriage with Amy. I also know that it has inspired many others.
Thank you. Congratulations. And Dad, it’s pretty cool to see a photo of you with hair.
I love to sleep. I’m at La Guardia heading to Aspen for the weekend. I got up at 4am to make my flight and I feel like the guy on the left.
The guy on the right is my dad. I don’t know when or where this picture was taken, but my mom sent it to me a few months ago. One of my super powers is to be able to fall asleep anywhere I am almost instantly. This is especially true on airplanes, where the pre-flight ambiance puts me immediately to sleep.
I clearly got this from my dad, who is also a champion sleeper. Whenever we are together, we eat chocolate ice cream at least once a day. And we take a 90 minute afternoon nap, which I have always felt was once of the most delightful experiences a human can have.
I spent the weekend in Las Vegas with my dad. He’s almost 77 and I’m 49. We had an awesome weekend which I expect he’ll write about in detail on his blog Repairing the Healthcare System in the next few days since he generally does a really nice retrospective of our annual trip together.
As I was reflecting on our weekend during my flight home yesterday, I remembered a discussion I had with Todd Vernon, the CEO of VictorOps, and a long time friend (we’ve been investors in the last three company’s of Todd’s – Raindance, Lijit, and now VictorOps – going back almost 20 years.)
I was at dinner with Todd, his wife Lura the rocket scientist, Amy, and Krista Marks / Brent Milne a few weeks ago. It was just after we’d closed an investment in Krista and Brent’s company WootMath and the six of us were enjoying a meal at the awesome but very loud Blackbelly. Todd and I were at one end of the table and couldn’t really hear the conversation very well without leaning over so we ended up just talking to each other for a little while. That little while turned into a really intense conversation.
Todd made the assertion that something happens to guys between the age of 47 and 50. We started talking about all of our male friends who had gone through various things between 47 and 50, including all the classic mid-life crisis stuff. We reflected back on what each of us had been through in the past few years and where we had ended up. Some was gossipy, some was introspective, and some was piecing together a puzzle to support the assertion.
After a few examples, it came into clear focus for each of us. Todd said a line that has really stuck with me.
“The age of 47 to 50 is optimizing for what you are. Up to that point, we are optimizing for what you are going to be.”
We both acknowledged that we don’t really know much about the psychology of women (well – generally – but especially in this age range), so I’m focused on what happens to men. When I reflect on my own experience over the past few years, I’ve struggled with depression, had a few health scares and had to come to terms with my older body, practiced the concept of detachment, deepened my relationship with each of my parents, built a sustainable relationship rhythm with my brother Daniel, and developed a new level of deepness in my relationship with Amy.
As we went back and forth, we realized that our time in this age bracket is a confluence of a bunch of decisions we’ve made about life. There’s a classical notion of a midlife crisis, but that cheapens the dynamic. A few of our friends have had relationships, especially with their spouse or significant other, blow up while many others have their relationships deepen. We all bought sports cars in our 30s so that cliche doesn’t really hold, and a group of us were divorced in our early 20s. Bizarrely, many of the guys in the gang of divorcees I’m part of all had their first wife cheat on them in their early to mid 20s, so none of us would ever consider cheating on our current wife as the emotional devastation of a busted marriage from your wife’s affair at that stage in life seems to never go away, at least for us. So, as we rolled it around, it wasn’t really a midlife crisis.
But there is acceptance that we are more than halfway through our lives. Our parents are getting older. Some have passed away, others like my dad acknowledge they are likely in the last decade of their life. If you are courageous like my dad is, you can openly talk about mortality and the implications of it. And, as a son, his mortality immediately reminds me of my mortality.
In Bora Bora when Amy and I were together for a month, we discussed mortality a lot. We talked about having “30 good years left in our normative case.” It could be longer, it could be shorter, and it can’t really be planned for.
As Todd and I cycled on this, we came to the notion of “what you are.” In this 47 to 50 segment, we each have spent a lot of time figuring out what we are and optimizing our lives for it. This notion of what we are isn’t static – we’ll keep learning and evolving – but we are no longer striving for “what we are going to be.” Instead of spending time and emotional energy on this, we are spending our time and emotional energy on what matters to us now. What we care about. Who we care about.
My weekend with my dad was profoundly wonderful. He knows what he is, what he likes, and what he cares about. He’s still learning all the time, but he’s not trying to be something he isn’t. He isn’t striving to be something new. He’s just being him.
Todd and I realized at dinner that we are having a lot of fun and getting a lot of satisfaction out of just being ourselves at this stage of life. We’ve each had lots of ups and downs, but we are each married to amazing women, living in a place that we love, surrounded by people who we love, working on things that give us each meaning, and having time to ourselves and with friends that are satisfying. Sure, we each have crappy moments and lousy days, and we each know that at some point the lights will go out, but for now we are focused on being what we are.
My dad is one of my best friends. His birthday is on Saint Patrick’s Day and it has been a bright green celebration for as long as I can remember. He turned 74 today and we had dinner tonight at Oak at Fourteenth with Amy, my mom Cecelia, my sister-in-law Laura, my brother Daniel, and their daughter Sabrina. We had a wonderful evening and it reminded me once again of the importance and delight of family.
I’ve learned many things from my dad during the 46 years I’ve been on this planet. Following are a few pivotal ones that have shaped my life.
Age 10: I told my dad I didn’t want to be a doctor like him. I didn’t like how hospitals smelled, I was bored when we did rounds together (I just wanted to sit in the corner and read), and I didn’t like being around sick people. He told me that I could do anything I wanted to do.
Age 12: I hated learning Hebrew and thought being Bar Mitzvah’ed was stupid. My dad didn’t fight me on how I felt, but he told me tradition was important and this was a seminal jewish tradition. I procrastinated as long as I could and then crammed over the last few weeks. He sat with me, coached me through it, and was patient with me when I continued to fight the process. My Bar Mitzvah was a powerful learning experience, and, while I eventually became an atheist, am glad that I participated in the key jewish tradition.
Age 17: After two months at MIT, I was ready to quit. All of my friends had gone to UT Austin, including my girlfriend, and I was homesick and lonely. As we wandered around Concord, MA on a beautiful October day, he told me to give it a year and if I still didn’t like it, I could go somewhere else. But he told me I’d be short changing myself if I didn’t give it a year. By spring time I had fully embraced MIT and never looked back.
Age 21: Dave Jilk (another Saint Patrick’s baby) and I started Feld Technologies. My dad was our third partner, sat on our board, and contributed continuously as a mentor to us as we figured out how to create and build a company. He personally guaranteed a $20,000 line of credit with his bank which was our beginning working capital (which we stupidly used up immediately, although that made us realize we had to be profitable and cash flow positive from the beginning because there was no more money to tap.) Almost every year Dave, my dad, and I would go away somewhere for an annual meeting. I remember these weekends fondly as they shaped the path of our business. My favorite line from this period that I remember from him was “if you aren’t on the edge you are taking up too much space.”
Age 24: My father resisted the easy temptation to say “I told you so” when I got divorced. When I dropped out of a PhD program, he told me he supported any decision I made. When I was feeling sorry for myself, he’d remind me cheerfully that “everyone pees in the shower.” His unambiguous support of me, at a period of darkness in my life, was priceless.
Age 29: When Amy and I decided to move to Boulder, the first words out of my dad’s mouth were “that’s a great idea.”
There are many more like this, but this should give you the sense for it. In addition to being one of my best friends, he’s been an incredible mentor, business partner, and supporter. I love his sense of humor, his joie de vivre, and his endless curiosity. He always lights up any room he’s in, is always learning, and keeps on trying new things.
Dad – happy birthday. You are awesome. Green suits you.
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.