Three Life Lessons From A Man Who Hated Life
Lesson 1: Nobody’s going to like you if you don’t hold the door for them.
My grandfather was a complicated man.
Born in Chicago in 1923, his formative years were among the most turbulent in American history. Upon graduating from high school, he followed in the footsteps of millions of American men and enlisted in the military. The Navy specifically — stationed on a swelteringly hot island off the coast of New Zealand.
Though away from the wars European epicenter, his troupe endured countless waves of airstrikes from Japanese bombers. The only thing keeping him sane was the thought of one day returning home to his new wife, my grandmother, whom he married shortly before deploying.
Following his return to American soil, he and my grandmother had a couple of kids before relocating to Milwaukee where they had their third and final child, my father, in 1959. Together, they bought and ran a tile store in Milwaukee, a job he hated, to support their family. Meanwhile, his younger brother Shecky Greene was thriving in Las Vegas, well on his way to becoming one of the greatest comedians of his time (though to ask anyone who knew them both, my grandfather was much funnier).
My family adopted me in July of 1997, weeks after my birth in mid-June. As far as I know, my grandparents sold their store by then and were ‘enjoying’ retirement. I put ‘enjoying’ in parentheses because, to many, my grandfather didn’t enjoy a whole lot.
The stress of war, an unsatisfying career, and a rich yet less talented younger brother left a bad taste in his mouth that turned him into your stereotypical “grumpy old man”.
Growing up in the same city as my grandparents, I spent a lot of time with them as a child — particularly with my grandfather. We had a lot in common. He was a drum enthusiast who, like me, never missed a chance to bang around on whatever he could grasp.
He also loved to fish.
Apart from my grandmother, fishing was the great love of his life. More specifically, fishing with his family.
It was on those fishing trips that I spent a significant amount of time with him. Through those experiences, I was able to see a different side of the grumpy old man he was. A soft, wise, forward-looking side.
When I think back on my time with him, 22 years of knowing him, and 15 solid years of fishing trips, I can’t help but remember two profound moments in my life. Two days I credit for all I’ve accomplished and hope to accomplish while I’m here on earth.
A Startling Truth
“Nobody will ever like you if you don’t hold the door for them.”
These were my grandfather's words as I breezed past him through the doors to our local malls' food court. Just finishing a long day of fishing, we decided to grab a bite before he dropped me back home. I didn’t hold the door for him.
I was five.
It was one of those moments that sort of just happened and then went away. I never brought it up with my grandfather, and I definitely didn't tell my parents what he said. It just stayed with me.
My initial response was to take it at face value. From then on, I DID hold doors open for people. In fact, I went out of my way to hold the door for people, to the point where it was uncomfortable for everyone involved. About 3 years ago, 15 years of relentless door holding later, I realized the significance of his statement.
It wasn’t about holding doors. It was a life lesson.
Sure, in the moment it was about me not holding the door for him. But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t all it was. He was teaching me something important.
Lesson #1 Going Through Life Selfishly Leads To A Shallow Existence. Think of Others Before Yourself And You Will Be Fulfilled In Every Way Possible.
I think about this every day now, and it guides the way I behave in both my personal and professional lives. I even started a business, Shockmouse Media, on the very same principle — to first and foremost do good for others before thinking of myself.
Say what you want about his delivery, the message was effective. In one swift jab, he changed the course of my young life.
The Beautiful Beggar
My grandfather passed away last year at the age of 96, outliving my grandmother and everyone he had ever known throughout his life.
Given my connection with him, I decided to give a speech at his funeral service.
His side of the family is Jewish, so it wasn’t your typical funeral service. It could be better described as a “program” in the multipurpose room of his Jewish Nursing Home, led by a Rabbi, with card tables of bagels, smoked salmon, and cream cheese lining the back wall. My grandfather was hardly a believer in the Jewish faith, so the whole thing was a bit comical. Even in death, he was stuck doing something he didn’t like to do. LOL.
Preparing my speech, and ultimately reviewing the time I’d spent with him as a child, I came to remember another gem he left with me. Anther moment that lead to another life-changing lesson.
Lesson #2 Read Between The Lines
One Saturday morning on the shores of Lake Michigan, my grandfather and I stood fishing. On the peer amongst a group of fellow fishermen, a homeless-looking man came and sat on the bench behind us. I wasn’t sure if he actually was homeless, but he appeared to be — tattered clothes, dirty hands, and shoes well beyond torn.
I quickly rushed to judgment. He was likely a drug addict who had spent his money chasing a high. He wasted his life away, and now probably roamed the streets begging for a dollar or two from strangers.
In other words, I thought I was better than him.
After about 10 minutes of him sitting behind us, not saying a word mind you, my grandfather reeled up his rod, leaned it against the railing of the pier and sat on the bench next to the man.
The two struck up a conversation.
I was too far to hear exactly what they were saying to each other, but it looked like they were getting along quite well. After what seemed like an eternity, my grandfather got up, walked over to me and said: “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”
I was pretty hungry, and frankly was a bit bored with fishing, so I was happy to leave.
What happened next shocked me.
Leaving the peer, my grandfather turned to the man on the bench and gestured for him to join us. “We’re getting a bite if you’d like to join”, he said.
“Wait, what?”, I thought to myself. “Why on earth would this random homeless man join us?”
Nevertheless, he did.
There was a McDonalds right next to the peer, so we went in and ordered. We grabbed our food, sat down, and began to talk.
The man and my grandfather picked up right where they left off. The more they spoke, the more wrong my first impressions of this man had been. He spoke of his days fighting in Vietnam, moving to Los Angeles shortly after to pursue a career in music before settling down in Chicago with his wife.
He told us of his wife’s passing a few years earlier, and how his grief turned to alcoholism which led to his life’s rock bottom. And while he was currently homeless, he had just secured a job and decided to spend some time at the lake before looking for an affordable apartment to rent.
I was floored. And embarrassed. And mad at myself.
How could I have been so wrong about him? And how many other times in my life had I completely misjudged someone else?
The meal concluded and we went our separate ways. On the car ride back home, I turned to my grandfather and asked him why he was so nice to that man. Why he spoke to him and how on earth he knew he had such an interesting story. My grandfather’s answer was simple.
What he said next I’ll never forget.
“You know, Ian, you’ll learn in life things are rarely as they seem. It’s all too easy living life in a bubble, speaking to those we think deserve our time while ignoring the rest. Where I’m sure you saw a homeless man, I saw a man enjoying a nice day at the lake.
Just like us.
Don’t let your preconceptions cloud your judgment.”
I learned an incredible lesson that day. To read between the lines, because the surface almost never tells the full story.
I think about that day a lot. About that man, and the way my grandfather treated him. It’s admittedly a cliche lesson, but one often overlooked.
That day, my grandfather taught me to see things not as they outwardly appeared, not as I needed them to appear, but as they are.
My ego needed me to be better than that man. But in reality, we were nearly the same.
In the months following my grandfather’s death, I’ve thought a lot about his life and what he’s taught me. As a member of America’s Greatest Generation, he lived through some of our country’s most depressing moments. He worked a job he hated for 40 years while playing second fiddle to a rich brother with less talent.
Nevertheless, he instilled in me an outlook on the world more valuable than any amount of money. In his wisdom he taught me the simple keys to life that elude even the best and brightest:
- Think of others before yourself and you will be fulfilled in every way possible.
- Never let your preconceptions cloud your judgment.
- And most importantly, you’re never too young to hold the door for someone!