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  • David Verhaag

Un-Becoming Your Parents




A few years ago I found myself in San Diego walking on the beach with my wife. I had on a straw hat I bought at a gas station, a short-sleeve button-down shirt, and sandals with black socks. I realized how I was dressed but told my wife, "it doesn't matter, I don't know anyone here." It was at that moment I realized I had become my father.


I love the Progressive Insurance series of commercials "We can't help you from becoming your parents." Dr. Rick, a "Parenta-Life Coach" helps middle age homeowners who are turning into their parents. He offers great tips like "You woke up early. No one cares" and "Guess what, the waiter doesn't need to know your name." Some of the lessons hit a bit too close to home.


Dr. Rick got me thinking about my parents and the world of work they built their lives with. My dad, a watchmaker, spent 6 days a week fixing watches, both at the pharmacy where he had a workbench and in his office at home. My mom, a homemaker and the office manager raised six kids while keeping the books and ordering supplies for the watch business.


The success of my parent's watch business over the years came down, in my opinion, to a couple of simple and classic principles.


Know your customer: My dad built a great rapport with the community that visited the pharmacy. He remembered his customers and those that just stopped by to hear one of his bad jokes. There wasn't a CRM or automated email campaign to keep in touch, just a willingness to listen, a good memory, and the sincere enjoyment of getting to know people.


Be consistent: My dad spent forty years at the same workbench in the same spot in an old pharmacy in the Spokane Valley. His customers, and the staff that worked at the pharmacy, knew when to expect him. The old post office motto could have been his "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" kept him away from his work. There were few vacations, no sick days, just a consistent presence ready to service his customers.


Master your work: Fixing watches is not easy. The parts are small. Really small! And there are a lot of them in a typical mechanical watch. Over the course of his career, my dad got really good at battery replacement (it would take just a few seconds to replace a typical battery) and common watch repairs. My dad knew what he was good at and if the job wasn't something he could do well, he had a network he would refer the work to.


The world of work has changed. Few of us will spend forty years at the same job let alone at the same workbench doing the same work. While the change is often for the better there are still more than a few things that we can learn and adopt from our parent's work lives. We might not want to "become our parents" and offer unsolicited advice at the Home Depot, hang kitschy signs by our pillow-covered davenports, or wear socks with sandals on the beach, but there is a lot of wisdom in how they worked that we can all benefit from.


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