The experience of fatherhood isn’t something that can be easily put into words. It’s wonderful. It’s terrifying. It’s a job that begins at conception and goes…until the day you die. It transforms your relationships with everything else in your life-your work, your spouse, your own parents. It introduces you to the world of “unavoidable reality” as the writer David Brooks puts it. All of this at once can feel difficult to navigate, especially if you’re a first time dad. To help with this, we asked a long and diverse list of fathers—writers, executives, entrepreneurs, educators, designers—what fatherhood means to them, what that word means to anyone who wants whats best for their kids. Here is their hard won wisdom:
Marc Ecko: Founder of Ecko Unlimited and Complex Magazine. Also a board member at XQ Super School
It is the practice of LOVE. L. O. V. E. If the word was an acronym it would stand for “Life’s only valid expression”.
It is the hardest job…but also the most gratifying job.
It has special depth if you are patient, and invest in the meaning of the relationship with the mother of your children. That makes it especially good.
It is a layered and rich experience.”
Michael Lombardi- NFL Executive, author of Gridiron Genius, and co-founder of The Daily Coach
“Raising children with respect for others, passion for their life and the ability to give and receive love. It’s impacting their life in a positive way so that in their solitude they can hear your voice, feel your encouragement, know your love and most of all, whisper to them the courage to take on every one of life’s challenges.”
Blake Masters-C.O.O. of Thiel Capital and co-author of Zero to One
“I think about “fatherhood” on two different levels.
First, there’s the relationship I have with my kids. When I think about that — nurturing them, getting to know them, helping to shape them and guide them, disciplining them, loving them — I would say that fatherhood is the ultimate challenge, the ultimate meaning, and the ultimate pleasure in life. I suspect this is a natural and conventional feeling; dads love their kids, parenting isn’t easy, and, ultimately, no one dies wishing he had spent less time with his children. Whatever your definition of “rewarding” is, the father-child relationship is that.
But then there’s a broader, if maybe shallower level to it —the cultural institution of fatherhood. I am *proud to be a father*, not only in the sense that my particular children have this or that specific quality, or that I teach them x or I learn from them about y. I’m proud to be a father because fatherhood is important, fatherhood is a key half of what makes the whole human enterprise keep going, and fatherhood specifically is about raising formidable young people that understand and respect what’s good about the world their predecessors have made, how to keep up that good work, and indeed, maybe even how to make things a little better, without getting crushed or discouraged or too jaded along the way. *My* kids are great, I love them very much, and I’m proud of and cherish our relationships. But every once in awhile, when they have finally gone to sleep for the night, it’s nice to zoom out and try to understand the big picture: we are participating in the timeless institution of watching over and rearing small people, who will before too long take up that challenge and do it again themselves.”
Byrd Leavell: Head of Publishing at United Talent Agency
“The responsibility to be a guiding light for my children. To teach them the fundamentals of being a good person: manners, respect, the golden rule, empathy, a work ethic. To send them out into the world as prepared as they can be to live happy, productive lives. Which is a very stock answer and, as I write this, makes it sound like I am actually succeeding at these things. Which, and I am sure each of my kids would agree, is entirely up for debate.
What I do know is that I love being a dad. It defines me, probably more than it should. I love having 3 kids. I embrace (largely) the non-stop challenge of it. The moments when it’s good… those moments are the reason for everything. They make the work and the expense and the stress, everything you have to give up, the easiest decision in the world.
Fatherhood also means the example that the men who came before me in my family have set for their kids and, in turn, my kids. I am one of those annoying humans who chooses to mythologize their dad because I believe he’s worth it. On a daily basis, I define myself and who I think I should be by who he is and the decisions he has made. Which, I imagine, were defined by his dad, my grandfather, the original Byrd Stuart Leavell, who died when I was a year old.
My grandfather was the chief of the hematology division of University of Virginia hospital for 30 years and left quite a legacy in his wake. Growing up it seemed like ever Sunday after church someone would come up to me and tell me at length about what a wonderful man he was. Hematologists back then lost a lot of their patients. And I would hear stories about how he sat with their wives or their parents in their last days, and would just listen to the stories they wanted to tell when they knew the end was near. Then, after a patient passed, he would write these long, beautiful letters to their family about their conversations. Imagine the kind of person who would do that again and again.
Living up to that legacy is what fatherhood means to me. It is a legacy I am reminded of every morning when I step into my office, where a painting he did while in Italy during WWII hangs in plain view.”
Jordan Harbinger: Podcaster, The Jordan Harbinger Show
“Setting a good example for my son so that not only can he use what we’ve both learned to leave the world better than we found it, but also to avoid the pitfalls and bad thinking that were a part of my childhood.”
Shane Parrish: Cybersecurity expert and founder of Farnam Street. Also host of The Knowledge Project
“From a selfish perspective, fatherhood is an incredible mechanism to learn skills and develop attributes through lessons I’m not sure I would have gotten anywhere else. “Waiting at the DMV patience” and “listening to your child practice the recorder” patience are not even in the same zip code. As a father, you get plenty of opportunities to put others’ needs before your own, care for another’s physical and emotional well-being, and practice true unconditional love.”
Stephen Hanselman- Co-author of The Daily Stoic, Publisher, and Literary Agent
“It means to create the balance of material and spiritual nourishment that creates a space in which the family is the center of all activity and where kids have the freedom and support to grow in their interests. It means planning a wide range of activities that combine new experiences with deepening experiences with things that they truly enjoy. It means teaching them how hard work and play always go together and go badly if separated. It means getting up and doing that everyday, even when you often feel like you are living a version of Groundhog Day.”
Bryan Levenson: Mental performance and executive coach. Also host of the Intentional Performers podcast
“Fatherhood is tough. It’s up and down, but the juice has absolutely been worth the squeeze. For me, fatherhood means service. The moment my first son was born my focus shifted, it had to. Most of my focus since becoming a father has become about questioning—how can I help my kids nurture their nature? How are my actions helping or hindering them? What can myself and my wife do to ensure we are on the same page? Why did I do that? How can I be better? How is it possible that I often feel so ill-equipped to do this job? And as I mentioned earlier, am I being in service and influencing these precious people to the best of my abilities? As I continue to search for answers I often have more questions. But at the end of the day I am always striving to be in service to both of my kids.”
Adam Lyons-CEO and Founder of Psychology Hacker
“To me father hood is about setting an example.
It’s taking the time to show through my own actions the little men my sons should grow into, and to show my daughter the way men should treat her.
I’m not their friend, not yet. Though I hope to be.
I’m a role model for now.
Hopefully a friend to them when they’re older.
No matter what, I’m someone they can rely on.”
K’wan: Bestselling author of multiple best-selling books in the urban fiction genre.
“Fatherhood to me means being a nurturer. You’ve produced these beautiful little flowers, from seeds, and now it’s your job to water them and make sure they grow healthy and strong. Make sure they get enough sunlight, are properly watered and keep the weeds away.”
Madison Wickham: Founder, TFM Media Group
“Fatherhood is an opportunity to recalibrate your priorities. Becoming a father shifted my ambitions from being largely self-serving to serving a greater purpose.”
While the wording varies, ultimately, every dad, or at least every good dad, defines fatherhood similarly. It’s about nurturing what’s best in their children. They want to set an example for them, and most of all, they want their children to feel loved and accepted for who they are. It’s all they need.
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