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Do the Next Thing: Wisdom From My Father

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In honor of Father’s Day, our Levo members share some of the lessons they learned from their dads and grandfathers.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, I won a huge fellowship that would cover my last two years of college and first year of graduate school. There was just one catch: I had to use that education to become a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, a career I’d read about, but only vaguely understood. The contract required me to give up control over my studies, summers, and career path for the next ten years. That seemed like a very long time.

I remember feeling paralyzed as I sat in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. and stared at the fellowship offer. I called my father. “Should I take it?” I asked. “I’ve never even been out of the country. How can I know if I’ll succeed as a diplomat?”

“Take a deep breath, honey,” he said. “Don’t worry about what the future will be like 10 years from now. You’ll get where you need to go. For now, just do the next thing.”

The next thing. Not necessarily the best thing, or the perfect thing, or the thing that will get you everything you want, but the best choice that’s available to you now. That’s a simple answer, but, well, it was hard for me. I was that obnoxious kid who always demanded full information before making a decision. In calculus class, I created meticulous proofs; my research papers featured thorough literature reviews. I didn’t even want to order something off a restaurant menu unless I was positive I was optimizing my choice. While that craving for understanding often served me well, it also held me back for many years. I was afraid to take risks.

For my father, avoiding risk was not an option. He grew up as a religious minority in Utah, with few financial resources and an even thinner social safety net. When he graduated from high school, he drove west to Oregon for work, where he met my mother. After my brother and I were born, he had to find a way to make more money. I am sure he would have loved to plan ahead and make sure that he was on the right path, but he didn’t have that luxury.

He just had to do the next thing.

So he did. He learned how to fix appliances and built a small, but successful, service business. When he had the opportunity to buy a larger company, he borrowed everything he could and did it. It didn’t matter that he’d never studied business or that he didn’t feel passionate about his work. He just seized the opportunity and turned a failing business into an thriving company with over ten employees. We even bought a boat and spent slow summer days on Lake Washington as a family. All four of us kids worked at the store in some capacity. It seemed like the dream he had worked toward for so many years was finally real.

Then, the entire industry on which he’d built his business made a dramatic shift. Appliance sales from small, service-oriented businesses plummeted, and even manufacturers moved their support to big box stores and sold cheap machines that were rarely worth fixing. When he could no longer sustain the business, he handed over the keys to a 24-year-old and went back to the service industry. It was a humbling, heart-wrenching experience, but he didn’t get angry. He just got up every day and did the next thing, and the next thing, and the next.

Over the years, I have watched my father make many hard choices. When the house where we lived in Seattle went on the market and we could not afford it, he moved his family to a run-down home in the suburbs and slowly renovated it into a place that felt like home. He worked crazy hours to make sure we had all the educational opportunities he could provide. When he became briefly unemployed in his early 50’s, he kept pressing forward, taking business classes that led him to his next job.

Time and time again, when faced with problems whose solution he could not see, he simply took the next step. Now, he has a great job, a spouse of 33 years, four children who adore him, and a full, meaningful life. He gives back to his community in many ways, as he has even in our leanest times as a family. He inspires me.

It has been over a decade since the pivotal moment when I took my father’s advice and accepted the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. Since then, doing the next thing has taken me to 27 foreign countries, got me through a difficult year in Afghanistan, and given me the courage to launch a business. I never had the luxury of making big life decisions with complete information. I learned to embrace risks. Now, I delight in uncertainties. They’re just hypotheses you have to test by taking action.

What my father taught me is that life is not an calculus problem. There is no formula, map, or future-predicting oracle. The best journeys are through foggy, overgrown forests where we can’t see a thing and our values are our only compass. Plenty of gurus have reminders for us in these circumstances, from Gandhi (“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”) to Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase”) to Gail Sheehy (“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security”).

But no advice in the world will ever be as effective as my father’s simple, gentle command: No matter how big your decision may seem and no matter how unprepared you feel, just take a deep breath. Then do the next thing.

Photo: Courtesy of Candace Faber

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