I traveled to Chicago this week to take my father to lunch. He turned 87 on July 10th. A book can be written on my father. His life is a multitude of lessons for everyone. He’s been a success and a failure, poor and rich, but never lived the life he says he wanted to live. He repeatedly made decisions that made him unhappy. There are two overriding lessons to learn from my father’s life. One, there is no tomorrow. The only thing you accomplish is regret if you wait for tomorrow. He calls that philosophy, “mañana style” (pronounced manuana style). Two, actions matter more than words. Watch what people do instead of what they say. Their actions tell you their true values and morals.
If you don’t know him you might think that he’s still pretty sharp for a guy his age because he’s so seasoned in telling stories and skilled at talking to people. I worked for him for over 30 years and worked side-by-side with him for over 20. I’ve heard every story he’s had to tell and lately he’s had some new ones that I know never happened. What remains consistent, though, are his regrets. For a man that’s so accomplished he still has lots of regrets.
Over lunch he reminisced about some of the things we did together. All business related as we never had much of a personal relationship. Yes, I did see him during family events like Christmas, birthdays, father’s day, etc. But those events were always filled with shop talk. About things we need to do when we get back to the office. The last several years he started mixing together stories. Combining them into one event. Now he’s added things he doesn’t own and things he never did to the mix. I correct the record for him but he has a hard time believing me. He trusts I’m telling the truth but his memory is telling him something else and it confuses him a bit.
He talked a lot about his regrets. All things we talked about in years past. I know they still bug him because he remembers them accurately. We discussed the notion he should have skipped having kids and probably marriage for that matter. He married twice by the way and had two kids in each marriage. I don’t disagree with him. Having a family only held my father back. His entrepreneurial instinct and work ethic is so strong that having to come home every day to deal with the vagaries of family made him miserable. Me and my siblings could never live to the heights he had envisioned for us. None of us have his drive. Each one has a little bit of something from him but they are bits and pieces. Even combined we don’t equal my father’s drive.
Culturally he had to have a family. It’s what Korean men of his era did. You couldn’t be a success if you didn’t have a successful business and a solid family… oh, and drive a Cadillac. One skillset my father didn’t possess is being a family man. He didn’t know how to handle it. Not for lack of trying. I don’t believe anything he did or said had malice. I think given his upbringing and the culture he’s from he did the best he could with the tools he had. There is no perfect father anyway and myself as a father, and grandfather, I better understand you do the best you can with the knowledge you have and need to be content with the outcome. You can’t live your children’s lives.
Another of his regrets that he talks about is not a true regret. I don’t believe it was something he would ever do. He’s still working and has never retired. He’s been talking about retirement almost since he was my age, and I’m 54. About 20 years ago he would talk a lot about buying a house in a warmer climate than Chicago so he could go there in the winter months. He discussed it with business associates and sometimes even talked with some real estate agents. But he never pulled the trigger on it in earnest. He could have. He has the wealth to do it if he wanted. This means it’s not something he truly wanted. If it was he’d do it.
How do I know? Back in his day my father was the shit. He was one of the most prominent Koreans in Chicago. He even has a street corner named after him and a proclamation from the city for his accomplishments (The intersection is named Kun Chae Bae Way. He never put the street sign up because he didn’t want to throw his success in people’s faces).
He started his own pharmaceutical company, founded a community bank, owned a hotel, golf club, restaurants, commercial real estate, and other businesses. Finally ending up in broadcasting by acquiring and building a stable of TV and radio stations across the United States and Guam. He started out as a chemist back in the 1950’s and ended up a multi-millionaire broadcaster. If he wanted to buy a house somewhere to retire it would have been the simplest of all his endeavors. But he didn’t and never will. Because it’s not what he really wants.
We talked about a couple of the TV stations. One he is upgrading and one that he wants to upgrade. My advice to him was to stop spending the money on these upgrades because at 87 he will never see the return on the investment. But he’s not doing it for the future or to be able to pass on the businesses to his children. No. He is doing it because he can’t stop. He’s addicted to doing the next deal. Business is his true recreation. Going to the office is his true reason to live. No matter what he says his motivation is to keep doing business. It’s not a bad thing. For a long time I didn’t quite understand him or what he was doing. In my mind there were better strategies to expand his wealth with less risk. But that is not what he wanted. If it were he would have cashed out long ago. At one point my father was probably worth almost half a billion dollars. Billion with a B. But he really cared more about doing business and determined to do it his own way. You have to respect that. He built it all and he should be entitled to do with it as he pleases.
I have a much better grasp of it now. Much of our conflicts at work centered around me not understanding what he truly wanted. I wish we didn’t waste so much time on all of that back then. When I was younger we fought all the time about the direction of the business. I’m more conservative and risk averse and would try to protect his wealth. He talked as if that was his goal and I couldn’t understand the moves he would make to undermine his own goal. I’m not a part of any of it now. Two years ago I stopped working for the family business. I have the advantage of looking at all of this from the outside. Without any skin n the family business I can look at it with disinterest. I can see that it was the act of conducting business that was his goal all along If it made him money… bonus. If it didn’t he would just move on to the next transaction.
My father is telling more grandiose tales than ever before. His successes are bigger and better than his reality. That’s saying something because his reality is amazing. On the flip side his regrets are more pronounced. He dwells on what should have or could have been if he’d done something different. I don’t think he can ever be satisfied with his life. He should be a much happier man.
This lunch, more than any of the other thousands of lunches we had together, opened my mind. The separation from the business and not seeing him in person for a year clarified my understanding of my father. A person can accomplish the most amazing things. They can accumulate enormous wealth. To the outside world they look like they have it all. And yet they still can have a life filled with mundane regrets that gnaw. We all have regrets whether we admit it or not. What we need to do is accept that we have those regrets and leave them behind. They are thieves present joys.
Remember the truth of people is in their actions. What they say doesn’t mean a damn thing if their actions don’t match. Do what you want today. Maybe you can’t do it all but you can move towards it. If you don’t you didn’t really want it in the first place.