As I grow older and begin to choose a path for my own family, there’s been one nagging truth that I’ve realized I’ve been avoiding:
The realization that your parents are not perfect people.
I believe and trust wholeheartedly that my parents raised me the best way they knew how. They instilled the values they believed would make me the best person I could be in this world. I know the true weight an education holds, how to manage my money, and to “never count my chickens before they hatch” - it’s all because of the values my parents instilled in me. But as I stood in my parents’ living room the other night defending what they often label as my “starry-eyed unrealistic view of the world”, it occurred to me just how trapped in a comfort bubble my parents are.
They spend their retirement watching the media break down Trump’s scare tactics as they grow more and more cynical and anti-social of everyone and everything around them. As much as I love my parents, I fear becoming the sixty-something year old who gives up and gives in to the negativity of the world while failing to realize the blessings that surround me, no matter how basic they may seem. It was then that it occurred to me how much growing up is all about building a future that fits YOUR life. It's about breaking cycles that may not necessarily best apply to your life today, despite how perfect those values may have appeared to you as a child.
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It’s a struggle that retired NBA player Kobe Bryant recently addressed in a letter he drafted to his 17-year-old self. In a piece posted in the Players’ Tribune, Bryant talks about the time in his life when he first signed his NBA contract in 1996. The 18 time All-Star, who spent his 20-year career playing only for the Los Angeles Lakers, opened up about his regrets when it comes to finances and family. He describes how he may have managed his fortune a tad bit differently if he could turn back the hands of time by opening the piece with:
“Dear 17-year-old self, When your Laker dream comes true tomorrow, you need to figure out a way to invest in the future of your family and friends. This sounds simple, and you may think it’s a no-brainer, but take some time to think on it further.
I said INVEST.
I did not say GIVE.”
The “Black Mamba” goes on to warn himself about how his wealth did more to hinder the progress of his loved ones than help them:
“Use your success, wealth and influence to put them in the best position to realize their own dreams and find their true purpose. Put them through school, set them up with job interviews and help them become leaders in their own right.
I’m writing you now so that you can begin this process immediately, and so that you don’t have to deal with the hurt and struggle of weaning them off of the addiction that you facilitated. That addiction only leads to anger, resentment and jealousy from everybody involved, including yourself.
As time goes on, you will see them grow independently and have their own ambitions and their own lives, and your relationship with all of them will be much better as a result.”
Bryant talks extensively about parents remaining “PARENTS not managers” without going into too much specific detail about what unfolded in his personal life to make him so adamant about keeping blood and his bank account completely separate. In an interview with ESPN, Bryant addresses the irreversibly broken relationship with his parents which he refers to as “s**t” after they tried to sell his high school memorabilia without permission in 2013:
"I say [to them], 'I'm going to buy you a very nice home, and the response is 'That's not good enough'?" he says. "Then you're selling my s**t?"
Bryant talks about his life as a teen hailing from a small suburb outside of Philadelphia. He defends putting basketball greatness above everything, including family, although the success that allowed him to give so much to his family eventually became what tore them apart. He hasn't spoken to his parents in three years.
The mistake he feels he made is his allowing his success to immobilize the people he loved the most by proverbially “giving them the fish instead of teaching them how to fish”:
“Before you sign that first contract, figure out the right budget for your parents — one that will allow them to live beautifully while also growing your business and setting people up for long-term success. That way, your children’s kids and their kids will be able to invest in their own futures when the time comes.”
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Kobe recognizes a sobering truth as he looks back on the past that many of us come to see as we grow older: As much as you love your family, you won’t always like them. You may find yourself like me feeling forced to defend your "Pollyanna POV" to parents who feel it’s their job to warn you that you too one day will spend your days complaining about life more than living it. Or maybe you’re like Bryant who realizes people change when fame and fortune come into the picture. But what we can learn from Kobe’s letter is that as an adult you have the power to break unhealthy cycles for your own family and create the life you see fit.
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One thing I do want to stress is that I believe most parents do the best with what they have, even if it doesn’t end up being the best for the lives we eventually grow into. It’s been important for me to recognize all that I can learn in the realization that my parents are human, flaws and all, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t great parents or that I still can’t learn from them.
One thing that’s helped me is the understanding that whether you’re 13 or 63, you never get to a point in life where you have it all figured out. As soon as you get confident in one area, life throws you another curve ball that forces you out of your comfort zone whether it’s having a child and sorting through the best pre-schools or facing retirement and learning what a reverse mortgage is.
The bad news is that life doesn’t get any easier, but the good news is you get better at it.
And you realize there’s more than one way to get through it, even if it’s not necessarily the way your parents did it.