Letter from a Dad in 1927

Originally intending to catch up on some feeds this bright Sunday morning, I stumbled over the latest Brainpickings article and it hit a nerve. More than one actually. It’s a post about the letters written by Sherwood Anderson to his son in 1927. Published in a book, Posterity, Letters of Great Amercians to their Children, I glanced at the excerpts in my usual skim reading way and the horse I was riding pulled up sharply.

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,


I never got a letter like this from my Dad. Maybe it would have done me some good but I, in all honesty, would most likely have ignored half and not understood the rest. Sometimes we are absolute idiots when we are young. I had a pretty tumultuous upbringing and as the eldest and relatively self-involved I was left to my own misguided decisions. I was a very private person (loner?) and never had much of a deep relationship with my parents. I don’t recall having any real meaningful discussions with either of them. (Apologies Dad & Mom if I have forgotten.) Everyone did what they had to do and life just went on. In hindsight a little sage advice early on may have saved me from some of the many foolish mistakes I have made over the years.

Reading this now, with the experience and knowledge of my almost 40 years of ups and downs, I wish someone had drummed some of this into my head a few decades ago. Maybe someone tried – maybe I was just too much of a fool to listen.

“The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living.”

How many of us wish we had listened to that advice? One of my greatest regrets is never going university and obtaining a degree – any degree. There have been times when having one would have been an incredible advantage – especially early on in my working life. There have been times where not having one has been equally as advantageous but just having something to fall back on or at least build on would have made certain periods of my life a lot easier. Lets face it, a graphic design certificate just does not cut it. My kids have to study… I don’t care what, it can be a Bugger All in Ancient Languages, I honestly do not care, so long as they do something. The only positive thing I have from not studying formally is that almost everything I know I have learnt by figuring things out for myself. Not always the most efficient (or clever) but it has meant that I have become a generalist in a wide range of fields and have skills that one would not normally have from following a traditional career path. Being a generalist is great when you are stuck on a desert island and need to survive, but you still really need to become an expert on something in the real world.

“Most men just drift.”

Guilty as charged your honour! A letter sent in 1927, 86 years ago epitomises how I have spent most of my life. The gems about advice, good taste and shrewdness are also apt for our modern age but my greatest regret is the seemingly aimless drifting. Just drifting wherever the current has taken me. Sometimes its been disguised as luck, other times as rational decision making, other times as an emotional knee-jerk. I can assure you, stranger, most times it has just been life sweeping me along with the ebb and flow of the tides and truth be told, I just went with it without any long term plan. I saw a life couch some years back and with that process came the realisation that my disdain/disinterest for goals has meant that I no idea where I was going or what I was doing with my life. Sure, I have been successful on occasion, but there has been no path, no purpose, no meaning, no ultimate achievement to aim for. I have never done anything with some sort of long term goal in mind. This realisation has led to the major changes I have made recently and finally following a dream with far more meaning and purpose than I have ever committed to. I have never deeply cared or truly committed to anything that I wanted to do – because I never knew what I wanted or even thought about it much. I was too afraid, and knowing that I was never fully committed, failure was easier to justify and success just did not have the sparkle it should have. Perhaps that is why I never like anyone knowing about my achievements.

Aside: I am of course ignoring building a family with a loving wife and wonderful kids. Thankfully, life has allowed me to find them on my meandering journey and there is no doubt as to my love for or commitment to them.

Here is to pulling out a paddle and aiming for something. Damn hard after all this time but the effort might just surprise me and be worth something.

I will be sending a letter to my children when they turn 18. They will probably ignore it and who can blame them. What do Dads know anyway?



ps. No image on this post cause it’s too difficult using the WordPress App on iPad, and I don’t feel like using my PC.


One thought on “Letter from a Dad in 1927

  1. Inspired

    Although perhaps an insignificant part of your life and not one you would be keen to listen to I have however had the priviledge to watched you grow with lots of love in my heart. You have an inner strength heightened by your will to internalise everything and go it alone. You had then and still have now the intelligence and ability to be King…..however more importantly a favourite philosopher of mine said…“…being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself…. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
    ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning .

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