Lessons From An Unorthodox Father

When I was growing up in Weston, Ore., my dad gave us two easy ways to earn a penny. You could unearth a rusty nail from the back lawn (1 cent/nail) or you could drink a glass of goat’s milk that my mom had just wrung from the family goat (1 cent/glass). The problem was that the number of rusty nails was depressingly finite and the goat’s milk was distressingly warm.

But there was also a hard way to earn a penny. You could take a dandelion stem, split it in two, and carefully lower the halves into a bucket of water. After about 30 minutes the dandelion would form a magical and unique curlicue that surely someone on a neighboring farm would want to buy. My siblings and I worked tirelessly to create a portfolio of fine specimens and displayed them on a plywood slat: 1 cent each. In spite of the extra effort required, the appeal of actually creating something made the hard way of earning a penny the clear winner in my young mind.

It also counts as my first foray into entrepreneurialism. I remember well the feeling of crisp satisfaction when someone (a pitying adult) snapped up our whole board for a dollar.

It’s been roughly 30 years since my dandelion venture, and a little more than two since I co-founded Omada Health, a digital health startup that helps people avoid chronic disease. But I’m struck by how often the lessons I learned from him in my childhood resurface today, becoming even more relevant with time. Three key ideas stand out from his parenting style that have influenced my path through life and my experience as an entrepreneur.

1. The establishment must be wrong. Not-a-slave-to-fashion would be putting it mildly. My dad’s typical winter-day outfit (thigh-high blue running shorts, threadbare white t-shirt, undersized baseball cap) was an external manifestation of a deep internal conviction that if everyone else was doing it, it must be wrong. Whether dealing with government policy, commercial trends, or cultural norms such as owning a television, he ran on the assumption that the status quo was a “crock of sh–.”

When we started paying him back by questioning his authority, I know he was secretly proud. This simple idea — that the grown ups aren’t always right — comes in handy these days at Omada, because by default we’re questioning many of the conventions of health-industry orthodoxy.

2. Empower them to figure it out. One spring day when I was six years old, my dad came around the side of the house with a baby cow on his shoulders, and set it down in front of me. “You’ll have to feed her formula several times a day,” he said simply. Just like that, the cow was mine. I named her Mudspots and raised her until she was fully grown. I still honor her today by using her first name as my twitter handle.

But her real legacy comes from the sense of empowerment my Dad inspired in me by the very assumption that I was up to the task. In my leadership role these days at Omada, I do my best to assign projects without being overly directive, knowing that any good hire will appreciate the freedom to define the details themselves.

3. Don’t give it your all. Even though my Dad was an emergency room doctor, he managed to strike an enviable work-life balance — one that favored life over work. He spent as much time as possible at home with us kids, immersed in our lives, beating us at poker and losing at Pictionary.

Now as I struggle to balance the demands of a rebellious toddler and a busy startup, I seek inspiration from memories of my dad’s approach. As a co-founder, I’m working hard to ensure that Omada’s internal culture reflects our external mission of inspiring lifestyle change and improving health. The assumption that startup teams should be sleeping under their desks is not only erroneous, it’s dangerous. We’re learning that encouraging our team to work reasonable hours not only increases productivity in the long-term, but ultimately deepens commitment and happiness.

My dad died young, at 57, from prostate cancer. He never had the chance to see me as a father or a founder, both achievements that would have blown his mind. As I celebrate another Father’s Day in absentia, I will work hard to pass those same lessons onto my own son as much as possible. We’ll start with the dandelions.



This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal