The Greatest Lesson My Father Taught Me

father-daughter Image via Shutterstock

This is what I remember:

My dad would rise early and take the train from the suburbs to the Loop in downtown Chicago. He’d work all day in a tall office building on Jackson Boulevard that I saw only once, on a special Saturday he brought me with him, a day I remember by the greenish glass of the train windows and the overflowing ashtrays and stacks of papers on brown desks, and by the way my ears popped as we rode the elevator to the top of the Sears Tower at lunch.

He’d come home on the same 5 o’clock train every night. When the front door opened, I’d run from the family room, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and around to the foyer to surprise him. I’d hug him, my cheek resting against his trench coat that smelled of cold and smoke and train exhaust.

He’d disappear down into the basement and I’d hear the thump thumping of the punching bag. I’d watch him take a long drink at the kitchen sink, sweat dripping from his chin. Later, I’d rest in the crook of his arm, his deep, smoky voice vibrating through his chest and into my ear as he read me a story.

This was his life as I saw it. Routine. Secure. Happy. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out he woke up every day to a job he hated.

I don’t know if he said it to me only once or a thousand times. I don’t remember how I first learned it. Whatever the case, I can see him now, shaking his head, his blue eyes sad, “Don’t ever take a job you don’t like. It’s not worth it. Do what you love.”

When my dad was a child, he loved reading. He read Treasure Island and The Ted Williams Story and Crime and Punishment and comic books. He read in his bedroom, to avoid being teased by the neighborhood kids. He read everything.

This is how I’ve known him, too. He loves a good story in all forms—books, movies, TV, music. Conversations with my dad were my first lessons in story: how to put one together, what is compelling, how to think about the arc, dialogue, setting. I remember his delight at the repetitive talk of weather in the movie, “Fargo”—that this dialogue showed not just an interest in weather, but a universal human desire to connect without having anything to say.

When he was in college, my dad thought about majoring in literature and becoming an English teacher. Someone—a well-meaning college counselor, perhaps—told my dad, “You’re good at math. Go into accounting. You’ll always have a job.”

He took that advice and as things go, he became an accountant. He got married and had a family that depended on him.  He was sad, I know, not to be doing what he loved. But my dad didn’t sacrifice himself for us on purpose. If he’d had a looking glass, and saw the years of numbers and tax documents stretched ahead of him, he wouldn’t have become an accountant. He probably would have run straight to World Literature class.

But in a way, he did sacrifice. Because it’s the mistakes of our parents that serve as some of our strongest lessons. We learn from them and, hopefully, become better, happier. It’s our responsibility to do that. Otherwise, what’s it all for?

And so I’ve followed my own path and my own heart, and I’ve never, ever considered taking a job I’d hate. I’ve worked as a reporter, a political communications director, and an author. I am guided by my love of writing and storytelling. I am guided by a true sense of what’s important, of how short life is and how responsible we are for making ourselves happy. My father gave me that.

I’m a parent now. I will make mistakes, and my children will learn. I will make sure of it, as my father made sure for me.

They will know from my mistakes, but they will also know the greatest lesson I can teach them. Because I remember, will always remember, my father’s words: Do what you love.

His grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know those words, too.

About the writer

Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of the coming-of-age novel, The Rooms Are Filled. She lives and writes near Chicago. You can find her online at


Julia Munroe Martin 2 years ago

This is lovely, Jessica. Your description of running to the door to meet your dad reminds me of my own kids. Your dad must have loved that…in fact, this whole piece makes me think of my husband who — while not always hating his job — definitely does say he “works for the family.” And I always feel a little guilty staying home and doing what I love…

Stacey 2 years ago

What an important lesson your dad taught you! And I love the descriptions in this piece…your ears popping in the elevator, your dad’s trench coat smelling like cold. Lovely!

Nina 2 years ago

What a beautiful tribute to your father. Those of us who can do what we love are so so luckily. It’s good to remember that! And good advice from your father.

Jessica Halepis 2 years ago

I loved, and in so many ways.

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kara 2 years ago

I grew up with a hard working father who loved his job but also had a hard time financially supporting our family. Do I love my job? No. But I don’t hate it either. What I do love is not worrying about how I’m going to pay our bills. I also love that I can afford my other hobbies. Your article is lovely as is your lesson from you Dad. But I’ve also learned in my life experience that what you love may also not make a good job. I couldn’t support my family with them.

    3mama 2 years ago

    I totally agree!

sammie 2 years ago

What a beautiful, invaluable lesson your father taught you. Thank you for sharing! Sounds like you had a good one :)

Jennifer Kirasich Adamo 2 years ago


Karen 2 years ago

I loved this post; thank you!

Kim 2 years ago

A beautiful legacy for your father to have left.

jody 2 years ago

Lovely post!

Michelle James 2 years ago

Beautiful! A wonderful tribute to the love of a parent and the lessons they pass on to their children.

Kim 2 years ago

My mother taught me the same lesson, by hating her job. I swore if never work a job I hated. She also told me I could be “anything I wanted” when I grew up. And I believed her.

And you know what? Not until this moment did I realize that she meant to teach me the first lesson all along. I ha thought as a child she was foolish for having a job she hated. But she never complained. Never even told me not to have a job I hated. She had no choice. I know that now. So she told me I could be anything.

Wow. That it took me so long to put two and two together. I had thought she was silly, as a child, to work a job she hated. As an adult I knew she had to. & Now I see she was brave refusing even to complain.

Thank you for this article. I can’t believe I never really understood this about my mom before.


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