This is part of a series of posts exploring the impact that our relationship with our family has on how we define success.

To emulate or rebel? That is the question. Are the choices you’re making actually your choices? Or are you chasing someone else’s dream?

Commentary on Part One – Are You Chasing Someone Else’s Dream?

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. -Robert Frost, poet

Trying to please can be costly, and trying to please everyone, costlier. This Aesop fable (modified) about an old man, young boy and a donkey indicates what can happen when you try to please everyone.

On their way out of town, a young boy rode on a donkey and an old man walked next to them. As they journeyed, they passed people who remarked it was a shame the old man was walking and the young boy was riding. The man and boy thought that maybe their critics were right, so they changed positions.

Later, they passed some people that remarked, “What a shame, he makes the little boy walk.” They then decided they both should walk! Soon they passed people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a decent donkey to ride. So, they both rode the donkey.

Now they passed some more people who shamed them by saying how awful to put such a load on a poor donkey. The boy and man felt they were probably right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge, they lost their grip on the animal and he fell into the river and drowned.

Moral: If you try to please everyone, you might as well kiss your ass good-bye.


“Let me listen to me and not to them,” implored literary cult figure Gertrude Stein. Listening to your own voice—and then following it—is a difficult challenge for a social species. Even the Bible tries us to heed our little voice, “kol katan,” to serve God, others and ourselves.

The heart of my entrepreneurial leadership book, True to Yourself, a study of what made 75 social entrepreneurs successful, illustrates the message. As my father said: “Be true to yourself, son. Win or lose, play the game your way.” Being true to yourself is a test of fidelity.

It’s hard to build a company and not mimic others. Confidence in your abilities and intuition is buffeted (and defined in part) by powerful cultural dictates. That is, unless you’re 104! As one 104-year-old responded when asked what was the best thing about being 104: “No peer pressure.”

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody. -Bill Cosby  Tweet This Quote

The voices of judgment, VOJs as they’re called, can make it difficult to find your voice, to be me and not them. If you’re driven to prove your worthiness to others, you’ve handed over your life to their voices and opinions. As singer James Taylor croons, “You’ve been riding on a railroad, singing someone else’s song.”

In my decades of counseling young job seekers and mentoring social entrepreneurs, I’ve found two factors to be key influences behind life motivations and business decisions. One is money—coming to terms with how much is enough and how important it is to your measure of success. Money doesn’t talk—it swears. We will have many more conversations about money on this blog!

The other factor is the VOJs, particularly people’s perception of what their parents—primarily the “father figure,” who represents the external world—think of them and what they do.

My father looked at the world and his eldest through the lens of entrepreneurship and making money. Men make money and do things their own way, whatever the cost. He never understood many of my decisions: “Mark, you are predictably unpredictable.” After I chose to become a Harvard Business School professor, rather than continue as a real estate entrepreneur, we didn’t talk for seven years.

It is impossible to please all the world
and one’s father. -Jean de La Fontaine, 17th century French poet

At times I have felt that I was not living up to some standard. I found that I could not live up to his expectations, make up for his life’s mistakes, or even please him if I was to shape my own destiny. But I still wonder if what I do is for him.

At the 1993 Social Venture Network (SVN) conference, a gathering of the elite social entrepreneurs, the unstated sub-theme was, “Did I do it for him or for me?” Many SVN members had fathers die in the year prior and reflected on the impact of this loss.

  • Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder/CEO of Seventh Generation, acknowledged, “I built the audio business and then Seventh Gen, but now wonder whom I was doing it for, and whether I want to do it any more.”
  • 65-year old CEO Lillian Vernon, first woman to found a company listed on the American Stock Exchange, was raised to be “a wife and a mother.” Ms. Vernon discussed openly her ongoing concern for what her father thinks of her life choices. He’d passed away years before.

Emulate or rebel?

Be like and liked, or be different and separated? Each path has its price and profit. Maybe emulate and rebel? How can you do that? As 17th century Haiku poet, Basho urged us, “Do not follow in the footsteps of the men of old. Seek what they sought.”

  • Communications strategist Katie Paine reached the corporate pinnacle only to realize “this is the job my father always wanted me to have. It’s his dream, not mine.” She left, began a communications measurement business—alien to a Fortune 500 publishing father—and has never looked back. Today, however, her business title no longer speaks of “measurement,” but of “publishing.”
  • Zimbabwean Lovemore Mbigi was born into a family of doctors; any other career choice unthinkable. Expelled from his village, Lovemore moved to South Africa and became a successful businessman and professor. He developed programs to teach social entrepreneurship to foundation fellows. Today he’s in Zimbabwe, with parents proud that he heals the world too, in his own way.

Do you emulate your parents or rebel?

Do they understand your choices? And are they your choices? Or are you doing it for him?

I can only please one person per day.
Today is not your day.
Tomorrow is not looking good either.
-Scott Adams, Dilbert  Tweet This Quote

Check out Mark’s series here:

Mark Albion

Author Mark Albion

Mark Albion left his business school professorship to answer his life question: "How can I be a Marxist and still own my own Jacuzzi?" He is now a serial entrepreneur, faculty founder of Net Impact, and author of a series of books exploring meaningful careers, impact entrepreneurship, and success.

More by Mark Albion