Lessons from My FatherVolume I

The original draft of this essay was titled: “Lessons from My Biological Father”.

I wrote it during the winter of 2021, and it was the heaviest thing I had ever written, to the point where, as you can tell, I decided to not share it.

It made Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment seem like a feel-good love story in comparison.¹

Why? Well, I don’t have a relationship with my father and haven’t for several years (this is a good thing!). There is a lot of darkness to be found in my personal history with my father. I can trace many of my present struggles right back into that darkness. Plus, more dark things.

Hence the overall heaviness in that original draft.

However, as of this writing, during the summer of 2022: I’m in a great mood!

So, hey, why not keep it light and fun and educational?

Maybe, someday, if and when it feels right, I’ll share the heavier lessons.

For now, here are seven ultra-light, ultra-positive lessons I learned from my father —

Oh, and I removed the word “Biological” from the title because it implied that I had or have an adoptive father, which is not the case. Growing up, I did have my maternal grandfather, a dog, and my Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and I think these elements add up to a stable father figure. Right? Right?


Anyhow, yes, the lessons:

Lesson 1: Work ahead.
Lesson 2: Habitually follow up.
Lesson 3: Maintain a contacts database.
Lesson 4: Yawn imperceptibly.
Lesson 5: Exercise each day.
Lesson 6: Embrace irreverence.
Lesson 7: Sometimes, don’t color the wall.

When I was in primary school, my father always encouraged me to work ahead.

I vividly remember him driving me to a movie theatre on a Monday night in Panama City, Republic of Panama (where I grew up). During the drive, he asked me, in English, whether I had any homework coming up for the week.

“Yes,” I said. “I have a math assignment due on Thursday.”

“When are you planning to work on it?” he asked.

“Probably on Wednesday,” I said, “or maybe even on Thursday before class. It’s pretty easy.”

“Why don’t you work on it tonight? Or tomorrow?”

“Tonight? Tomorrow? It’s not due until Thursday!”

“I know, but if it’s really that easy, you can get it done sooner. If you get it done sooner, you’ll be free to do whatever you want to do on Wednesday and Thursday before class. You can even work ahead and finish the homework for future weeks. Imagine: You could finish all the homework for the entire semester in just a few weeks! Then, while your friends are still working on weekly homework, you will be free. The work will be done.”

“Good point. So what movie are we watching?”

This short conversation, for some reason, permanently shaped my approach to work. I always work ahead. Always.

Years later, when I was in college and graduate school, I often did the homework for a given class during or right after class. I then invested my newfound free time swimming, doing stand-up comedy, learning, sharing time with friends, going on dates, watching a movie, visiting a museum, playing music, writing, reading, resting, or doing whatever else I wanted to do. It was awesome. All thanks to this lesson.

Guidelines are suggestions, not limits.

This is worth repeating: Guidelines are suggestions, not limits.

If a professor assigns you homework that’s due in two weeks, know that you can work on it that same day if you so wish.

If your boss wants you to finish a task before the end of the week, know that you can report back at the end of the day having finished that task and a few others.

If someone says to you, “There is no way you can heal trauma, learn a new language, learn how to sing, reinvent your entire existence, make new friends, get in great physical shape, learn how to fight, improve your diet, process a painful loss, or do anything in a shorter timespan than most people,” please know that their perspective is shaped by their limited experiences, their limited observations, and the law of averages.

You are not average. There is no need for you to limit yourself.

Work ahead!

I saw the film Gladiator at the movie theatre with my father (he knew the owner of the theatre, so he snuck me in even though I was technically too young to see that movie). We then watched it together at least four other times on DVD. I have since watched it one other time, on a streaming platform. It’s still one of the best movies I know, and this scene is legendary.

My father taught me to follow up with people and to make it a habit.

Whenever he met anyone he connected with, he would ask for their contact information. If they also connected with him and chose to share their information, he always followed up with a note thanking them for their time, for an enjoyable conversation, or for whatever he was genuinely grateful for.

I learned this lesson early in my life, and I have been applying it ever since.

Habitually follow up!

Following up should be your default setting. In other words, you don’t need a reason to follow up; you would need a clear reason to not follow up. If there’s no reason to not follow up, just do it. This has nothing to do with being an extrovert, socially bold, or “good at networking.” It’s simply a considerate habit, like greeting someone with a handshake.

Follow up with people you just connected with.

Follow up with people you connected with years ago.

Try to follow up as humanly as you feel is appropriate.

A handwritten letter is more human than an email, a gifted book with a handwritten note is more human than an online book recommendation, a call or voice note is more human than a text, and a face-to-face conversation is most human of all.

Accept that the other person might want a less human interaction than what you would prefer (or no interaction at all), and adjust accordingly.

Don’t feel bad about not following up with everyone you meet or have ever met. Just do your best; there’s no need to force anything. Remember to have fun.

Caution: If you habitually follow up, prepare to be dismissed or ignored. Prepare also to have unique, rich, diverse, wide, positive, fascinating, and international personal and professional networks. The apparent rejections are well worth it.

Habitually follow up!

P.S.: Do not be afraid to follow up with people you admire. It doesn’t matter if they’re great artists or award-winners or celebrities or billionaires or CEOs or whatever. They’re just people.

I have received email responses from Isabel Allende and the incomparable Derek Sivers. At a festival, I spoke with Shakey Graves about how he learned to play the guitar, and I told John Paul White that he gave me hope for the future of country music. At a Q&A, Jerry Seinfeld gave me some stand-up comedy advice. Marc Maron directly responded on his podcast to a question I had emailed him. Tomo Fujita, a fantastic musician and John Mayer’s guitar teacher at Berklee College of Music, made a full video responding to a letter I wrote him. After a showcase, I talked to Niko Moon about vocal harmonies and the Eagles. At a music industry event, I had a conversation with Natalia Lafourcade about how she perceives and interprets music. I have many more examples.

I am not special. I’m just polite, I say hi, and I follow up, regardless of whether I’m supposed to be intimidated. That is it.

By the way, I have been completely dismissed or ignored by some people I admire (and by some people in general), and that is okay, and it’s actually kind of funny. It’s all part of following up!

While we’re on the topic of the great Natalia Lafourcade, here’s one of her signature songs.

My father learned this from his father, who was a brilliant salesman.

According to my father, his father had a notebook where he would jot down all the names of friends and potential clients. He didn’t only jot down their names, though. He included their birthdays, where they worked, for whom, what they wanted, what they liked, how he’d met them, and anything else he considered to be important.

No wonder my paternal grandfather was a brilliant salesman!

Thankfully, he passed down this knowledge to my father, who then passed it down to me.

Few things (if any) have had a more positive impact on my social life than maintaining a contacts database. The best part about it is that this positive impact is readily available to you! All you have to do is maintain a contacts database. Easy.

If you already have a database, great; keep at it. If you don’t, that’s okay; you can start now.

It can be a spreadsheet (this is what I do), a notebook (I have a special calendar notebook where I keep the birthdays of many people I know), a Customer Relationship Management software, or anything else that works for you.

Let go of the notion that this is cold and calculating; it’s actually considerate, especially now that most people treat most other people as disposable digital products.

One caveat: Social media does not count.

You don’t own any information on social media; the platform does, and it sells it to advertisers for profit.

Moreover, social media is too convenient.

It requires little to no investment from others. It’s easy for them to tap on a screen and “connect” with or “follow” you. But can you actually have a conversation with them? Have lunch? Ask them for advice? Share time together? Have them respond to a call, text, or email? If you can’t have a real, direct interaction with them, then you don’t actually know them, and they’re not your contacts; they’re just witnesses or removed acquaintances.

Social media also requires little to no investment from you. It is much easier to “connect” with or “follow” someone than it is to have a real interaction with them, come to learn their birthday and write it down, discover what they want and what excites them, write down how you met and what you like about them, and actually make an effort to connect.

Plus, many awesome people don’t use social media!

So: Maintain a contacts database that isn’t a social media platform, and use it to follow up (see Lesson 2). This can only enrich your life.

P.S.: I do not wish to create the illusion that I am the perfect networker. My favorite mistakes are that time when I congratulated someone for doing something they didn’t actually do (there’s more context here, but still, wow, that was embarrassing) and that other time when I thought I could have a conversation while simultaneously sending an email, and I called the email person by the name of the conversation person and vice versa. Amazing. At least I learned my lessons, and I have amusing anecdotes.

Here’s a screenshot of the simple “Networking Database” spreadsheet I use. You can download it for free on my website: https://www.mannyvallarino.net/spreadsheets/

At the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival, I received a small but meaningful scholarship from Berklee College of Music.

After I went up on stage to collect the award, my father and a reporter from a Boston newspaper (I think it was The Boston Globe) were waiting for me backstage.

The reporter started to ask me basic questions like what my name was, how I felt about the festival and the award, and so on. The problem was that, back in those days, I had terrible insomnia. So, I was tired. Very tired. And I began to yawn. All throughout the interview, I yawned, and yawned, and yawned.

You may now take a few seconds to yawn.

After the interview, my father scolded me for yawning. I would have liked for him to also congratulate me on the award, but to each their own!

He told me how disrespectful my yawning was and how it made the reporter feel like he was boring. He proceeded to teach me the simple art of how to yawn imperceptibly: Close your mouth and take a deep, silent breath through your nose.

Oh, and no Boston newspaper ever published a piece about me, probably because I yawned. My father was right.

So: Yawn imperceptibly!

Most people can’t help but take yawns personally.

If you yawn during a work meeting, your boss will probably think you’re not interested.

If you yawn during a date, your date will probably feel uninteresting.

It doesn’t matter that you’re tired or truly bored. Close your mouth, take a deep, silent breath through your nose, and yawn imperceptibly.

Also, do your best to take care of your sleep.

I hope all this writing about yawning didn’t make you yawn perceptibly …

I highly recommend attending the Panama Jazz Festival. Full disclosure: I’m actually not that big a fan of jazz; I admire many jazz musicians, but the genre doesn’t resonate with me that much, for some reason. Still, I always enjoy this festival. It’s awesome, even for those of us who aren’t necessarily jazz fans.

My father taught me to exercise each day.

Change your mind about exercise.

It is not something you do occasionally to relieve stress or look more attractive.

Exercise is literally part of your responsibility as a human.

Our species did not evolve to sit down and stare at screens.

Try to do some physical activity each day, however briefly. If you can’t do a hundred push-ups, do ten. Do five. You can literally start doing just one or two, and then build up from there. As long as you do some exercise during the day, you will have won the day, so celebrate!

Exercise for yourself and not to impress anyone.

If possible, find a coach who will help you make sure that you’re exercising with proper technique. This will save you from avoidable injuries (been there).

And here’s the secret to consistent exercising: Make sure you’re enjoying it!

For example, I don’t like the gym. I don’t like the music they play, I don’t like the posturing, I don’t like the selfies, I don’t like the culture, and I don’t like the overall vibe. If I were to force myself to go to the gym each day, I would do it for a week, and then I would stop exercising forever.

But I love to swim. I love to hike. I love to bike. I love yoga. I love strength-training in my room while listening to music I actually enjoy (special thanks to AC/DC, Eminem, and Rage Against the Machine). Since I enjoy what I do for exercise, it’s easy for me to do it each day, which helps keep me happy and healthy.

Exercise each day.

It’s pleasurable, and it’s good for you.


P.S.: The whole “no pain, no gain” thing is mostly nonsense. If you exercise in a constant state of pain, stress, suffering, and straining, you will end up with a body that is pained, stressed, suffering, and strained, and you might even provoke a serious injury. You deserve to enjoy what you do for exercise. Of course there’s effort involved, but enjoyable effort and pain are very different things. In the long term, enjoyable effort is healthier and more effective.

“Bulls On Parade” by Rage Against The Machine is one of my favorite records to play while strength-training. Also, the heavy guitar riff Tom Morello plays during the chorus is absolutely nasty, and I mean that in the best way. Insane riff, and it’s so simple; I love it and want to play it live someday.

One of the few real bonding opportunities I had with my father was when we’d go to the movies. I always loved movies (still do), and we always had a great time.

There was, however, something about going to the movies with him that I sometimes enjoyed even more than the movies themselves.

Allow me to introduce you to humanity’s most noble creation: “The chemical fart,” known most commonly in English as “the stink bomb.”

A stink bomb, or peo químico in Spanish, is an incredible wonder of science. It is a small sealed glass ampoule that holds a liquid that smells, well, like a fart. Some might say it smells worse, way worse. Genius.

So, my father, being who he was, would sometimes enjoy releasing a stink bomb. Inside a closed movie theatre. In the middle of a movie.

This was his strategy: We would sit up front, close to the screen. Some minutes into the film, my father would inconspicuously crush the glass stink bomb under his shoe. At that moment, we would get up and find new seats in the theatre’s back rows. We would then chuckle as we observed entire families get out of their seats in order to escape the putrid smell.

I would like to use this sentence to apologize to all my friends in the film industry.

While this particular example of irreverence is borderline punishable by law, I do think that embracing irreverence is vital for life.

There are so many rules for so many things. So many. All of them are made up, many don’t make sense, and many are too rigid, e.g., not being allowed to laugh in a library, which makes it my favorite place for a good laugh.

So, if you’re not really hurting yourself or anyone else, maybe consider breaking a few rules.

It’s a lot of fun, and it’s liberating.

Embrace irreverence. And do it responsibly. Please don’t get sued.

Here’s a photo of Extreme Planet, one of the several movie theatres in Panama frequented by my father and I. Sadly, it is now permanently closed. Rumor has it that Extreme Planet went out of business due to a stink bomb. I’m kidding, of course, so that’s not true. I hope …

One of my earliest childhood memories is of me coloring the walls in my maternal grandparents’ house in Panama with my diverse collection of crayons.

I loved coloring that wall. I loved the feeling of seeing the wall be transformed from beige and boring into wild and colorful, all because of my crayons, my vision, my will, and my action. I loved being the cause of an effect in the world.

My mom always encouraged me to color that wall, and my dad always discouraged me. This would later become a metaphor of my life.

In a future essay, I will write about what I learned from my mom’s encouragement. In this lesson, however, I’d like to share what my father taught me through his discouragement: Sometimes, don’t color the wall.

Based on some things my father would say to discourage me, here is a short list of times when it might be better to not color the wall:

  1. If it’s not your wall: If you’re an actor in a play that you agreed to be in, and if you think the play should have a different ending, this is the best course of action: Quit the play, or accept the current ending. It’s not your play; it’s the writer’s, and in other ways, it’s the director’s. Your job is to bring their vision to life, not rewrite the story. Trying to color someone else’s wall might come off as invasive or disrespectful.
  2. If you don’t have permission: I cannot go into a presentation slide approved by my boss and change all of its design elements, just because I had a flash of inspiration. While the new slide might have great visuals, and it might be a wonderful expression of my creativity, it might also get me fired. If you don’t have permission to color a wall, consider the option of not doing so. You can always make your own wall and do with it as you wish.
  3. If it’s not worth the trouble: Even if a wall is yours and you have permission to color it, sometimes it’s not worth the trouble. One example is the fact that I decided to not share the original draft of this essay. Coloring that wall in that way would not have been worth the trouble. Sometimes, it’s better to keep your colors to yourself, because the cons of expressing them can outweigh the pros.

There are countless other examples of this lesson, but the principle remains: Sometimes, it’s better to not color the wall.

All this writing about coloring walls made me think of The Bedroom, a painting by Vincent van Gogh.² In it, Van Gogh actually painted tiny portraits that hang on the wall inside the room featured in the painting. Very layered. I don’t know why these things mean so much to me.

Let’s review these seven ultra-light, ultra-positive lessons:

Lesson 1: Work ahead.
Lesson 2: Habitually follow up.
Lesson 3: Maintain a contacts database.
Lesson 4: Yawn imperceptibly.
Lesson 5: Exercise each day.
Lesson 6: Embrace irreverence.
Lesson 7: Sometimes, don’t color the wall.

Given the darkness that makes up much of my personal history with my father, it is a joy to be able to rescue some rays of light.

I am grateful for these positive lessons, and I am grateful for the opportunity I have to share them.

Thank you, Lessons from my Father — Volume I!

And thank you to my father for making me swim since I was very young. Here’s a photo of me that was taken right after I destroyed³ other kids in a swimming competition (I don’t think I was well-liked after those races). As you can see, I have no teeth, but I’m smiling, maybe because of the medals (sorry, other kids). I haven’t competed since I was a kid, but swimming remains my favorite workout.
  1. A part of me would like to be perceived as dark, profound, and intelligent, all because I have read Crime and Punishment. The truth is, it’s one of my least favorite books of all time. I thought it was so bad. Would never recommend it. My favorite Russian writer is Anton Chekhov. Now that guy was something else!
  2. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
  3. Good times.



What I’m doing now — mannyvallarino.net/now | Join my private email list — mannyvallarino.net/list | Follow me on IG — instagram.com/mannyvallarino

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