Chapter 1

Chip Off the Ol’ Block

We are shaped by others at least as much as we shape ourselves.

It’s amazing how many of the expressions I heard as a child have stayed with me—and probably influenced me more than I’ve realized. I overheard someone say, “He’s a chip off the old block,” at a social event recently. It is not something one hears on a regular basis, so I guess I thought the phrase had died out. It still doesn’t make literal sense to me. Perhaps my understanding of it as a kid still works today: the guy described is a lot like his dad.

That meaning fits my relationship with Dad in quite a few ways. I can trace quite a few of my characteristics to him. Parents (Mom is part of me too!) generally interact with us more than anyone else when we’re children, so it makes sense that they influence and shape who we evolve into as adults. Fact is that a lot of people influence us in big and little ways throughout our lives. We’re chips off of many blocks.

The “Chip off . . .” comment flashes me back to my childhood. I recall some adults who complemented my parent’s influence by being role models, offering helpful comments, and simply caring for me. There was my Boy Scout leader, John Sulerud. Elder Aalgaard, who took me fishing with his son, and my friend Bruce. My high school English teacher, Helen Sjolander. A potato farmer, Bennett Aarestad, who hired me for four high-school summers and often invited me to join his family at their lake cabin for summer fun. Even cameo players like Johnny Johnson, a neighbor across the alley, who gently pointed out one summer day that I should be a gentleman and use the harder-to-pull garden rake and let my sister use the easier, springy rake.

I reflect more now about the relationship I had with my father than before he died in 1999. I catch myself doing something or saying something that reminds me of him, such as digging tree leaves into my garden each fall to refresh soil nutrients and to better hold moisture for plants. Or beveling the snow along sidewalks and driveway when I shovel. I recall hearing, “It looks better and it’s less likely you’ll knock snow into your boots as you walk near it.”

My sense of humor is a lot like his. Too often I draw on some of his corny comments, like saying “Peas to meet you” when passing the peas at dinner. But I, perhaps like Dad, discovered how valuable it is to laugh and how much people generally appreciate getting the lift in life that a little humor can produce.

How much have I copied my dad? Hard to know. What I do know is that I observed Dad modeling many positive traits. My dad was a hard worker, very responsible, took life pretty seriously. The fact that he served as a pastor in his era probably had a lot to do with that. Pastors were looked up to—and watched closely. Any social impropriety by him (or me!) would lead to gossip around the small towns he served. No bad language, don’t speak ill of anybody, don’t speed, raise perfect kids. A lot of do’s and don’ts. I think about those standards almost like he and Mom are still looking over my shoulder.

Dads (and moms) model simply by being in their kids’ lives. I was fortunate in having a dad who was home and involved in my life a lot during my formative years. He was around for me to watch; I heard him philosophize; I heard him make comments about events. I was on the receiving end of his efforts to get me to think about and assimilate good values.

I was learning pretty straightforward stuff about how humans develop. Straightforward but typically overlooked. I didn’t think about such things as I developed into a young adult. In fact—call me a slow learner—it was only recently that it dawned on me how much I was shaped by my parents and others.

My reflecting about how much others influenced who I am today has resulted in three main takeaways. First, it’s a bit unnerving to realize how much I was shaped. I didn’t create my own life as much as I thoughtlessly assumed. I’m amazed that a thinker like me didn’t realize what was happening until decades later.

The second takeaway follows naturally from the first: the shaping process happens subtly. The memories that now explain where I got some of my traits are merely the tip of the influence iceberg. When Mr. Aalgaard took me fishing he gave of his time, skills, and attitudes. In doing so he modeled important values, including helping with a task, sharing knowledge, including others in what you do, and being patient. When Mrs. Sjolander managed her classroom she encouraged and challenged us to learn well, to learn the self-discipline it takes to understand and gain skills you don’t yet know you need, and to learn the value of taking pride in producing quality work.

Influence Takeaways

  1. 1.    Others shape us.
  2. 2.    Process is subtle.
  3. 3.    Keep eyes open.

Takeaway number three is that I wish I had been more conscious about the process so I could have been a bit more choosey in which influences I let mold me. Don’t get me wrong, I benefited from a lot of good modeling from parents and others. It’s just that I wasn’t eyes wide open. It’s that I would have, for example, worked to achieve better balance in work and play. I would have gone fishin’ more, stayed in adult sports leagues longer, hung out with the guys more.

It’s not that parents and others who influenced me tricked me. Far from it. Sure, it’s a parent’s job to train children in the way they should be, but I was never forced to live like them my whole life. Much of their influence happened simply by living their lives in my presence. It’s on me that I didn’t schedule pauses amidst the hectic life to reflect about what was happening. I realize now how valuable that would have been.

My life now is at high noon. Well, maybe more like 5:00 p.m. Twilight is on the horizon. But there’s still time for me to pause and consider redirecting who I am a little, to be more self-designing. I’m working on that. We can all relish in the traits we like about ourselves, however we got them. And we can work to modify, reshape the traits that aren’t working so well for us.

But I’m also trying to figure out how to pass on my three takeaways to my kids and, in more simplified ways, to my grandchildren. We can’t back up all of our lives to do something differently. I feel good about some of the traits they may have “inherited” from me. For others, I wish I had “fixed me” before they were toddlers. My aim is to strike a balance between alerting them to the subtle yet very powerful ways we humans are shaped—our values, personality traits, and lifestyles—and “letting them” experience and discover the influencing process on their own.

A parent’s influence—any influence that shapes us into who we become—should not simply be thoughtlessly adopted. The “evolving me” benefits from regular review. In the end, we need to be more than the sum of the chips off the ol’ blocks.


  1. 1.     What general kinds of help might a young male need to realize how his dad influenced him? Who, if anyone, “has the right” to help another person, of any age, decide which influences are good and which are not?
  2. 2.     Does the chip off the ol’ block dynamic happen differently in a mom-daughter relationship?
  3. 3.     Too many kids do not have both parents, or even one, providing positive life shaping influences during their young, very formative years. Do our communities offer significant and ethical backup influences that are positive?
  4. 4.    Who do you influence and what is the result?