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Most of the daily decisions we make only affect us for a short while: what to have for dinner or what clothes to wear today. Some can affect us for a lifetime, like whom to marry. But sometimes the effect of our decisions lingers on to impact our children and their children, for generations to come. If we knew that going in, would we make a different decision?
Only a couple of generations ago, less than half of all high school graduates in the United States went on to college. Today, 84 percent of twenty-seven-year-old Americans have attended at least some college courses. But with skyrocketing tuition costs, many families are still struggling with this expensive decision.
And if you think it’s tough in the U.S., imagine what it’s like in the developing world. In many places it’s still a rare opportunity, so the decision is harder. Just like in the United States, in those places people have to consider carefully the long-term costs and benefits of such a choice. And no matter what you choose, you can never really be sure how things would have turned out had you made a different decision.
But every once in a while, a lucky few are given as close a glimpse of that as the laws of nature allow. Two of those people are Marvin Abrinica and his father, John.
John grew up in the Philippines on the island of Negros, the twelfth of thirteen children. Like most people on the island, John’s family were farmers working the sugar cane plantations.
In his late teens, John decided he wanted more than a farmer’s life. So he ran away to Manila where he attended a small engineering college. He was the first in his family to get a college degree, and one of only two to ever leave home.
In Manila, he met a schoolteacher named Noemi. The two married and immigrated to the United States. The couple settled in Wisconsin, where John got a job as a draftsman and Noemi worked as a maid at a Red Roof Inn. Both jobs were beneath their education and training, but it was a start. John eventually went on to become a successful engineer at General Electric. Noemi ran several of her own businesses before becoming a real estate agent and investor.
When Marvin was born, he was raised with “a healthy dose of Filipino culture,” as he described it. Mom and Dad maintained their traditional food, language, and values, which Marvin was immersed in at home. But he still knew little else of where he came from. Like his father, Marvin eventually attended college, went on to graduate school, and landed a great job at a Fortune 500 company where he’s enjoyed a rewarding and challenging career ever since.
But about eight years ago, at the age of sixty-nine, John was diagnosed with dementia. His short-term memory began slipping away. As Marvin explained it, “it’s like a candle that slowly burns away. After the short-term memories are gone, it continues to burn until the rest of your memories disappear too.” As it became apparent that John wouldn’t always have clear memories of life in the Philippines, Marvin started feeling a sense of urgency to make a journey there. He called it a “roots journey.” So he made arrangements to take both his parents on a trip.
Their first stop was in Manila to visit his mother’s family. Then John and Marvin moved on to Negros. It took several hours of navigating long back roads on the island until they finally arrived at the village where John grew up. Looking around, Marvin describes the homes as “shanties with tin roofs and dirt floors, with no running water or electricity.” And it was there that Marvin got his first glimpse of the family he’d never met—one of his surviving uncles and his son, Marvin’s cousin.
“My uncle was seventy-nine years old. He’d lived and farmed there his whole life. And my cousin, to greet us properly, climbed thirty feet up the nearest coconut tree with a machete and cut down some coconuts for us to eat. I quickly realized how simply these people lived. And they were happy. So I was happy for them.” But it wasn’t the life Marvin would have chosen for himself. And that’s when he had his unexpected moment of clarity.
As he explains, “It was just the four of us—two brothers and two cousins—on this dirt road lined with sugar cane and coconut trees. And it was so strange. It was like looking in the mirror. I was looking at two people, my blood, and it occurred to me for the first time the gravity of my father’s decision fifty years ago. It must have taken a lot of courage for him to do what he did. And if he hadn’t, I very much could have been this other man in front of me.”
“That moment really clarified for me the importance of making courageous decisions in the defining moments of your life. My dad saw generations of his family grow up in poverty. And he decided that wasn’t the life he wanted for himself, or eventually his children. His decision to leave and get an education changed life forever for him and generations to come.”
The value of getting an education is something many parents try, often unsuccessfully, to impress upon their children. It’s certainly not the only route to success and happiness in life. But it clearly creates more opportunities and paths to get there.
This story illustrates a point rarely mentioned in those conversations: the impact that choice will have on their children and their children’s children. So if they find themselves someday with one of those rare opportunities to see what life might have been like for them and their children, like John and Marvin Abrinica had, will they be happy with the choice they made?
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started:
- If Marvin’s father hadn’t gone off to college in Manila, what do you think Marvin’s life would be like today?
- What are your education plans? Why?
- If you go through with those plans, what impact might that have on your kids and their kids someday?
- What if you did the opposite of those plans? What impact might that have on your kids and their kids someday? And would you be happier?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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