Why do some families seem so good at passing down success, while others fail?
Today, dog sleds are a bit of an anachronism — a reminder of travel that was important many years ago. In 1925 a diphtheria outbreak occurred in Nome, Alaska. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that was an extremely deadly disease for native Alaskan children who had no immunity.
There was an antidote, but the town’s doctor was out of it. And it was winter. The ports were blocked with ice. Planes couldn’t fly.
Their only hope was to fly 300,000 units of the antidote found at a hospital in Anchorage as far as it could go to Nenana, Alaska which was still 674 miles away.
Dog sleds would have to take it the rest of the way.
So 25 riders, or mushers as they’re called, and 150 dogs relayed across the Iditarod Trail for 6 days of brutal weather to keep the outbreak at bay. Several dogs lost their lives on the way.
Today, the “Iditarod” race helps commemorate that event. A hundred or so mushers take their dogs across 1000 miles. It takes a 1–2 weeks for everyone to complete the race.
And this year on March 15, 2016, Dallas Seavey won the Iditarod. For the fourth time.
Dallas is an interesting specimen of a winner. Not only is he a repeat champion, he also holds the record for being the youngest winner at 25 when he won in 2012. And he set a new record time this year by beating his own previous record from last year! The guy knows how to win.
Even more interesting, Mitch Seavey, Dallas’ father also has two Iditarod wins under his belt and has set his own records. Dallas’ grandfather was a veteran racer too.
Looking at Dallas and Mitch I wonder why is this family so good at racing? Is it luck? Is it something hereditary? Or is there something important we can take from this to help our own kids, students and employees to be more successful?
Or was Dallas Seavey just born to win?
In other news this March, Frank Sinatra Jr. sadly passed away. You probably don’t know much about Frank Sinatra Jr. but you’ve heard his dad’s music. Perhaps the thing Frank Sinatra Jr. is most famous for? Being kidnapped.
Frank Jr. was kidnapped at 19. Some drug fueled kids envisioned kidnapping Frank Jr. as a “business deal” with Frank Sr. They planned on “borrowing” Jr., investing the ransom money and paying back the family. They even refused to take a million dollars from Frank Sr. when he offered it, and stuck to the odd number of $240,000, which was their original ask.
The ransom was paid, and Jr. was returned safely. The kidnappers were caught and sentenced to prison soon afterwards. Rumors however came from another bizarre turn when the kidnappers argued that Frank Jr. had orchestrated the kidnapping himself. Barry Keenan, the mastermind behind the kidnapping, now a wealthy real estate tycoon, has since apologized profusely for what he did and has admitted that Frank Jr. was innocent of the whole thing.
So apart from being one of the most famous celebrity kidnappings, who was was Frank Jr.?
Frank Jr. was a talented piano player, a trained musician, and a gifted vocalist like his dad. But in contrast to Dallas, here’s Frank Jr.’s words about himself:
I was never a success. Never had a hit movie or hit TV show or hit record. I just had visions of doing the best quality of music. Now there is a place for me because Frank Sinatra is dead. They want me to play the music. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be noticed.
I think the disparity between Frank Jr. and Dallas offers an opportunity to learn some interesting things that parents and mentors can use to influence success.
Suniya Luthar is a Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. She set out to deeply understand how poverty affects children. In study after study she has looked at the differences between groups of affluent, white, upper-class students and their poor, inner city counterparts. The results were unexpected.
As Suniya peered into their lives, she found that the affluent high schoolers actually suffered from higher levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse. One argument you might make is that the affluent kids are spoiled and have money to blow on junk like drugs. But as Suniya found, it was more troubling than that. She kept finding evidence of self-medication. These kids weren’t blowing excess money out of boredom, they were using drugs to try to deal with that depression and anxiety. Why is this happening?
One theory that Suniya believes ties it all together is that the affluent kids are simply more alone. From her paper, The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth
Sociological research has shown that junior high students from upper-income families are often alone at home for several hours a week. At an emotional level, similarly, isolation may often derive from the erosion of family time together because of the demands of affluent parents’ career obligations and the children’s many after-school activities
Parents just aren’t around. They’re working hard to improve the careers that brought the affluence in the first place.
I didn’t have a lot of money growing up. But my parents were around a ton. I was in a bunch of activities, and my parents were actively involved even coaching the teams themselves. It was lessons on the field with my dad, or working with my mom at 2am on a science project that helped me learn and achieve.
But now that I feel like I have a pretty affluent peer group, I see different decisions being made. Folks needing to travel to a job or conference, or another late night at the office to make these important careers work. Is the sacrifice worth it?
It wasn’t for Frank Jr.
When Frank Jr. was a teenager Frank Sr.’s career became prolific, on average performing in 2 movies and creating 4 albums every year through the 50s and 60s. As you can imagine, Jr. didn’t see much of Sr.
Jr. would say at some of his shows, “I am now going to devote five minutes to the music of Frank Sinatra because that is exactly how long Frank Sinatra devoted to me.”
That’s a big contrast to Dallas’ relationship with Mitch.
Win or lose the race or not doesn’t change the fundamentals of our relationship — that as family and friends. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the biggest competitors and best friends at the same time
Mitch and Dallas spend a great deal of time on family and being friends. As you read Dallas’s own biography,
He grew up under the tutelage of his grandfather Dan and father Mitch
Frank Jr. barely saw his father. Dallas was taught by his.
The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread. -Mother Theresa
A second key point stands out when you read about Dallas vs. Frank Jr. Frank Jr. wasn’t really a Junior. His name was Franklin. His dad was Francis. But at some point, Franklin obtained his dad’s nickname. That’s a tough act to inherit. And inheriting your parent’s legacy isn’t a sure fire plan for success, in fact, it often goes the other way.
Morten Bennedsen, a Professor of Economics and Political Science at Insead Business School, found that firms who pass along leadership to a family member on their departure suffer a 4% drop in value. A drop that’s even more severe for businesses in rapidly growing or highly technical industries.
And not only did Frank Jr. inherit his father’s name. He sang the same type of music. His first professional start was even with the members of the Tommy Dorsey orchestra which had launched his Dad’s career. Instead of Frank Jr. taking a new path, he tried to take the same steps his dad did.
Frank Sr. even had Frank Jr. sing on his Duets 2 album, which backfired for Frank Jr.:
It was the wrong thing to do. The premise of the Duets album was to have Frank Sinatra sing with young artists who were big successful record sellers. I never was. It was nothing but nepotism and it always embarrassed me. I did not belong on those records. I was delighted to do it, but I didn’t belong there.
Frank Sr. also gave Frank Jr. a job. His dad made Frank Jr. the leader of his band when Frank Sr. was aging and couldn’t find a band leader who would work for him any more. “This is my son — his mom told me to give him a job,” Frank Sr. would tell his audience as a ‘joke’. But in the end it was still keeping Frank Jr. under his shadow. Frank Jr. would even wear a dull suit during his dad’s performances and lead the band with his back to the audience all so that he wouldn’t dare outshine his dad.
If you look at Dallas’s career it reads very differently.
When Dallas wanted to finally race competitively he didn’t inherit anything. Instead he spent his own money buying dogs from his father. And his father sold him the b-squad. The “scrubs”. These were dogs that were sized wrong, too big or too little. Dogs who were scared to race, or some that were past their peak or had even been injured. Dogs that Mitch didn’t even want.
It wasn’t easy. It took 4 years before that Scrub squad became competitive and won their first race. And now, Dallas is racing the pups of the Scrubs.
Mitch isn’t giving Dallas handouts, and Dallas isn’t trying to become Mitch or inherit anything from him. He’s trying to beat him using his own unique set of tools.
And that’s an important difference when you think about helping our children succeed. Do you give them opportunities, or do you let them struggle and fight to find their own way?
In the end, Frank Jr. was still a talented musician who eventually found a path and peace with his life. But I still can’t help comparing the differences in how Frank Jr. and Dallas were raised and educated.
And I am by no means an expert of parenting. That’s why I’ll refer to these lessons as I make my decisions and sacrifices around my own career and family, and what my child needs to succeed.
But these same principles can also be applied in companies. It’s easy to get lost in our own focus and priorities. We don’t want to micromanage. But are we really just the absent parent who swoops in every now and then with advice that turns out to be an unhelpful handout? Or do we regularly give our teammates our time and ears, but still room to work out their own ways of succeeding.
Because here’s the thing. Often we think we need to sacrifice time with others in order to keep our own thing going. But I left something out about Mitch.
Dallas may have won 4 times, but he didn’t win them all in a row. He won in 2012, but lost in 2013. Who’d he lose to? His own father. And this year, guess who came in second? Mitch. Mitch even beat Dallas’s record from last year.
By being a teacher and a friend, and helping his son compete on his own, Mitch himself has gotten better. Maybe the student became a master. And the other master got even better.