MIL photoI recently listened to an interview on This American Life that stuck with me. The show was entitled “It’s Not The Product, It’s The Person” and went through a series of examples uncovering the reality that great business (or great work) is more a product of the who than the what. Who people are, how much grit, tenacity, raw or natural talent, passion, or skill really matters when doing whatever it is that that they do. Far more perhaps than what they actually create, sell or even perform. And although this isn’t the point I mean to make (you’ll see) it’s worth noting that the show opens with details of a young entrepreneur, like really young (age 11 years) and demonstrates how her talents, bravado, and finesse allow her to sell things and attract attention that others can’t. The show rounds out as the narrator showcases the varying pitfalls in his own quest for success as an ex-NPR radio producer turned start-up entrepreneur. The story was somewhat lighthearted, of course, but one point stuck. As he was gleaning information from an established, successful venture capital investor he was asked a potent question. The investor was interrogating how this fledgling entrepreneur could get funding; assisting him in creating his “pitch” for the money people. He asked, “What’s your unfair advantage?”

Think about it, what’s your unfair advantage?

It stuck with me because it was so relevant for success in an often random, senseless world of building ideas and companies but also in parenting “like a pro.” An unfair advantage sometimes facilitates success and I would suggest nearly all of us have something in our pocket that we know makes it work. You can think of this unfair advantage in terms of celebrity or early success for some (Kate Hudson’s mom is Goldie Hawn after all, and it certainly seems easier to get a bedroom in The White House if your last name is Bush or Kennedy or Clinton for that matter). Yet we all also know that success isn’t only built of “unfair advantages,” that it does take advantage wed to sheer passion, purpose or intent. But clearly those unfair advantages help people get their ideas and skills discovered.

It was only recently that I realized my unfair advantage this past decade or so. Especially when it comes to parenting. It’s certainly not that I’m a pediatrician nor that I have had the gift of education, a safe and fair upbringing in suburban Minnesota or even the incredible generosity from multiple mentors. Those were lucky but not “unfair.” When it comes to parenting my boys and making decisions about work and life and love and passion, my unfair advantage is my late mother-in-law, Lois Swanson [you can read about her here.] Unfair perhaps because of the gift she’s been to my life that so many others lack. She’s just passed away this month and as we grieve and regroup as a family it really has dawned on me that she is one incredible, fortuitous and totally unfair advantage in the lottery of my life. Here’s why:

She shows that a life that matters, a long marriage, and a focus on family can create productive, connected and loving children. From the beginning (I first met her the fall of 1999) she helped create a relationship with me that was uncomplicated, unconditional, and always present. At the end of a conversation or at the end of a great afternoon she’d repeatedly spend time on the day itself saying, “Wendy, we sure had a wonderful time, didn’t we?” just before detailing why.

She’s always made me feel parenting my boys gently and lovingly would solve any of the complex problems. Often when in the midst of a quandary I cast myself to her philosophies (“I parent with one guiding principle: love” she always said) and it’s superiorly easier to make decisions. And although distillation of parenting decisions to “just parent with love” seems overly simplistic, it clearly isn’t in my experience. And it’s that focus on love and generosity that makes getting her as my mother-in-law so wondrous. Further, this advantage grows for me because of her example. She spent the majority of her life caring for her children, her community, and maintaining ties with people in her life. Of anything she did steadily and quietly and consistently, it was building up those around her to do good and to love each other well. Celebration of others’ work, accomplishment, and mission was her everything. And for me – it has been, and will remain an entirely unfair advantage as I age. As I said in the intro of my book, I’m one of those people who just desperately loves my in-laws.

Tell me, what’s your parenting unfair advantage – what makes you the unique gift to your children that you are? PLEASE share it with me. Selfishly, as I mourn this great loss, I want to hear from and celebrate you.