A Letter to my Grandchildren–Part 1

Pursuing a Life of Meaning

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by Lou Darnell

Editor’s Note: This letter (the first of a two part series) was written by my friend, Lou Darnell. He founded an IT company called Comtel in Honolulu and later joined ranks with Vistage, a worldwide executive coaching company. Tall, with an understated but commanding presence, Lou has been a fixture in our community for many years.


I met him at a local business event a few decades ago and spoke to him recently after a long hiatus. Unbeknownst to me, he was in hospice care. Still sharp and articulate as ever, we spoke at length. He mentioned that he had written a letter to his grandchildren in an effort to pass on the legacy of his life lessons. I was moved by this letter and thought it deserved a larger audience. I worked with him to modify the piece.

In his own words, Lou’s introduction goes like this:

I was born in Italy during WWII, out of wedlock, and adopted by an American soldier, most of my childhood was traveling with him to places like Berlin, Okinawa and California. I was drafted in the U.S. Army during Vietnam War. I served in the military for over 27 years, posted in Germany, Japan, Korea and at least eight states.

I raised three children and after 53 years am still happily married to their mother.

My skills include understanding people and gaining their trust; planning at operational and strategic levels; managing complexity and uncertainty and coaching through life’s challenges. My passions include achieving goals; being a good husband and father; helping others be who they want to be and maintaining strong mental and physical fitness. I am an illuminator for people to see with renewed energy and determination.

The purpose of my letter is to describe principles that have served me well in achieving a life of meaning.  You will be challenged many times by events you can’t foresee or imagine.  When those tough events happen, thoroughly understand the facts; develop alternative courses of action and devise a plan most consistent with your values and beliefs.  Keep your goals and priorities in mind and don’t give up. You may often not be confident but believe in yourself. Knowing yourself and your situation and available resources is key.

The Letter

(From left) Linda Giles, Matthew Darnell, Louis Jr, Dolei (Peni) Darnell

Upon High School Graduation

High school graduation is an important milestone in your life’s journey.  Applying the following ideas will result in a life of meaning—if you’re lucky.

Why luck? You have to recognize the opportunities when and if they come your way. Then you must seize them.

To date, many of your decisions have been guided by your parents for good reasons.  Soon, your freedom to choose will test your values, purpose and self-discipline. Regardless of temptations, living a life that honors your purpose and values will enable success, fulfilment and a positive self-image.

Only you know if you have any self-doubt masked by your confident and positive presence.  I clearly remember my unfounded confidence at your age.  I was happy, strong, optimistic, and excited about the future.  I had little appreciation of the challenges I would face over the next 40 years.

After my high school graduation, I remember an old family friend giving me some unsolicited advice.  I acted interested but didn’t feel I needed his outdated advice.  I was strong, happy and could do anything.  I just wanted to fly from the nest with no particular objective in mind. My guess is you are in a similar frame of mind.

I remember!  I also want you to have the benefit of the important things I have learned in my life.  My hope is you avoid my mistakes and take advantage of my beliefs and methods.  I know much of what I write won’t resonate because experience is often a precursor for understanding new ways of thinking.

After leaving college and joining the Army, I quickly realized my athletic and social skills didn’t make up for my shortage of professional skills.  Skills like writing, speaking and leadership.  I studied my competitors who were outperforming me. I realized they had the advantage of strong families who mentored and supported them, and that they had successfully completed college. 

Their success didn’t come because they were athletic, popular or nice.  Those traits are strong assets, but success doesn’t necessarily accompany them.  Your success will always be based on how well you perform on the job in comparison to your peers.  Your job performance will be dependent on your attitude, knowledge, skills when under pressure.  Getting good college grades will be a good predictor of your readiness to compete successfully in the workplace.

Captain Darnell in Vietnam, 1968

Taking the Next Steps

In the competitive race for professional success, I have seen three types of “pre-race” situations. Which do you want to adopt?

  1. Successful college graduates are usually the fast starters.  In college, they managed their time; earned high grades through study and developed their communication skills.

Those with strong potential but underperformed in their class work.  These people usually practiced the same habits on the job and went on to have average careers.  I fell into this category but was lucky to have a great mentor who lit a fire in me.  Without his encouragement and belief in me, I could have easily ended up with a blue-collar career.

What race position do you want to be in upon graduation from college?  This is a decision only you can make, and you should make it now because, as you know, it is hard to catch up.

Journey into Self

I have presented the following principles and skills but as the saying goes, “talk is cheap”. These need to be understood and applied to have any impact. Please read them carefully.  You have defined your purpose, which will prove to be a valuable decision-making guide but remember, purpose can change with time. Redefining purpose and gaining more knowledge and honing skills will be a lifelong pursuit.  The journey into self is the longest of all.

Developing yourself in each area listed below will provide a foundation for living a satisfying life filled with meaning. 

  1. Character – traits, qualities, values you honor by your behavior and actions.
  2. Physical health – eat healthy and stay strong.
  3. Cognitive – conscious intellectual activities such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering.
  4. Knowledge – what is learned and understood.
  5. Skills – the how, why and when to apply knowledge.
  6. Intrapersonal – you talk to yourself more than anyone else. What do your “voices” tell you?
  7. Interpersonal – your quality of life is largely dependent on the quality of your personal relationships. Leadership is a major aspect of this domain.
  8. Mindset – mental attitude or inclination. For example, learn and practice Emotional and Positive Intelligence concepts.
  9. Leadership – This is an art with an infinite set of variables that requires understanding people well enough to be persuasive.
  10. Listen to understand, not to just respond.
One of Lou’s duties in Vietnam was to work in Civil Affairs–dealing directly with the Vietnamese civilians. It was a position he very much enjoyed and felt was an important contribution. He’s pictured here with a priest.

You have considerable influence over all the above. 

Continue developing your character, cognitive abilities and your mindset and mastering your self-limiting beliefs.  New skills and attitudes always feel awkward and artificial.  Don’t let those feelings stop you.  If you are comfortable, you aren’t growing. 

Thinking Independently

Your transition to college reminds me of my transitions from elementary school to college.

a. In my first days of school, I was excited but worried about whether the others would accept me since I was an immigrant. That insecurity and need for acceptance followed me for most of my life. I was determined to learn English, so I taught myself how to read with comic books. How I did it, I have no idea, but the point here is if you want something, do your best to get it despite obstacles. Few things in your life will be impossible even though they may appear so. Know what you want and take the first step and the next, and the next….

b. In my first day of seventh grade, I kept waiting for recess and was shocked when I learned we didn’t do recess anymore. I had to accept realities and adjust my expectations.

c. High School required changes like walking all over campus to get to my next class. I was introduced to challenging team sports requiring strength, discipline, and teamwork. I became part of a team and not just an individual.

d. In college, kids were as smart or in many cases, smarter than me. For the first time, I doubted my ability to compete. what it took academically. I wondered if I was good enough. Also, for the first time, I became solely responsible for learning. It was not the teacher’s job to emphasize what they wanted me to learn. I had to find the discipline to study and learn. With that responsibility came the freedom to consider and evaluate new ideas. Unfortunately, the freedom to manage my time failed me as I struggled to maintain minimum academic requirements.

e. After leaving WSU and getting married, I was drafted into the Army due to the Vietnam War. After a couple of years, I was lucky my superiors saw potential in me and had a minimum of two years of college credits. After applying, the Army paid for me to return to college to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Without much effort, I achieved a 3.95 GPA and wondered why college was so hard the first time. I wasn’t smarter but I was wiser.

f. The difference was I knew why college was important and I was motivated to excel. I paid attention in lectures; established relationships with professors and teaching assistants; learned the professor’s reputation before registering for a course and figured out what a professor wanted me to write on an exam.

g. In addition to learning theory and concepts in college, good grades indicate your ability to learn how to take advantage of the “system.” I don’t mean to cheat but to understand what you need to do for good grades and then to execute. Your future superiors will look for the same skills and dedication in your work.

Loui was born in Italy, March 5, 1944

Rules for College

  1. Your college success will be largely dependent on your ability to prioritize and balance your time.  Always remember the more you demonstrate having been a good student, the more post college options will be offered.     
  2. Expand your world of knowledge and beliefs; never forget what your parents and Boy Scouts have instilled in you; have fun and stay physically fit.  Remember there is a “ditch on both sides of the road.”  You can go too far in either direction.  Determine the optimum balance of study and fun.
  3. Designate recurring times for study.
  4. Find places where you can concentrate on reading assignments without distractions.
  5. Getting good grades is a measure of your discipline, aptitude and ability to learn professors’ teaching objectives. 
  6. Exercise your ability to think critically and articulate your thoughts during philosophical “talk story” sessions.
  7. Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  8. Manage your course selections to satisfy degree requirements within four years. Don’t rely totally on your counselor’s guidance.  Be sure you understand graduation requirements.  Even if a class is full, see the professor and ask for an exception to admit you to the course.  Know what you want/need and use your thinking and communication skills to make things happen!
  9. Listen to Understand and Not to Respond.
  10. Take advantage of professors’ and teaching assistants’ office hours. See them early in a course and ask what their teaching objectives are and what they would like you to get out of their course.  Before going, read the course syllabus and relevant handout material to be best prepared for the discussion.  Few students will go to their professors but don’t follow their lead.  On your first job, do you want to be seen as average or do you want to stand out from the crowd?  Professors are there for you and they will love having an interested student.  Don’t hold back.  This is a good practice for later in life as well.
  11. Have fun but have courage to not follow the “herd” when you know doing so would be wrong.
  12. Be assertive in seeking what you want and need in college and life. Note the difference between being assertive and aggressive. I want to encourage you to be assertive. Being assertive can be defined as working to achieve something in all parties’ best interest. You need to know what you want and know how to ask for it firmly and politely. Being aggressive, on the other hand, can lead to a “winner and loser” scenario. Think of someone being aggressive when they pursue something only in their best interest.

a. You have a sensitive and caring nature which makes it hard to risk offending someone. During your college and work years, no one is going to approach you to ask what you want. You will continue competing with your fellow students and peers for the rest of your life. For example, you could have been more assertive in getting your high school to validate to Microsoft that you were a student or getting a teacher to write an Eagle Scout recommendation.

b. Your goals for going to college is not only to please those you love. You will be building the second major, educational foundation for the rest of your life.

c. Skills that will set you apart when applying for a job after graduation include:
i. Communication in all forms – writing, speaking and listening.
ii. Analytic – understanding the challenge or problem
iii. Planning and scheduling
iv. Interpersonal skills that include leadership

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series


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