Life Skills

9 Crucial Life Skills An Award-Winning Journalist Is Teaching His Kids

“Learning how to be bad at something is an amazing skill. I'm terrible at so many things and I continue to be terrible at things. It keeps you humble.”

by Doug Schnitzspahn
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Shutterstock, Courtesy of Mike Finkel
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The New York Times bestseller The Art Thief tells the tale of Stéphane Breitwieser, who stole $2 billion worth of art from museums across Europe simply to appreciate it — and make love under it — in an attic room in his mother’s home. Author Michael Finkel spent a decade working on the book, gaining Breitwieser’s confidence and visiting museums he robbed. It’s an engrossing read, an intimate study of a character who sees museums themselves as thieves, and a page-flipping thriller. It’s also in line with Finkel’s two previous books, The Stranger in the Woods and True Story which delve into the minds of criminals convinced of their own righteousness.

Finkel earned his journalistic chops writing award-winning pieces for the likes of The New York Times Magazine (which fired him; read True Story), National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and The Atlantic, and his career began at the now-defunct Skiing magazine where he pioneered the trope of adventure skiing in far-flung locales with wit and compassion.

Beyond his writerly acumen, however, Finkel is a family man. For years, the author lived in Bozeman, Montana, skiing nearby Bridger Bowl and mountain biking the local trails, along with his wife, Jill, and three children Phoebe (17), Beckett (16), and Alix (14). In 2015, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence in France, to give the kids the experience of growing up in a different culture. The family is now back in the U.S. and living in Park City, Utah, where the kids can be found on the slopes as often as possible.

Fatherly spoke to Finkel about the skills he hopes to pass along to his children above all else and what his experiences as an author, world traveler, reporter, skier, and, at times, failure have taught him and how he imparts that wisdom on his kids.

1. The Importance of Being Polite

Politeness gets you far in life — be respectful, look someone in the eye, say thank you. Everything falls from that. I feel like a broken record telling this to my kids. It costs you nothing to be polite, but it moves all the gears of society. It’s neither an indoor skill nor an outdoor skill but a world skill. We lived in France for almost seven years. It’s a more polite society — whenever I walked in one of my kids’ classrooms it sort of freaked me out. All the kids stood up and called me Mr. Finkel, and I was like, what the hell?, but it was respectful. I liked it. Politeness means a lot.”

“Life Skills” is a regular series where dads discuss the lessons and abilities they’re passing down to their kids and why they deem them important for raising well-rounded children.

2. How To Love And Respect The Outdoors

“I love to be outdoors — which is such a generalization — but I don't care if it's skiing, biking, hiking, or just sitting on the back porch. But there's no way to love being outside without wanting to preserve it. I don't necessarily want my children to be environmentalists. I just want them to love being outside, which naturally makes you an environmentalist. And so I am very proud to say that all three of my children have, at least in some form or another, adopted my love of being outside. Sometimes people ask me, why have you never joined a gym? (Actually, I have for five weeks of my 54 years on this planet.) But I would rather bicycle in a snowstorm than ride a stationary bike in the gym. Being outside is therapy/exercise/joy.”

I recommend doing something with your kids that you are also a rookie at. Learn with your children.

3. The Joy of Skiing

“I wanted all three of my kids to learn to love skiing — it fills me with an ineffable joy. But that was no guarantee my kids would love skiing. Oftentimes, children will do the opposite of their parents. But I have the world’s greatest secrets for how to make your children love skiing. Don't worry about turns. Don't worry about anything except for this: On the way to the ski area, I would stop at the Panda gas station and tell my kids to take two candies and put one in each pocket of their ski jackets and they could have those candies on the lift. Yeah, I motivated them with sugar and food — and they all loved it.”

4. To Learn By Doing

“My father grew up in the middle of New York City in the Bronx. The first day that he ever camped out in a tent is the first day in my life that I ever camped out in a tent. We didn’t have the skills. We didn't know how to set up a tent or even light a campfire, but I'll tell you what he did have: enthusiasm, desire, a sense of adventure. And that's more important.

So I recommend doing something with your kids that you are also a rookie at. Learn with your children. When we all moved to France, none of us know how to speak French. And we all learned together. Now, they're better than me at French. And there's something wonderful about having your kids be better at doing something. It changes the dynamic. It gives them a sense of adulthood and yet you retain parental authority.”

5. How To Travel The World With Nothing But A Carry-On

“I can summarize everything that you have to know about travel in two words: carry on. Part of the point of travel is to leave your shit behind. I don't care if you're going for a month. I don't care if you're going in the middle of winter or the middle of summer. Once you've learned to put your life in a tiny carry-on bag, then you've sort of already moved your mindset to travel and I don't care whether you go to Vancouver or the middle of the Central African Republic.”

6. The Art of Conversation

“The art of conversation is something to be preserved, especially post-pandemic and in the age of screens. We practice the art of conversation every night at dinner. Just talking to someone in person in the same room without looking at your phone is important. You can have bad conversations; we all know them — boring conversations, people who just speak about themselves and don't engage with the other person. In a good conversation, you should ask more questions; you should be interested in the person who’s at the table. If you aren't, then I've failed as a parent, because there's not a single human being I haven't met on this planet who couldn’t impart some knowledge to me, whether it's how to fix my car or theoretical physics.”

Learning how to be bad at something is an amazing skill. I'm terrible at so many things and I continue to be terrible at things. It keeps you humble.

7. The Importance of Being a Generalist

“The push towards specialization for children is terrible. My 14-year-old daughter wants to play tennis. Suddenly, the tennis team is five days a week of practice, two hours a day. What? I think children should all be generalists. If they like to paint, rather than make them paint every day, they should also try sculpting, ceramics. They should try singing. They should play music. They should play a little tennis. They should play a little soccer. They should play lots of things. They should be bad at some things. We should try and raise generalists and keep them as generalists as long as possible. I’ll never ask a 14-year-old ‘what are you going to major in?’ or 'what do you wanna be when you grow up?’ Because if you can answer that question at the age of 14, I'm a little worried.”

8. How To Be Bad At Things

“​​Learning how to be bad at something is an amazing skill. I'm terrible at so many things and I continue to be terrible at things. It keeps you humble. Never stop being bad at things. The world is filled with things to do. Don't just stick with the four things that you know how to do well.”

9. How To Fail Gracefully

“This will make you such a good person because if you follow the rest of my advice, you're going to fail a lot. And, oh boy, it's so easy to be, a good sport when you win. But be a good sport when you lose, whether that's in sports, intellectual competition, politics, whatever. You're going to learn that a lot of life is all about losing. Learn to embrace that. Learn how to learn to fail well.”

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