What’s the Best Advice You Ever Got?

It’s that time of year: graduation. Celebrities, dignitaries, and the occasional wild card are ushered forth to send graduates into the future with courage, confidence, conviction (blah blah, blah blah, blah blah) ….

And then there’s a woman we’ll call only S., for her mission is a secret one. Her son, N., is about to be graduated from high school, and S. is putting together an “album of advice” for him. She’s been writing to all sorts of people (including us) and asking: “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve ever been given?” As she writes further: “My mom did this for me when I graduated high school, and I wanted to carry on the tradition for my children. It was the most memorable gift I’ve ever received.”

How could anyone possibly turn down this request? My first inclination was to tell N. that the best advice I could give him was to have a mother who cared enough about her kids to solicit advice from strangers.

Anyway, here’s what I sent him; I can’t say it’s all that interesting, or even such great advice, but this is what came to mind:

Dear N.,

I once received a piece of advice when I was about 14 that wasn’t even meant to be advice, but has stayed with me for my entire life.

I was out fishing on a small lake in a little motorboat with a man named Bernie Duszkiewicz. He was the local barber (well, one of two — but you get the idea: it was a very small town). My father had died when I was 10, and there were a few nice men around town who went out of their way to take me on little adventures. Most of these adventures involved fishing. I didn’t really like fishing all that much but I think my mom thought I did, and I was too timid or obedient to ever object.

We were out on the lake, fishing for bass I suppose, going from one theoretically good spot to the next and catching absolutely nothing. Then it started to rain. Mr. Duszkiewicz drove the boat over toward the shore and anchored us under some low-hanging trees so we wouldn’t get drenched. We started casting from there — and lo and behold, I finally caught a fish. It couldn’t have been more than 6 inches long, a sunfish or rock bass, but at least it was a fish. And then I caught another, and another. They were too small to keep but it was fun catching them.

Then the sun came out, and Mr. Duszkiewicz pulled up the anchor. I was a very shy kid and it took everything I had to speak up: “Where are we going? This is a great spot!”

“Ah, we don’t want to keep catching these little ones,” he said. “They’re not worth the time. Let’s go catch a real fish.”

To be honest, my feelings were a little bit hurt — the fish I was catching were real fish, and a lot more fun than catching nothing at all. And we had the same bad luck when we got back out to the deeper spots in the lake: no fish at all.

But the lesson stuck with me. Even though we returned home empty-handed, we went for the big fish. In the short run, this kind of thinking might not be as much fun. But it’s the long run you should be thinking about — the big goals, the ones that require a lot of failure along the way. They might be worth it (of course, they might not be, too). It’s a lesson in opportunity cost: if you spend all your time catching the little fish, you won’t have time — or develop the technique, or the patience — to ever catch the big ones.

Wishing you the very best,

SJD

Well, that’s my fish story. The funny thing is that, as memorable as that advice was, I constantly fail to follow it all the time — and yet just think how much worse off I’d be if it weren’t at least haunting me, like a second conscience.

What I really want is to hear your story: what’s the best advice you ever got?

Thanks, and congratulations to N.

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  1. Erik says:

    The best advice I ever got came from an old boss: Never be a little bit stupid.

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  2. Jewish in New York. says:

    “Don’t invest with Madoff.

    His time is over.”

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  3. Pat McGee says:

    “It’s always nice to be asked.”

    I think I got this from James A. Farley’s autobiography, which I fond fascinating. (Farley was FDR’s campaign manager, for which he was rewarded with the office of Postmaster General.)

    Jim was running for some small office in his small home town, maybe town clerk. He ran into a neighbor lady, for whom he had done lots of yard work, etc. while growing up. She said she had voted for him, even though he hadn’t asked for her vote. He said that he had assumed she would. She said, “Young man, it’s always nice to be asked.”

    I think this advice was something that helped launch his political career in the big leagues. And I’ve tried hard to do it since then, especially as a supervisor. While I might assume that the people reporting to me would do certain things without asking, I noticed after a while that they did them more quickly and more cheerfully if I asked.

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  4. Gary says:

    In school we were always given an emergency contact card that had to be filled out by our parents. My brother told me to “forge” this card. I asked him why?

    “For the entire year, if you get in trouble and Mom has to sign something. They will compare her signature to the emergency contact card and if you forge that now it will be insurance in case you get in trouble later.”

    I didn’t take his advice and of coure regretted it when I was in trouble. But I now work in the insurancy industry so maybe I did learn something.

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  5. Dan in NJ says:

    Don’t participate 401K.

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  6. Calum Cashley says:

    Never buy an umbrella if your shoes are letting in.

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  7. Glenn Mercer says:

    Best advice ever? From fictional character Dwight Schrute. I think of this as the Golden Rule of advice: it works in almost every conceivable situation. It is the Idiot Test, which works as follows:

    “Whenever I am about to do something, I stop and ask myself: ‘Would an idiot do this?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ I don’t do it.”

    I only wish I had heard this earlier in life!

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  8. erica says:

    My father always told me to greet everyone where you work, from the highest boss to the lowest worker. Treat everyone with the same respect because they all have a job to do, even those that do a job, you would never want to do.

    I worked in a large architecture firm in Chicago, and then for a large law firm and then for a book, magazine, newspaper, and video distributor. At that last job, this policy of respecting everyone from the fork lift driver to the owner of the company served me well. I often saw front office personnel treat the warehouse floor workers like they were worthless. Not surprising, my packages got delivered to my desk and never lost in the warehouse for weeks.

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