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.


Erik

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

Jewish in New York.

"Don't invest with Madoff.

His time is over."

Pat McGee

"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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Gary

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.

Dan in NJ

Don't participate 401K.

Calum Cashley

Never buy an umbrella if your shoes are letting in.

Glenn Mercer

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!

erica

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.

Louise Williams

The best advice I have heard was at a wedding I attended, long ago:

Someone asked a man celebrating his golden wedding anniversary, "What is the secret to the success of your marriage?"

"Every morning I look in the mirror," he replied, "and I say to the reflection, 'You're no bargain.'"

Ben

You'll fall in love with multiple women in your life, it's inexplicable why these particular women. But love does not mean compatibility. If there's something that bothers you about a girl, it will be magnified 10 or 100 times once you're married and living together.

Caitlyn

I did some work as a virtual assistant to an online friend. The work was interesting at first (while we were building the website) but then it got more boring. I also noticed that my boss was increasingly unreliable - she never remembered issues I told her about, she made odd decisions, I was routinely writing emails so that the option I thought was correct was first, knowing that she always picked the first one. I was complaining about all this to my mother, and she looked at me and said "you know, it is not good for you to be working for someone less intelligent than you are."

I quit a week later, and am so much happier. I don't know if it's true for everyone, but it's true for me: it is not good for me to have to answer to someone less intelligent than I am.

AaronS

It is probably one of the statements that my father (a retired minister) is best known for, and I have used it a number of times to conduct my life, choose directions, develop (or retreat from) relationships, etc.

"Follow Your Peace."

Very simply, my father taught that if we will but listen to the voice within us, not seeking to argue with it or what have you, we will make the right decisions.

For instance, if I go to buy a new car but for some reason just don't feel "right" about it, I don't do it.

If I meet someone that, from all appearances, is a fine person, but I don't feel "right" about it, I keep that person at arm's length (I may be polite, but that's as far as the relationship goes).

I happen to believe that God has put a little something in us--the secularists might call it some sort of evolutionary instinct--that keeps us from making major mistakes.

"Following your peace" doesn't mean that you always know the right way to go. Sometimes you don't. But usually, if you pay attention, the alarm (sometimes just a "still, small voice") will let you know when NOT to do something. On on occasion (such as when I bought my house over 10 years ago), it will just let you know that this is the place to be.

I suppose Joseph Campbell came close to this when he advised to "Follow Your Bliss." But I think this goes further than one's life passion. "Following your peace" doesn't just tell you where to go, but it can tell you where NOT to go.

In any case, it's worked for me and many others for many years.

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Ian Kemmish

Not one, but two.

The deputy headmaster at my school had a sign on his wall: "Fred, if you must make a mistake, at least let it be a new one."

Then I grew up, and once met a UK investor who said that he had never sought venture capital for any of his own companies: "Your business idea will either make money or lose money. Whichever it is, it's best to know by the end of the first month."

Obeide

If you don't work like a lumberjack, don't eat like a lumberjack.

rao

" life is fair"

Mike

Don't remember the best advice I've received - which might say something - but the most memorable advice came from a track coach - "You can always make up school work but if you miss a day of practice, its gone".

Bing Z

The best advice I ever received was from my grandfather when I was about 12 years old. He said, "son I don't care what job you do in life, just be the boss".

KC Moore

Invest in your mind, no on can take it away from you.
and
The only real privacy is inside your own head.

brother of bankrupted commerical real estate broker

The best advice we get: Don't invest in real estate except your own home.

jim

Take calculus. The lessons in calculus will serve you well no matter what you do in life.