Not for Thee — What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received that you wouldn’t give to anyone else? Why don’t you think it would apply to others?
I’ve gotten some really great advice over the years. From professors at college, from people I worked with or for. From a husband or two. From friends. Advice that changed my life, career, and destiny.
I suppose, in theory, it could apply to someone else. But I doubt it because important advice is not pithy or necessarily quotable. It’s specific to an individual. Not aphorisms or “rote” messages. Not the kind of thing you toss around in casual conversation.
I remember the very first piece of life-changing advice. It came from a professor who’d become a friend and mentor. I was a music major, a pianist. Doing pretty well. I aced most of my classes. The only bothersome worry nibbling at my mind was what in the world I could do with this education? My talent as a pianist was limited. To a non-professional, I sounded great. To a professional, not so great. In short, not good enough. In classical music, not good enough is a million miles from good. Either you can compete — or not.
Dr. Deutsch accosted me as I was leaving a practice room one afternoon. “We should talk,” he said. I knew I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. And I knew I should listen.
“You’re good at this. You do well in your courses. Your grade point average is high. Very high. But your heart isn’t in it, not like it needs to be. Music is a hard road. If you aren’t fully committed, you won’t survive. Make a decision to get into it … or get out.”
It was a critical turning point. I was a single credit short of completing the major, but here was time to start a new major without delaying graduation. My choice of music had been based more on loving music than where it might take me professionally. To my surprise, I was more relieved than upset by what he said.
Practical young woman who I was, I selected Comparative Religion for my new major. As we all know, there are so many jobs opportunities in that field. I hedged my bet. I was already involved at the college radio station, so I majored in communications too, though I had no interest in working in radio, television, or theater. I just enjoyed messing around.
By then, it was obvious I would be a writer. I wrote. Always had. Even when I did it with a pencil on lined paper. It was obvious I had talent for words. I had fantasy visions of a Stephen King-like career living in a solitary retreat on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There, alone with my grand piano and a typewriter, great novels would emerge and take the world by storm.
Not exactly the way it all came down. While taking long hours of psychology, philosophy, and history of religion courses, I gained discipline. I had a wonderful, wise, perceptive professor who not only read what I wrote, but could tell the difference between when I’d done the work, and when I was glib and faking it. He was the only professor to ever give me a grade of A+/D on a paper. A+ for style, D for content.
Under his tutelage, I learned research methodology. How to write so others could follow my reasoning. Although I would later be surprised when technical writing became my career, it wasn’t as out-of-the-blue as it seemed. All those papers in college had paved the way.
Could either of these pieces of advice have been given to anyone but me? Would they have made sense to anyone else?
Later, there would be a husband who suggested I stop moaning about the past and move on. Pointing out there was little future in the past, he combined this with keeping my father out of my life to give me a chance to grow up in peace and safety. I will always be grateful.
Sometimes, a relationship lasts exactly as long as it is supposed to. That first marriage let me become an adult, with a husband who supported me, friends who cared. When I was ready to move on, he didn’t stop me. It was a good marriage that ended in divorce.
There was more. A lot more. I wonder, often, if the advice givers knew how much they were influencing me. How much their advice rocked my world, changed the direction of my life and career. Sometimes, a single sentence at the right moment was enough to illuminate the darkness. Perhaps one of my gifts has been knowing when to listen and who to trust.
These days, non-interference is the social gold-standard, but that’s part of the whole “me, me, me” mentality of the 21st century. Thoughtful, intelligent advice is never a bad thing. Whether or not it is appreciated or taken to heart is another issue.
Silence will never offer anything of value — while one important moment of truth can mean everything.
Take a chance. Save a life.