The Best Advice Ever

I read a really interesting blog post by Neil Gaiman today, in which he shares the best advice he ever received from another author. Actually he reveals two bits of advice, one to do with shaving and one that is non-shaving related.

Both of the bits of advice were incredibly useful and important. The one about speaking quietly in order to get people’s attention, in particular, is one of the most useful things I have learned in my time walking the planet. And it is terribly counter-intuitive (particularly for me, in that I am naturally loud and have a tendency to get louder in bars).

That led me to wonder, what were the best bits of advice I have ever received? This is a very interesting question, in that it requires you to unpack the most useful things you know, why you have come to know them, and who told them to you in the first place. A lot of the things that I know I like to think I came up with on my own, of course. This is, sadly, an unpleasant combination of ego and hubris, but denying it would be rather pointless.

In time, I have learned some humility, and to recognize that much of what is in my head is there because I learned it from someone else. Given that a lot of that is by osmosis, however, it doesn’t necessarily count as advice. The same is true for learning by reading; while you find a lot about the world that way, what you take on board is a product of selection and adoption. Advice is different. Advice is provided by someone else.

Not everything that comes from someone else is advice, of course. Sometimes people simply like to tell other people what to do, or what not to do. This may come from a sense of superiority, whether justified or not, which itself is typically just their ego talking. Often as not this is actually the result of them reacting negatively to something that we have done (or not done). More importantly, however, it is also often ’projecting’: finding most annoying in us those qualities that they like least about themselves. This is not ’advice’, per se; it is self help disguised as being a helpful self.

Advice is a choice, in that someone had to single you out as worthy of receiving their advice, and you had to decide they were worthy of offering advice before you would accept it. It therefore lives in a rarefied part of our psyches, where we have accumulated the collective gems we have been offered, rather than the cumulative abuses to which we have been subjected.

So what, in my experience, is the best advice I have ever received? There are a surprisingly few things that surpass the threshold of ’best,’ I have to say. Considering which offerings met the hurdle also took some time. Apart from the aforementioned lowering of one’s voice (although I admittedly struggle to apply it), I would offer the following:

  • learn to cook (likely originally suggested by my mother, and taken to heart at university, where both survival and the prospect of female companionship made it altogether more essential).
  • while you live in Bermuda, learn to play golf (from my father, and one of two pieces of advice from him that I actually regret ignoring).
  • do what you love, and stop doing it if you stop loving it (also from my father, and the only other bit of advice from him that I regret ignoring).
  • if you are trying to figure out how to write something and you’re struggling with the words, explain it out loud (even if it is only to yourself). Then write down what you said (from a university professor; I don’t remember which one, but the advice stuck).
  • put what you want from life out into the universe. Tell people, often, and without expectation. What you want will find you (from a very good friend).

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