When I was young and trying to learn how to be a man, I had several role models, including Bo and Luke Duke, Pappy Boyington, and Ricardo Montalban. With them, things always worked out. They didn’t get stressed; they didn’t yell, and they knew who they were.
You knew they would give you good advice, no matter what ridiculous situation that you found yourself in. The actual people in my life, however, were not always as wise.
My first brother-in-law, who taught me a great deal about drinking and illicit activities at an age when I should have been learning to drive, once told me with great seriousness, “When you throw your beer cans out the car, pick a lawn that’s been mowed. Then you know someone will pick them up.” At the time this sounded like the Teachings of the Buddha. It was an entire life philosophy, one in which you could practice responsibility simply by seeking out others who would be responsible for you. Brilliant. Since he knew that I wanted to be a writer, he also had some advice about that (although he wasn’t a writer himself): “Writing a novel is easy. Write three short stories and then just put them together.” I found myself more ambivalent about this, unable to decide whether it was brilliant in its simplicity or simple stupid.
I’m also unsure about the advice my father once gave me about job interviews: “Say you can do whatever they’re asking you to do, and then learn like hell to do it before you get fired.” This worked for him, and he learned it from people who came through the Depression. So, sometimes I think it’s admirable, but, since I’ve also been on hiring committees listening to people make such claims, I also know that it usually doesn’t work and, in fact, annoys.
I’m less ambivalent about other advice I’ve received over the years, including
“Walk it off.”
“You don’t need primer. It’s a waste of time.”
“Don’t worry about the helmet.”
“Just leave it like that. No one will notice.”
“Don’t worry about measuring. Just eyeball it.”
“Say Yes to everything.”
Teaching and writing are two fields rife with advice. Much of it dubious. A professor once told me, “Never teach anything you love. The students will just taint it.” I took that moment to heart in that I consider him a role model, the burnt-out teacher that I never want to become.
As I get older, I realize that advice is almost always for the person giving it. We feel righteous and wise, and later we can say, “I told you… why didn’t you…” There is a terrific pleasure in knowing how other people should live; it makes us feel good about ourselves.
Some advice, however, can be useful. When Charles Simic was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, he was asked what advice he'd give to people looking to be happy, and he said, "For starters, learn how to cook." And, Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." I don’t always manage this, particularly the last one, but I try to keep it in mind.