Graduation Season: The Best Advice I Ever Got

Recently I read an excerpt from Katie Couric’s book,“The Best Advice I Ever Got.” It’s an collection of contemporary (20th-21st century) famous people sharing tips they received from mentors and heroes.

What some people shared was not specific advice, but stories that stuck with him or her, and shaped who he or she became. All the stories and advice in the book are interspersed with author/collector Katie Couric’s own anecdotes.

The excerpt I am recalling is by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell says he was a big baseball fan from early childhood. He passionately followed the Expos though they weren’t a stellar team. His favorite sportswriter regularly covering the Expos was Bob Elliott.

Gladwell recalls vividly in 1984 when the Montreal Expos sold one of their founding members, Gary Carter. He was their best player, what were they thinking? How could they? Gladwell says this event instilled in him that they sold their greatest asset and this was a huge mistake; if a person gives up on their own greatest asset, they are missing out and possibly doomed to failure or worse, mediocrity.

Gladwell shares that his father urged him to not pursue journalism as a career, which is ironic given his success in that field. Gladwell credits his mother for his desire to be a writer. Perhaps, Gladwell feels if he had not pursued journalism and writing, he would have made a big mistake, failing to make the most of a potentially big asset.

Fast forward 30+ years: Bob Elliott is in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for his prolific career in sports journalism. Gladwell is a famous journalist, and author of multiple bestselling books. He’s become a thought leader of his time: when Gladwell observes something, people listen, and links to his articles tend to go viral on social media. The Expos aren’t a team you hear about much today. That’s because they were moved to Washington, DC in 2004, and renamed the Nationals.

Gary Carter had a remarkable career in baseball before dying from brain cancer in 2012. Back in 1984, it would have been easy for Carter to feel rejected and just quit playing his best when his team sold him to the Mets. Carter’s career actually just kept right on swinging (pardon the pun), and soared to amazing heights.  His new teammates included Strawberry, Hernandez, and Gooden. The link (see Carter’s name) goes to an ESPN story about his life and career. Here’s another one at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Even if you don’t follow baseball, Carter is an inspiring, perseverant person to read about.

“The Best Advice I Ever Got” was published several years ago. Now that it’s 2015, it may be at your local library, downloadable to a digital reader, or on the front shelves at a big chain bookstore. It could be all of the above.

Printed books get a  mere flickering moment on chain bookstore shelves before they are moved to make way for the next batch of potential bestsellers. Just because this is the nature of the business,  though, it  doesn’t mean some books’ were only relevant for two weeks.

People of all ages and generations ask, “what am I doing with my life?” and that’s when books like“The Best Advice I Ever Got” are a thought-provoking reference and a consolation that no one is alone, no matter what age he/she is when asking these questions.

Have you ever wondered why Black Friday is “Black”?

Every year, the day after Thanksgiving is “Black Friday” in the US. Have you ever wondered why Black Friday is black? Black is a color of many meanings, after all. So just which one applies here?

Black Friday is so named because it’s the day that many stores can finally “catch up” financially. In accounting, operating “in the red”* means operating at a loss, and operating “in the black” means operating in balance, or solvent. When a store is “in the black”, its debts are repayable. Hopefully, there’s even a profit being made.

TRIVIA SIDEBAR: When the Avengers’ Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) says she “has a lot of red in her ledger” she’s also using an accounting metaphor. She saying that she used to be evil and did lots of bad things. As an Avenger, she’s trying to change that. She’s got a lot of catching up to do to make up for all the evil she’s done in her past. She’s trying to balance her karma and it could take the rest of her life to do it.

Back to Black Friday… It seems like the sales keep starting earlier and earlier in the day, some even start Thanksgiving night. Some diehard shoppers camp out overnight at electronics or suburban department stores to be first in line at the store’s opening to get the best deals. A worker at Walmart was even trampled to death on Black Friday in 2008. In recent years, cartoons and young family movies have started to debut at the cinema on Thanksgiving Day, too.

Black Friday is a 20th century development in the US. It has its origins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. The parade winds its way around blocks of New York City from 9am-12noon on Thanksgiving morning. The point of the parade was to be a dazzling spectacle, entertaining people first, then leading them straight to Macy’s to start their Christmas shopping. The parade ends with someone dressed as Santa in his sleigh.

Over the years, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has gotten bigger and bigger, and promotion for more than Macy’s has become part of the show.

  • Broadway features a handful of musical numbers to promote its newest shows before the parade, usually kid-friendly songs.
  • NBC promotes its shows via actors stopping to say “hi!” to the parade’s anchors; other networks do the same thing.
  • The parade anchors are hosts of a network’s daily morning news or other personalities
  • The balloons and floats in the parade feature popular children’s cartoon or gaming characters.
  • Sometimes the floats feature singers, most of them cater to the 15 (and under) age group, but some appeal to the parents and grandparents in the crowd as well. For instance, I recall (the late) Andy Williams being a part of the parade for several years when I was younger, now James Taylor and 1970s-1980s artists fit that bill. Typically all the artists performing at the Macy’s parade have an album out, or coming out very soon. Watching the parade on television was a Thanksgiving tradition in our house.
  • On a less commercial note, high school bands and cheerleading troupes from all over the US are also a part of the parade. It’s a once in a lifetime trip that is surely exciting for all involved.

With the arrival of online shopping, Cyber Monday arrived around 2005. It’s the Monday following Thanksgiving, and stores like Amazon offer amazing deals. Shoppers stay at home and shop from their screen. The crowds and the traffic are virtual. No trampling stampedes or wrestling over Cabbage Patch dolls here.

Whatever you do Black Friday, stay safe. Remember focused (silent, facedown phone) time with the most important people in your life is the best gift of all. It can’t be bought, it’s given, and it’s not forgotten.

Excerpt from Real Life: The 20 Year High School Reunion

The first week of June, twenty years ago, I graduated from high school. And spoiler alert, I am not going to a reunion this year.

I attended the same school system in the same town from kindergarten through 12th grade. I think that was long enough.

I was a long-haired brunette and the younger sister of another long-haired brunette. [Why the long hair? Our dad is a total Hispanophile, having fallen in love with Rota, Spain during his Navy years.]

If I was well-known, it was by default. I never felt “popular.”

For someone who lived in the same house and the same town all that time, I felt alien in a lot of ways. We were a Navy family, not a storied last name in these parts. Our last name (my maiden name) was German, but not pronounced ethnically; we had to spell it on a daily basis. We were Catholic. We all had dark hair. In the South, blonde and blue-eyed has been the beauty ideal for a long time.

My circle of friends was the ‘nerd herd’, a circle of mostly girls and one guy who would graduate in the top ten. Most of them were in gifted programs (the ones that let you skip class for another activity several days a week), but I was not. All in all, they were a good circle to be in, even if sometimes I wondered if I belonged in their company. This circle was my date to prom for two years in a row. Somehow, even with my lackluster math scores, I managed to graduate at #9.

I am in touch with a couple of these friends on Facebook. One, my best friend, I’ve been in touch with the most. In the last twenty years, it has become apparent friends like that don’t come along very often. I was fortunate they came along twice: once with her, once with my husband.

This year, the reunion is being planned by former cheerleaders and their ensemble. Predictably, they’re choosing the activity, they’re setting a date, and they’re lobbying their circle to hunt down the outer limits of the class of 1994 on Facebook. It’s $65 a head to hang out with people I had no choice about hanging out with for the bulk of my young life. People who think they know me, people who probably think they knew me.

I think I’ve seen this movie and the ending is predictable. I will regret going, and regret feeling upbeat in anticipation. No thanks. And thanks to social media, there isn’t too much about my life people couldn’t figure out from a Google search.

I won’t say it was all bad, but school was a lot of other people telling me what to do and what I was capable of. Some of my strengths, but mostly my weaknesses. Early on, I scored high on reading tests, but because I thought through my answers before speaking, I was labeled slow. It took parental intervention to put me in an appropriate class. The word “introvert” was unheard of.

I was a daydreamer prone to petite mal seizures. I was bad at math. I was not athletic. I would take walks and listen to my headphones. I spent most evenings in my room drawing, reading, or listening to the radio. I was avoiding a grumpy parent who I was nothing like personality-wise or interests-wise, and that wasn’t okay. I lived with a lot of daily anxiety because I thought every stranger saw me as this parent did and it had me shaking in my boots. I didn’t have my own car. If I had, I might have left for good.

School is full of judgement. The clothes you wear tell everyone about how much your parents make. As your teen years arrive, you can add your acne to how you are being judged. Some teachers played favorites while being pretty cold to other students. If you were a younger sibling, you learned your teacher’s relationship with your older sibling mattered a whole lot in how you were treated (you know, because you weren’t being compared enough at home.) Some Christian teachers were nicer to the souls they felt were”saved” versus those who are not. Some students or teachers with a unique religion encountered repeated scandal and controversy from parents and faculty even though they were perfectly fine people. And probably needless to say, gay kids couldn’t comfortably ‘come out’ in a small Southern town. Even if it’s something didn’t happen to me directly, seeing it happen to other kids didn’t feel good. These were all unfortunate life lessons about the petty, shallow side of human behavior. Are any of these things worth reliving, or celebrating? In my mind, they are not.

When you run into people from your past, you get reacquainted with who you used to be, whether you want to or not. It’s not always a bad thing. But I think the question is, do you want to feel like that person again, yes or no?

‘No? Then don’t look back.

PS: Have a good life, class of 1994.

If you liked this post, you might like” Graduation, or Findings.”

Graduation, or Findings

You don’t have to go to college to find graduation speeches inspiring.

You also don’t have to be 18-25 to get something out of them. Thankfully in the digital age you can watch them on Youtube over and over.

Sometimes they’re so awesome and well-received they get printed into books, like Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts 2012 commencement. Or they are audio-recorded and played on pop radio two years later, like Mary Schmich’s “Advice Like Youth Is Wasted On the Young” from 1997, which became the hit single “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” in 1999.

Other times, context is everything. I think Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth speech in 2011 was epic for two reasons. One, he’s amazing at what he does, but two, his life’s biggest dream up until that point (The Tonight Show) ended far too soon. It all played out on a very public stage, and he lived to tell the tale. How O’Brien handled it is what it means to not to wait for the storm to pass, but instead, dance in the rain. And everyone of us can expect rain.

Allow me to also point out that you don’t have to be a millionaire or celebrity to try to give counsel to younger people or other people. It’s not an issue of being so wise and wonderful, you ooze brilliance like Texas tea, and never make any mistakes.

Actually, there’s a good chance that if you have any advice to give at all, it’s because the opposite is true–you have experienced failure. You didn’t get what you wanted, or you got what you wanted, and it didn’t last.

You have made the mistakes, you learned, and it’s possible those failures still sting a little upon reflection. It’s not much stinging, just enough so you don’t forget.

So here’s some nuggets from my 30-something life, which is still very much a work in progress. I don’t see it as advice so much as reporting findings, and you can do with them as you like.

  • Stay in touch with your old friends, but try to make new ones all along the way.
  • Respect that the old friends will change, and you will too. The movies would have you believe the people you spent the first 18-25 years with are the same ones you will spend the next 20, 30, 40 years with. This is likely not going to happen. It’s a convenient plot device, saves cash on casting, and viewers can only follow or care about a finite set of characters.
  • If you admire individuals, let them know. Write them a letter. Watch for typos–you will look illiterate, and that’s not the point of the letter. I am not a celebrity, but I think a letter is better than the in-person “scream/gush and ask for a selfie” routine.
  • There is a balance to consumption and creation. Depression usually results from overconsumption, and a lack of creation to balance it out. This isn’t just eating and then failing to burn all those calories. I think it also applies to watching television, scanning the internet, etc. There’s energy there, and it needs to keep moving.
  • Don’t live to work, work to live. Rest and time off are essential to delivering 100%; without them you’re delivering 90%, 80%, 70%, 60%, 50% with each day. All the Red Bull and protein shakes in the world can’t change that (sorry Red Bull and protein shakes.)
  • If you’re an employee, don’t hide in your office or cube and expect to get noticed for working hard, or being the good little worker just like you were a good little student. Be visible, talk to your superiors at least once a week–even if it’s terrifying, tedious, or seems like highly conspicuous slacking off. People who aren’t seen, aren’t remembered, and those who aren’t remembered are easily forgotten and dismissed.
  • Don’t expect to make lots of lasting friends at jobs. If you do, good for you, but it hasn’t been my experience.  Once you leave that job, it’s often a case of “out of sight, out of mind” for both parties.
  • You will probably fall in love, or think you’ve found the ONE multiple times before you really have. As sweet as the idea of committing to your first love sounds, it’s tragic to think you could outgrow the other person because you both still had so much changing and finding yourselves to do between the ages 15-30. We live so much longer than our great grandparents did. At least if you commit later in life, you’ve found someone who knows themselves better, understands life better, and is more confident about adapting to change and disappointment than say, an American 15-year-old suburbanite is capable of.
  • If you are an employee, expect to change jobs a lot. If you work for yourself, expect every social encounter to be somewhat of a marketing opportunity. This has been hard for me, because who wants a used car salesman stereotype for a friend? It goes against my nature to boast. But it is worthwhile to tell people what you do, find out what other people do, and offer to be of help. No evangelizing, no pressure. Just sharing to be memorable and be of help later.
  • If you feel life has lost its meaning, the solution is not ending it. It’s finding new people, experiences, and ways to be useful to new sets of people. Adopt a shelter cat or dog if you don’t already have one. Volunteer to help at an athletic event or if you’re physically up to it, participate in an athletic benefit event. Volunteer to help rebuild a community after a natural disaster. Take a class in a subject out of character for you. Take CPR/CCR classes. Get training in emergency preparedness. Volunteer with an animal shelter or another cause that means a lot to you. Get involved in community theater. Teach English in your community. Help people with their reading, secondary language, or math literacy. Get involved in voter registration. Work for a political candidate or other positive social activist “change-maker” that you really admire.
  • Make a list of things you must do in life, for you. Start working on them immediately. There’s no sense in saving them for retirement. The 20th century idea of retirement doesn’t exist for the 50 and under crowd. For the 50 and over crowd, if they have the income to retire from a lifelong career, they’re not done with life’s obligations, they have other goals.
  • Pick up a copy of the Book of Me and answer the questions.
  • Travel. Whether it’s your own country (ours is enviably big, and it’s worth seeing up close) or a foreign one.
  • Ancaro Imparo were allegedly Michelangelo’s last words. Know that, you too, are just a beginner and will never stop learning.

 I know I will think of others, but I need to close this post for now. What would your “graduation/findings speech” have to say?