Advice: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Nan Petersen

As I advance in my career to a place where I am more likely to be looked to as a mentor instead of someone who needs to be mentored, I sometimes find myself dispensing advice. It always seems a little bit strange to me—can it really be so many years ago that I sat where my students are now? Wondering what exciting things life had in store for me? Lamenting over that BOY who just wouldn’t pay attention to me? Competing for what seemed like honor and glory?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it was that many years ago.

I think of all the advice I’ve been given over the years and how little of it I have heeded. Just as our spirits crave freedom and agency, it seems that in equal measure they resist taking advice, even when the counsel might really help us. Taking advice seems tantamount to giving up our will to somebody else—as if learning the hard way somehow makes our choices nobler.

Even though it is human nature to ignore advice, we have an equal desire to dole it out, as if our own wisdom is the only wisdom that matters and is somehow universal.

Oddly, however, as I look back, I can point to four distinct pieces of advice that do seem to apply broadly to my own life. So while they may not be universal, they went far beyond the intentions of the original giver. As I get older I find these bits of wisdom, as well as the people who gave them to me, growing more precious. I am going to share them here, but not in the spirit of giving YOU advice (really). This is more in the spirit of sharing. Please feel free to share below your own experiences with advice.

  1. My father was devastated when he found out I was going to be a teacher. I think he believed that I would be a doctor or engineer or something. When we spoke about it, he said that with my “brains” it was obvious that I would one day get an administrative license or something and be a principal. No, I replied, I really didn’t want to be an administrator. I wanted to be with kids in the classroom. Incredulous, my dad shrugged and then said, “Then be the best damn teacher you can be.

Take-home message: Whatever you choose to do, give it everything you have. This advice, geared toward my career aspirations, has been something I have carried with me into nearly every situation that I have chosen (or calling that I have not chosen), and I have found great success because of it. There is little point in doing something halfway.

  1. My grandmother was my roommate when I returned from my mission. She held my hand and cried with me when my first engagement fell apart and then patiently watched me jump through a series of relationships—mostly casual and one more serious over several months. When I met my husband, I was dating another person (two others?) and wasn’t sure how to handle this entirely unprecedented situation. My dear, seventy-something-year-old grandmother asked me what the problem was. I told her that I didn’t see a problem with dating more than one guy at once, but I wasn’t sure I should be kissing more than one at once. She responded, “Well, hell, honey, kiss ’em all. Then decide who you like best!

Take-home message: It is okay to try on new experiences and opportunities. Trying something out doesn’t mean you have to commit to it forever. How will you know if something is for you if you don’t experience it? This goes along with learning to say yes—and keeping yourself open to any new possibility. (By the way, I figured out whose kisses I like the best.)

  1. My mother came to stay with me after my oldest son was born. It was difficult. I was used to being so good at everything, but this mothering thing eluded me. I don’t know that my problems were any bigger or smaller than any other first-time mom’s, but to me they seemed insurmountable. The morning my mom left we’d had an especially bad night. Her flight was leaving, and my husband was headed back to work. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and facing a whole day alone with a tiny stranger I had helped create and had no way to communicate with. My mom came into my room to say goodbye to me, and I cried like a baby. She hugged me then stepped away. She looked at me firmly, and with steel in her voice that I will admire until the day I die, she said, “I need to leave. You can do this. And I need to leave so that you know you can do this.”

Take-home message: As much as our mentors mean to us, sometimes the kindest thing they can do is take a step back so we can discover our own strengths and limitations. It wasn’t that my mother didn’t want to help me; it was that she loved me enough to let me make my mistakes.

  1. Mom’s second bit of parenting advice came several weeks later as I squirmed over whether or not to put my baby son on some kind of schedule—a thing my Type A personality desperately craved, even as I shirked from the difficulty of trying to make it happen. Over the phone my mom said in an offhand way, “Well, someone is going to be in charge in your house. It might as well be you—you are the grown-up.”

Take-home message: I remember this advice hitting me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t the grown-up! She was. Sure, I was twenty-six and had a baby, but I was clueless about nearly everything! Her words brought me up short. And while this has come back to me often as a parent and a teacher, I’ve also realized that this bit of advice can apply broadly to my life: if I don’t take charge of my own destiny, something or someone else will. The choices I make, the path I walk down, the people I help, loving others—these are all ways I choose my own destiny. Living boldly with the consequences of your decisions, good or bad, is at the heart of what it means to be “grown up.”

What essential advice has been shared with you? How did you choose to follow this advice?

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