Years ago, I recall being at a friend's house and finding a little book that was filled with advice from a father to his son, upon the latter's departure to college. While I can't recall the name of the book, it seemed to show up all over the place (I'm sure one of you will remember the name).
At any rate, I thought the book was a great idea, so I did what might seem counterintuitive. I put it down and did not read it. Here was my thought: someday, I'm going to send my own son off to school, and I'd like to develop some advice of my own to send him, and I would like that to be "fresh" advice. Since he went off this year, I have sent him one email each day of thoughts/ideas. I'm sure he finds some of it useful, some of it trite, and some of it ridiculous.
I'm sharing the first 25 from this list here on XARK:
1. Be early for each of your first classes and be attentive. Remember, both you and the instructor are making first impressions of each other, and it’s nice to start off looking like an attentive student. Pay careful attention to what the teacher says about the class, as this is the day on which they will really emphasize what’s important to them. Treat this as one of the most important days of the semester.
2. When I first entered grad school classes, it had to be like you going to classes at Wesleyan. I was surrounded by smarter people in general than I had been surrounded by at other schools. It was like EVERYONE was a smart IB student. I listened to people talk and was sometimes intimidated to speak up in courses.
Here’s what I learned after a few semesters: It is very important to at least say something early in the semester—not just a blurt, but not necessarily a brilliant comment either. It’s just important to get yourself to speak up, to have the professor see you as a contributor and to make it easier to speak up later in the semester. So, my little advice today is that you should try to say a thing or two early on in the semester.
3. Don't believe the hype.
Seriously. Ever. About anything. Theories, music, spiritual matters, teachers, politicians, food.
Investigate it yourself.
4. Broccoli: Eat it twice a week, regardless of what you think of it. Not only is it packed with great vitamins, but it also acts as “nature’s scrub bush.”
5. As you know, people generally get themselves into established routines in many aspects of their lives. For example, I have particular days that I do laundry, specific places where I go for coffee breaks, etc. Routines give us familiarity; they help us be more efficient and allow us to think about other issues than planning. The downside is that we sometimes get so set in our routines that we forget to question them; we forget that there may be good reasons to alter or challenge our routines, to think about situations in new ways. My reminder today, for both of us, then, is that we routinely question our routines.
6. One of the aspects of my undergraduate education that I regret is that I always suppressed some of my more creative ideas in classes in the interest of “following the rules.” That is, there were lots of times when I had interesting angles on paper assignments for courses but, instead of taking up these directions, I would talk myself out of it because I figured the best way to please the teacher was to do what I was told.
In retrospect, I’m certain I could have had it both ways. That is, most good teachers are open to students doing things differently as long as they approve of the idea beforehand and as long as they think it will be a productive learning experience. My advice to you is that when you have an idea that might be a little outside the norm, don’t give it up. Now, don’t jump on it, either. But reflect, talk to your teacher about it. It might be worth pursuing.
7. When you’re reading for a class, or just in general, it’s always more important—if you have to face a choice—to read for comprehension rather than completion. I too often read quickly when I was in a pinch just so I could say I finished the assignment. I would have been far better off reading slowly, not finishing what I read but understanding it.
8. Once a week, try to spend an hour letting your mind drift. You can do this in a number of ways—I, for example, do this while I’m running; others do it during meditation or yoga; you could do it taking a long walk. It’s simply important to not have a preset agenda and to not be actively engaged in something else that takes your mind’s attention (e.g., listening to music, chatting, listening to instructions). This is a wonderful chance to let ideas come to you that wouldn’t have done so otherwise.
9. Before you drink anything else, have one tall glass of water in the morning. Every morning.
10. Always remember how you are seen by your father--you are incredible, smart, and loved unconditionally. This is a good thing to remember when you're feeling down. And when you're feeling great.
11. The most important advice that I ever ignored: Floss daily. Twice daily, even.
12. You’ve heard me say this before, but I think it’s the most important advice one can receive: whatever you do—and I mean whatever you do—think about its impact on others. This can mean something as simple as darting a car into traffic or throwing away a can that could be recycled to something more complex, like creating work policies or making a film, but the question should be the same. How do my actions impact others? Now? In the future? Those close to me and those I’ll never meet? If you truly follow this advice, you’ll be able to walk with both a sense of the interconnectedness of all things and a sense of equilibrium.
13. Years ago, I was talking to your GrandLynne; she was single at the time and had been using one of those old dating services (i.e., before the internet) to attempt to meet interesting men. I asked her how the dates were going, and she said, "Well, you know, I find most of the men dull, but they always think I'm the most interesting person they've ever met."
At first, I thought she was being rather egotistical, so I asked her to explain what she meant. The answer she gave should have been common sense to me, especially given my background in public speaking. "All I do," she said, "is talk about their interests, what they do, the things they like, and they think that makes me interesting."
In my public speaking classes now, I call this "Lynne's Rule": If you want your audience to find you interesting and convincing, try to think about everything from their angle.
Now, my advice is not that you solely do this in your everyday life and conversations, but that you make sure that you sprinkle every conversation--with both strangers and with people you've known for years--with references to their concerns, their interests. Doing so makes you a more interesting person.
14. When I teach courses in the Rhetoric of Social Movements, I often hear students complain about the discourse of groups with whom they disagree by saying, “Their arguments are stupid. They make no sense.” While I heartily endorse their disagreement, I never think it is wise to look at arguments with which we disagree as stupid.
In general, people are rational and thoughtful. If someone is saying something that seems “idiotic” and nonrational, you should attempt to think about how the argument makes sense—even if you continue to disagree with it—rather than how it doesn’t make sense.
15. Over the last several years, I have learned a lot from you. Some of it may at first seem pedestrian (e.g., you’ve introduced me to new bands and books/films), but it’s always been more than that in the sense that you’ve helped me think about how I listen to music or how I watch film/television. Part of the reason I was able to learn these things from you is because you’re my son, and I’m willing to listen. To be honest, if you were some other teenage kid, I probably wouldn’t have taken you so seriously.
As a result, I think the bigger lesson we can both draw from this, however, is that we should always be open to learn from unexpected sources. If we listen carefully, with an open mind, lots of folks have perspectives that we can learn from.
16. Whenever I’m running long distances, there gets to be a point where I really don’t feel like I can run anymore. People call this “hitting the wall,” and at times it feels like it’s more than simply a metaphor. One of the tricks runners often use to get through this feeling is to decide that they only need to run one more step. And then to decide to run only one more step. And if you focus on only running another step rather than on another 5 miles, those steps all add up. What you learn, of course, is that there was never an exact point at which you can “ran no further.”
This in my mind is very good advice for how you want to approach any activity that requires endurance, patience, and hard work. You just need to keep going. Minute after minute, step after step. Don’t focus too far on the goal. Always focus on the next step.
17. There is very little that makes me feel as uplifted as a seemingly genuine smile from a stranger when I’m walking across campus or in the city. As a result, I think it’s worth my time—and should be worth yours—to try to give a smile to strangers from time to time. This is the most pollyannish advice I’ll give you, but these are words I live by.
18. One sign of strength and maturity is that you don't panic in any situation. Regardless of how difficult the situation is--a death, a Christmas tree falling over, a spilled cup of coffee--try to calmly and effectively deal with the situation. Things may be bad, but they're always better when people handle it thoughtfully and calmly.
19. Take one moment--if only a brief moment--every day to think about the things for which you are thankful.
20. Insomnia can be a frustrating, if natural, response to a lot of situations (e.g., stress in personal and professional life, excitement, a health condition). If you experience insomnia, roll with it. That is, don’t fret and worry about the fact that you’re not sleeping—this will only make matters more difficult. Relax, read. If you’re up all night, then you’re up all night. Your body is smart and will ultimately catch up with itself.
21. In my mind, there are two ways of “being on” in a conversation (with one person or in a group). Sometimes, I feel “on” when I’m being loud, quick and entertaining. Now, while I think that’s an OK way to be on, it often comes with a tendency toward performance rather than toward listening, toward reflection, and toward awareness. The second way of being “on” in a conversation is when I’m able to talk with ease, but I’m also able to listen with ease, to reflect a bit with those in the conversation and to offer thoughtful, and grounded ideas. If you ever find yourself “on” in the first way, you should reflect for a moment if it might be to everyone’s advantage if you can transform that to being “on” in the second way.
22. Whenever someone says something to you, and you have a strong emotional response, it makes a good bit of sense to sit back and think about why you had such a response. Try to respond to the comments someone makes on their grounds rather than on an emotional terrain that they don’t know about. For example, if you’ve just had a celebration with a friend, or an argument with a friend, don’t let the drift from that cloud your understanding of what someone else is trying to say to you. Further, don’t allow your assumptions about the person’s “secret” intent provoke you. Take a breath, think about what the person said, and what they might mean. If your reaction is still strong, ask them what they meant. Maybe there is just cause for your strong reaction, but you don’t want to act on it until you know that for sure.
23. The airplane perspective: You know how amazing it is when you’re in a plane on a clear day, the plane is at cruising altitude, and you’re able to look down from the plane and see all the tiny cars, the tiny houses, and so forth? That perspective has done me a lot of good over time. When I’m having a “minor” personal crisis, or I feel like things are tough, it’s sorta nice to think about how small any single one of us is in the larger scheme of things. Yes, we’re each important “as humans” and yes, we all really feel pain, but it is helpful sometimes to put the size of our problems into a different perspective.
24. In the classes I teach, I often give the students a short writing assignment due during the second week of class. The assignment—generally a two page paper—just gets them to write a little about the topic of the course. I do this for a number of reasons (i.e., to make sure we understand the topic in similar ways, to get us writing early on, to see early problems in writing styles), but one of the great outcomes is that I get to see some of the “common sense” clichés that are so easy for students to draw upon. For instance, in my media criticism course, it’s shocking to me that over 70% of the students will use some variation of the phrase “the media bombard us with images . . . . “ in their essays.
So, what can we learn from this? When you’re writing or speaking about a topic, and a phrase comes easily to mind, it’s most likely because that phrase is one that circulates in culture. Generally, such phrases overgeneralize and, to be fair, provide little in the way of thoughtfulness about a topic. My advice to you—and it’s advice I try to live by—is that you attempt to immediately stop writing when a phrase comes too easily to mind and think about a different way of making your claim, a different way to get your audience to think about a topic. Communicating is an art, and, as such, it’s not easy.
25. Yesterday, someone was asking me if I used “Rhapsody.” Their enthusiasm was based on the way in which Rhapsody made recommendations to them based on their previous music choices, much like Amazon does based on our purchases.
While I think that’s an amazing service, and I often marvel at how accurate such recommendations can be, I worry that I’m finding fewer and fewer opportunities to run into new music, new thoughts, new books, in a random fashion. It seems to me that I’m better off if I can find ways to encounter ideas and art forms that I would not encounter based on my habits and routines.
So, my advice to you is that you find ways—even if it is just being very open minded—to try out ideas, music, books, and so forth that you wouldn’t if you took the easy route of habit