This month’s “Ask the Chefs” question tackles one of those things that forges us, often during times of stress or uncertainty — the advice we receive that either changes our path or that we hold onto because of its value. Everyone has a few core maxims they learned at some point, or has received crucial advice — intentionally or not — when they needed it. So, the question is:
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Answers are listed in the order received. As usual, no participant has seen the others’ answers until today.
Tim Vines: The best advice I ever received was “a PhD is never finished, it is merely abandoned.” A very wise Spanish postdoc in our lab told me that when I was trying to get my thesis written up in three months and was still attempting to make it a masterpiece. Letting that pipe dream go allowed me to get it done and move on to the next stage of my life. Cheers Arcadi!
Joe Esposito: I have something of a storybook response to this question, as I literally was the recipient of advice offered in any number of gangster movies. My Sicilian uncle took me aside when I was 5 or 6 and counseled me (waving his cigar in the air) to know my enemies and hold them close. He squeezed my shoulder for emphasis — holding me close. A colorful bit of education, but I don’t know if the advice was any good. The question I later came to ask was how to avoid having enemies in the first place.
Kent Anderson: The advice I find myself turning to the most often — so that makes it seem to qualify as “the best” — came from a mentor in my early years in the workforce. He quietly sat across from me as I outlined a bit of a perplexing choice, then gently said, “Never say no,” smiled mysteriously, and vanished with barely a whisper. This advice has helped me make decisions when faced with options, and also helped guide me when faced with requests. I now find myself rarely saying, “No.” When I do, I often feel I’ve slipped up or let down my adviser. To me, his advice has two meanings. In one sense, it means, “Always say yes” because opportunity doesn’t knock often. In another, it means, “If something isn’t quite right, find another way to handle it other than saying no.” In both respects, it has helped through the years.
Rick Anderson: The best advice I’ve ever received came, unsurprisingly enough, from my wife, and it has to do with arguing. Her advice was to be very careful how I invoke data in an argument because, as she puts it “data can’t back down” — and sometimes you want to back down, or at least provide a way for the person you’re arguing with to escape with his or her dignity intact. Of course, if your only goal is to beat the person you’re arguing with as decisively as possible, then giving that person an escape hatch from embarrassment and defeat may not be so important. But if your larger goal is to accomplish things with that person’s cooperation, or to convince him or her to pursue a particular course, or to live with that person in harmony, then you need to think beyond the parameters of the argument you’re having at any particular moment. I’ve found this to be exceptionally wise council. What can I say — I married well.
Michael Clarke: I don’t know that I’ve received any single “best” piece of advice over the years, at least nothing that can be generally applied (with the exception of the advice to use a serial comma – also known as the ‘Oxford Comma’ – but that goes without saying). Some advice offerings stand out, however. Kurt Vonnegut once advised me not to marry until I had written a book. I can’t say I’ve followed that advice on purpose, but I have not yet married (nor yet published a book – we’ll see which one comes first). My father advised me to establish myself as a specialist in something but on the other hand to not get pigeon-holed once I did. Good advice, and I’ve tried my best to follow it. One of my college professors, Ron Billingsley, used to say, “If you want to study life, study literature.” And I did. What he meant by this is that literature, the best literature anyway, is a thought experiment that captures the gray areas, the contradictions, the subjectivity, and the interrelated complexities of life in a way that say, philosophy or economics, does not. It also considers meaning, which can only come from narrative – from a combination of personal, historic, national, religious, scientific, and ethnic narratives. Engineering folks sometimes refer to people who study things like literature as “fuzzies.” This is meant dismissively as someone who does not bring rigorous, logical thinking to a problem or discussion. I prefer to think of it differently. Life is fuzzy – it is convoluted, contradictory, and messy – and making any kind of sense of it requires not logical rigor (which has its place, of course, in say software engineering) but rather what Keats termed “negative capability” – the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s head at the same time. Another professor, Paul Friedrich, called this, in the context of writing, “the artful juxtaposition of partially contradictory ideas.” This is a phrase I’ve always admired. Searching out and exploring ideas that contradict your own forces you to think for yourself and makes it harder to hue to preconceived notions. It stretches you and forces you to grow and to learn and to understand the positions of others even if you do not agree with them. As it turns out, it is also essential for writing for the Scholarly Kitchen.
Alice Meadows: I’ve received a lot of great advice throughout my publishing career, but there is one specific piece, given to me when I was first moving into middle management, that has stayed with me — not least because, like most really valuable guidance, it was given to me by the right person, at the right time, and in the right way. Managing a team of people for the first time and having to think more strategically than I was used to, I was in and out of my boss’s office multiple times every day asking her how I should deal with all the new issues and problems I was confronting. After a few weeks of this, she said something that really resonated with me: “don’t bring me your problems, bring me your solutions.” Those few words transformed how I thought about my role. They made me realize that I was personally responsible for my own and my team’s performance. They gave me the confidence to come up with my own answers rather than relying on my manager to do so. And, for perhaps the first time in my career, I understood that I could choose to empower myself, rather than waiting to somehow magically be empowered. Learning to focus on solutions rather than problems totally changed my approach to my work, and I’ve passed that advice onto pretty much everyone who has ever reported to me since then, in the hope that they too will find it as valuable as I still do every day.
Judy Luther: Following a first career as an academic librarian, I transitioned into sales to libraries, first as a Regional Sales Manager for Faxon and then as Director of North American Sales for the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) which was owned by Thomson. Early in my 13-year tenure in sales, I had the good fortune to work for and be coached by Craig Flansburg. Craig is the ultimate professional sales rep who put the customer first, the company next, and then himself. Considerate and responsive to customers, Craig worked late into the evening on many occasions to discuss the concerns of a prospective customer. As I was learning the company’s services, getting to know the people in my region, and becoming familiar with the sales cycle, I made an observation about a competitor. Craig wisely pointed out that while it was good to be aware of what was going on, we were our own best competition. Staying focused on our goals and getting out of our own way was a surer key to success than concern about others. This guidance served me well as my attention was focused on doing the best possible job and beating my own numbers. Since then, I’ve most often heard this strategy applied in sports and referenced recently in the Olympics. When athletes excel, they are seeking to break their own records and aren’t worried about the person in the lane next to them. I’ve found that when I adhere to this approach, I gain a deeper understanding of the objectives and the benefits. Certain beliefs are assumed: the goal is worthwhile, the service is excellent, and the customer is well-served. At that point it becomes a mission to which I can easily devote my time, attention and energy – and be happy with the results.