Advice That May Not Work

Dear Will:

I recently listened to a podcast that featured an interview with Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, who describes himself as “the most optimistic person in the world.” The podcast is entitled “103 Pieces of Advice That May or May Not Work.” (It’s great. You should listen to it.)

Well, I’m not as wise or as thoughtful (or as optimistic) as Kevin Kelly, but as I was listening it occurred to me that I have lots of advice which meets the standard of “may not work.” I couldn’t come up with 103 things, so I stopped at 31 because it looks almost like the same number, especially if you don’t have on your reading glasses.

What follows is based on my own real-life experiences, many of which were informed by horrible personal choices. I like to think that I have made my mistakes as an act of public service. And for that, you’re welcome. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Don’t play tennis barefoot. Not ever. Seriously.
  2. Also not recommended: basketball in boxer shorts. Trust me on this.
  3. Even if you think you can fix it yourself, it is always better to call the plumber.
  4. Spend more time with people like Mark.
  5. When in doubt, ask a local . . . even when not in doubt, for that matter.
  6. You will never regret the time you spend reading to your kids.
  7. Take long walks, and while you walk, be quiet and listen to your thoughts.
  8. Eventually you will wish that you had said “yes” more often than “no.”
  9. When offered an unfamiliar dish, it’s best to eat it before asking what it is.
  10. It is not possible to be too grateful.
  11. At some point you’ve got to stop refinancing and pay down the mortgage.
  12. Feel free to be disappointed. But try not to be resentful.
  13. If you’re not sure what to do next, be kind.
  14. Don’t ever use baking soda in place of cornstarch.
  15. Look for opportunities to tell others what you like about them.
  16. When you think you can’t go even one step further, you’re usually underestimating yourself.
  17. From time to time, have breakfast for dinner.
  18. It’s OK to let your schoolwork suffer if you and your roommate are creating something TRULY EPIC.
  19. Spend more effort trying to understand than you do trying to prove that you’re right.
  20. Chances are you cannot fix that vacuum cleaner.
  21. Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.
  22. Sometimes you should just close the laptop and go walk the dog.
  23. If you’re ever going to blow your budget, do it on vacation.
  24. Even if it’s windy and raining, pull out the map.
  25. Stay in touch.
  26. Genuine effort and good intentions are much more important than flawless execution.
  27. Do not, under any circumstances, enroll in Humanities 2B.
  28. If you must judge others, judge as generously as possible.
  29. Say “I love you” more often.
  30. Try to be like Jesus.
  31. Pay attention. God always shows His hand.

One last thing: Don’t take my word for it. I generally don’t know what I’m talking about. But remember what I said about the baking soda.


Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

Call Me Woo Woo

Dear Will:

By any objective measure, I think you could say that throughout my life I have been an above-average athlete—assuming, that is, that you include all of the certifiable non-athletes in the worldwide population. On the playground, I was never picked first, but also never last. As I grew, I was good enough to make the team, but never a star.

Ninth grade at Goddard Junior High was suitably representative of my athletic prowess. In my only year of tackle football, I was a backup tight-end—140 pounds of grit, squeezing into the huddle and whispering: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on this play.” To give you a sense of the intimidating figure I cut on the gridiron, the coaches nicknamed me Woo Woo.

Perhaps more impressive was the fact that I was one of only a dozen or so guys who made the Goddard basketball team. Less impressive was the fact that I began the year as a starter (!) but ended it as a third-stringer at the end of the bench. On the track team I was a high-jumper with neither technique nor natural ability, also pressed into service as our last guy in the 440-yard dash. In that race I never finished better than fourth.

In spite of that manifest mediocrity, as a kid I was full of aspiration. Jerry West was my guy, and I dreamed of one day playing in the NBA like him. I once I even wrote him a letter asking what I could do to become a better dribbler.

But I never mailed the letter. I knew without posting it what my idol’s answer would be: “Practice.” Even at that young age, I knew he would urge me to spend hours doing drills with both hands, honing and then mastering skills that could eventually find their way into a real game. It would take work and focus and determination—none of which I had. Rather than mail the letter, I turned it into a paper airplane. (True story.)

That airplane does not fully explain why I never made it to the NBA (or onto the varsity at Glendora High, for that matter). But it is emblematic of my athletic career. Perhaps because I had so many other interests as well, I never chose to dedicate the time and effort necessary to be really good. To this day I am more enthusiastic about playing the game than working at it. You want to have fun? Hang out with me. You want to get good? Find a different training partner.

My true talents (and lack thereof) emerge in just about any sport I try. For instance, around the time I was not mailing letters to Jerry West, I remember golfing with a friend who was a ranked junior golfer. During one backswing, I had him laughing so hard that he hit his ball about two feet . . . straight out of bounds. It’s not as if I don’t have skills, is what I’m saying. But as you can plainly see, they’re not the sort of skills that help you (or your playing partner) shoot a better score.

However—and this is key—there was one critical time in my life when my athletic inclinations aligned with my actual skills in a beautiful way:

I was in graduate school. My friend Chris told me that they were offering free aerobics classes in the church nearby. The price was right, the time was convenient, and there was this added bonus: the teacher was a total babe. So Chris and I went to her class a couple of times a week, presumably to try to stay in shape. We weren’t the most determined aerobicizers in the Southland, to be sure, but we did keep the class laughing. They could have gotten a better workout without us, but with us making cracks from the back of the room, they definitely had more fun.

Plus, I ended up marrying the teacher. They didn’t call me Woo Woo for nothing.


Avie Was Here

Dear Will:

Maybe you read recently about the vandals who scratched their names into a boulder in Big Bend National Park, defacing in the process an ancient petroglyph that had survived there for over 5,000 years. Apparently such is the irresistible urge of some to let passing strangers know “I was here”— even if their destructive doodles unquestionably leave the world worse for the rest of us.

Contrast this act with those of another hiker I sometimes see on the hills near my home. When he treks along those local trails, he carries two things: a long-armed grabber and a bag that he uses to gather and remove trash left behind by indolent neighbors. It seems like the sort of thing one might do as part of a group service project, right? But this guy comes alone, week after week, quietly doing what he can to make the world a little better.

Which kind of mark would you rather leave for those who come after you?

Every day we encounter untold opportunities to make the straightforward choice between making things a little worse or a little better for everyone else. For instance, do you leave your grocery cart in among the cars or walk the 20 feet necessary to put it away with the others? Do you speed up to close the gap in stop-and-go traffic or make room for that guy who is trying to move into your lane? Do you spend your time on social media arguing your point or spreading good cheer? None of these choices may be particularly consequential in the grand scheme of things, but the accumulation of such choices by millions of people stretched across the weeks and years does have an impact—for better or worse—on the world in which we live.

These are the small and simple things by which great things are brought to pass. Or not.

You’ll find examples all around you. Not five minutes ago—as I was writing that previous sentence—my doorbell rang. There stood a dear friend bearing gifts: a dozen beautiful eggs from her backyard chicken coop and a bouquet of flowers for my wife Dana. Why? Just because, as it turns out. Consider how that small and simple act of kindness and generosity sent a burst of light into our home. It was both unexpected and delightful. This is not the first time that friend has appeared on our doorstep with an armful of love. This is, in fact, who she is.

I recently attended the funeral for another woman who had mastered this great art. Everywhere she went, Avie spread love and goodness. Invariably, those she encountered came away feeling better about themselves, as if each one were just about the most important person in her life. She taught her children to love others in this same way. Personally, I found that being around her always—always—made me want to be a better version of myself. One man who visited her during her final days described how, even in that fading state, she found a way to make him feel wonderful. He said that when he left her room he felt a powerful urge to go back and sit quietly in the corner—just to be in her presence and bask in the grace she still radiated.

Imagine being such a woman. Imagine a world filled with millions of people just like her. It’s a lofty, perhaps impossible standard. But I can’t help but consider how much better and brighter my tiny little part of the world would be if I could follow her inspiring example, choosing from moment to moment to find a way to make things just a little bit better for someone else.

That sort of beneficence doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to think about it, work at it, pray for it. But I do find that as I think and work and pray for the kind of effortless goodness she embodied as a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ, I can see myself becoming a little bit better, one small and simple thing at a time. And you know what? I can’t think of a better way to let passing strangers know “I was here.”