Take my advice Print E-mail
News - Final Word
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 00:11
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In the mid-1980’s, a 21-year-old writer and artist, James Harmon, stumbled upon a book which sparked his nearly two-decade long project. The book was Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1903 classic, ‘Leters to a Young Poet’.

James wondered what advice, which would not merely have the “shelf life of a banana”, would look like to young people a century after Rilke. So he asked. Over the years he received replies from 79 cultural icons and in 2002 he published this advice as ‘Take my advice: Letters to the next generation from people who know a thing or two’.

This anthology contains frank and often off-beat advice from people, mostly artists, who are not the usual suspects when it comes to advice-mongering. They range from Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey, Katharine Hepburn, Mark Helprin, RU Sirius and William S Burroughs to Bette Davis, Richard Powers, Judith Butler, Alexander Theroux, William T Vollmann, Robert Creeley and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

You’d very likely develop galloping psychosis if you tried to follow every single bit of advice every one of them offered. So, I started wondering what kind of thing I would compile if I had to randomly cull quotes to give to you. I’d start with something a character in a book said. In ‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes, the character Sancho said to Don: “. . . until death it’s all life.”

“It’s your life – but only if you make it so,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. When she was 76 years old, Eleanor wrote a book called, ‘You learn by living: Eleven keys for a more fulfilling life’. In the chapter, ‘The right to be an individual’, she said:
“The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity.”

Why is it that we so easily surrender to the social validation of prestige? In his 2006 article, ‘How to do what you love’, Y-Combinator founder, Paul Graham, said that prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

We have to make sure that our ideas of success are our own, said philosopher Alain de Botton in his 2009 TED talk, ‘The pleasures and sorrows of work’.

“One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people,” Alain said.

“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

To focus on what this, that or the other person would applaud is merely like swopping deck chairs on the Titanic. But, how precisely does one stay in sync with who you really are? How do you consistently keep showing up in your own life in a way that is in alignment with what you stand for?

In ‘Letters to a young poet’ Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1903 advice was “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions . . . Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then . . . you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

So, girlfriend, embrace uncertainty. Do not despair. What to do when you feel desperate? Just breathe.

Deliberately. Bring your awareness to the present moment. Desperation is fixed on the future. Come back to the now.

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