Advice To Myself

About 15 years ago I was asked by a woman turning fifty what advice I might have for her on this milestone birthday. People seldom ask my advice.  And even when they do I have a soft voice and I’m seldom heard.  But I gave the question serious thought.  We all know that in reality people seldom take advice.  Seems we learn from our own mistakes and not from the mistakes of others. So I decided to engage in a bit of introspection.  What I came up with I called “Advice to Myself.”  I decided to share it with several friends and a few critics. They liked it and suggested I post it on line.   Advice to Myself was the basis for what became And 15 years latter I’m amazed at its enduring popularity.

What follows is a slightly updated version of what I wrote 15 years ago.

Who are you?

You’re the sum total of your genetics and your life experiences.  Heredity may have dealt the cards but environment is playing the hand. This combination of circumstances is a unique completely personal thing.  Like no two snowflakes are identical, no other person on the planet shares your exact combination of biology and experience.   But you are not just the sum total of those THINGS. You are also the sum total of your PERCEPTION of those THINGS.  Your behavior is based upon this perception.  We must constantly remind ourselves that THIS IS TRUE FOR EVERYONE.

ADVICE TO MYSELF: Before I am critical of someone else I should “walk a mile in his or her shoes.”  Even then you will not see them as they see themselves or see the world as they view it.

At 50 you’re at a particular point in your life not shared by people who are 35.  By the time 35 year olds are 50 you’ll be 65. There will be far more days in the rear view mirror than in the windshield.

 ADVICE TO MYSELF:   “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” (Bonnie Raitt lyrics, Nick Of Time.)

Control is perhaps life’s biggest pitfall.  Don’t devote too much time trying to control people’s behavior.  After years of frustration I realized I had no real control over the behavior of others. I realized that while I had no control over the behavior of others I did have control over my own behavior and thus could decide with whom I chose to associate. Robins don’t try to change Blue Jays into Robins. “Birds of feather flock together.”

ADVICE TO MYSELF:  Spend less time on control and more time finding the right flock.

Your ideas of how to live your life are no better or worse than the ideas of others. Your taste in food, cars and clothes, music and movies, mates and friends, politics and religion, climate and destination, are simply YOUR taste.  Choices of taste are not good or bad or right or wrong, only different.  Expensive food at a fancy restaurant is not inherently better or worse food than tuna casserole at home.  Red is not a better or worse color than black.  New York is not a better or worse place than Des Moines. Michelob is not a better or worse beer than Bud.  Seriously. Does a hundred dollar bottle of wine taste that much better than a ten-dollar bottle? Does it really have a tinge of oak with buttery smoothness and a hint of apricot? Give me a break.  If it didn’t have alcohol in it we wouldn’t drink it no matter the cost. My old fishing buddy in Wyoming used to drink whisky. He got somewhat citified so he switched to red wine. He calls it purple whisky.

ADVICE TO MY SELF: “One man’s trash is another mans treasure.”  Avoid trashing another mans “treasure.”  You are not the arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong.

Your health is your most important asset.  Without it, nothing else matters.  The graveyard is full of of rich people who died young. Hospitals are full of rich people on oxygen. People spend more time and money on things than they do on their own health.  It ain’t complex.  You are what you eat.  Eat crap your body is crap.  Don’t eat to excess.  Stay a little hungry. Many a grave has been dug with a knife and a fork.  Avoid hospitals.  They’re full of sick people. Most important? Drink plenty of water and exercise everyday. If you don’t stay in shape as you get older you cannot get in shape once you are old. After sixty if you are out of shape you’ll soon be out of health.  And it won’t come back. 

ADVICE TO MYSELF: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” (Joni Mitchell lyrics, Big Yellow Taxi.)

Next in importance is being free. I define freedom as being able to live my life in my own way.   Being  free allows you to choose those things that contribute to your happiness.  A free person chooses between equally attractive alternatives.  An unfree person chooses between equally unattractive alternatives. Too often we follow the trend, become slaves to the wishes of others, or want things just because others have them.  There is great freedom in not wanting too much.  Eventually less is usually more.  Money?  Prisons are full of rich tycoons and psychiatrist’s offices are crowded with millionaires. Material possessions? “He who dies with the most toys” is still dead.  (For a detailed discussion of freedom click on the essay “Your Road To Freedom”.)

ADVICE TO MYSELF: Live your life in your own way. And a word of caution. Money will not in and of itself make you free. Too much money and too many possessions and your money and things own you. The world is full of things you do not need.  That’s why people have garage sales and storage units. That’s why you need a friend who owns a pick up. (More on the importance of pickups later.)

Next in importance is your choice of a mate. Find a mate who is healthy and intelligent. Seek a mate you find pleasure in gazing upon. Lots of relationships are destroyed over arguments about money.   Having money is good but being your mate’s champion is better. When you elevate your mate you enhance yourself.   Find a mate who respects you and shares your values.  Find a mate who likes a lot of the same things you like.   I enjoy travel, the outdoors, a warm climate, and a comfortable home.  An Eskimo wife wouldn’t work for me. A sense of humor is important. Honesty and fidelity essential.  Dependability ditto. Find a mate who dwells less on your differences and more on the things you have in common.

ADVICE TO MYSELF:  In finding a mate don’t seek perfection. Settle for someone whose little idiosyncrasies and differences don’t drive you crazy.   Settle for contentment. Avoid confrontation.

Next in importance come your friends.  Friends are beacons that light your path, a fire that warms your heart, a never-ending source of delight, and occasionally a source of irritation. Fiends give meaning to your life. They point out your shortcomings, and above all endure your boring stories. Sometimes they help you move furniture. As you lay on your deathbed stockbrokers and bankers won’t surround you. More people die wishing they had more friends than die wishing they had more money.

ADVICE TO MYSELF:  There ain’t time to make many new friends.  Try and keep the few you have. This especially true if you have things in storage and they own a pickup.

On my list of things that are important I include my home. Some investments. A few possessions I wouldn’t want to lose. And my reputation.  Keep some touchstones that give you pleasure and security. Don’t ever risk those things, don’t  ever sell those things.

ADVICE TO MYSELF: Never sell your saddle. Life’s a long long ride. (Randy Travis, lyrics Don’t ever Sell Your Saddle.)

Life is a series of decisions. Some of them will have turned out to be wrong.  We should make decisions based on the best information we have at the time.   Don’t make decisions when you’re stoned, drunk, or angry. We make decisions based on who we are at the time. Some information turns out to be inaccurate.  People change. 

Recently I heard a story that explains ALL human behavior. A man in a small Texas town goes out one night, gets drunk, takes off all his clothes and hurls himself upon a cactus.  He wakes up in the hospital and finds the doctor pulling out the cactus spines.  The doctor looks the man in the eyes and asks, “Why in the hell did you get naked and jump on a cactus?”  The man replies, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Think about it.  Decisions that turned out poorly “seemed like a good Idea at the time.”

ADVICE TO MYSELF:  Be deliberate in making decisions and quick to correct mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up about mistakes. Recognize them, learn from them, and move on. For an entertaining example of this listen to Willy Nelson’s song, “There’s nothing I can do about it now.”   You must accept that you will not live forever.  The planet will not last forever.  In the meantime people and things will come and go and change. Today may be as good as it gets. “Flyin high in April—shot down in May.”  (Frank Sinatra lyrics, That’s Life.)

Put things in perspective.  A few years ago I lost a loved one to cancer.  I watched her go from a vibrant healthy woman to a bed ridden invalid in 13 months.  Suddenly a warm sunny day, a quiet conversation, simple pleasures were more important than money and things. We learned to live in the moment because we realized the moment might be all we had. Even if we survive into our 90’s it will all come to an end. Even earth will not survive.  The sun will go supernova and the earth will be vaporized. 

“Life by the inch is a cinch. Life by the yard is hard.” In the words of Kris Kristofferson, “Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrows out of sight.” To emphasize Kristofferson’s song here’s a story about a devout Buddhist out hiking on a high narrow ledge. Suddenly he slips and falls over the edge. In desperation he grabs some roots but they begin to pull out. Dangling 100 feet above the ground below he’s about to fall to his death. But he notices a ripe strawberry growing below the ledge. With his one free hand he picks the strawberry, pops it into his mouth and says, “delicious.” That, my friend, is living in the moment.

ADVICE TO MYSELF:  Live more in the moment. Avoid narrow ledges. Don’t buy green bananas. Don’t eat strawberries if you’re allergic to them. (unless you’re about to fall to your death.)

Few things about a person improve with age.  Vision fades, hearing goes, muscles don’t react, skin wrinkles, joints ache, friends die, the world changes. But in return you acquire wisdom. Wisdom is the application of knowledge gained over time, mostly through experience. Wisdom is not doing desperate things. Having wisdom is knowing it’s easy to see the contradictions and hypocrisy in other people but difficult to see the same things in yourself. Wisdom is knowing when to fight and when to run. Wisdom is knowing that the well-beaten path my not be the right road. Shortcuts in life usually end up taking longer.  Just because you’re making progress doesn’t mean you’re going in the right direction. Having wisdom is knowing  you have wisdom.

Why take my advice? In my 700,000 hours of life I’ve been around. Thanks to being born lucky and with help from my friends  I’ve climbed real mountains, taken the stick of a fighter jet and broken the sound barrier.  I’ve visited every continent, cheated death, lied to myself, told truths no one wanted to hear, and tricked a trout with a bunch of feathers. I’ve found rapture and suffered utter defeat. I’ve found forgiveness for most of my transgressions. I’ve buried people I loved, dug up the past, glimpsed the future, got drunk on purple whisky and made a million dollars in a single year.  I’ve lived through booms and busts, survived sand storms, snowstorms, tornadoes,  floods, life insurance salesmen, and women scorned. I’ve seem both a solar and lunar total eclipse, awakened to more than 29,000 sun rises, and gone to sleep everywhere  from five star hotels to a yurt in Mongolia.  I’ve gone to war while my countrymen were at peace. I’ve seen men crawl through death and I’ve watched men walk on the moon. I’m the sum total of my adventures and I’ve learned from all of them. 

Although I spent too many years in school I made up for it by spending decades on the road. I’m intelligent enough to be able to put PhD after my name and wise enough not to do so. Thanks to diet and exercise I can still ski black diamonds, remember the words to most every song, carry a tune and hoist a heavy burden. I can fix my own car, build my own house, cook my own food, and iron my own clothes. I can write a complete sentence. I continue to embrace new technology. 

I’m a fortunate man. Being born in the USA and growing up in Iowa, many doors were opened to me.  I simple walked thru. I spend my summers in Jackson Hole and when not traveling abroad I spend my winters in Naples.   I married a woman who is my mate and best friend. But sometimes I leave the garage door up and forget what day the trash man comes. I repeat myself and re-tell my boring stories.

I look in the mirror and see this old man looking back at me. I find myself in a world that rewards youth and its ignorance, glamorizes the passing fancy and ignores the tried and true. But  I realize this fate befalls everybody who turned eighty be it today, yesterday, or a hundred years ago.   Sometimes I have to stop and remember who I am and what I’ve been and what I have left to be.

There it is. My advice. Little quotes from others, a few lyrics, and a few unaccredited paraphrases.   (Sadly, I not only forget to put the garage door down I forget exactly who said what about whatever.)

If you live to be 80 you’ve beaten the odds.   You didn’t die at birth, get killed in a war or a car wreck, or suffer a heart attack in middle age. You’ve dodged countless diseases. You’re a survivor.   But a strange old person will be looking back at you in the mirror. You may find yourself leaving the garage door up and forgetting to put out the trash.  If you have a good mate they’ll simply smile and put the garage door down. They’ll remind you that the trash man comes on Thursday. (To learn more about putting the trash out on Thursday click on “Your road to Freedom.”

If you make it to 80  there is much you’ll forget Take time to remember who you are and what you’ve been and what you have left to be. In the winter of your life you’ll have time to reflect. Time to give to the future all you’ve learned from the past.

And if you’re lucky like me, maybe someone will ask you for advice.

Category: Essays

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