Do As I Say, Not As I Did

A reluctant advisor offers advice.

Posted Sep 27, 2013

Confession time: I am one of those go-it-alone souls who never yearned for a leadership role, in either my professional or my personal life.

Show me a management-training seminar, and I will stride forcefully—leading no one—in the opposite direction. As a journalist, I was happy as a reporter, miserable when asked to supervise other reporters. As a public servant, I repeatedly deflected invitations to attend leadership classes. “This will be great for your career!” I would hear as I smiled politely and thought, “You must be confusing me with someone who actually has leadership potential.”

My constitutional aversion to donning the mantle of authority was apparent by the time I hit my teens. I loathed babysitting, which in my youth was the best source of disposable income for teenage girls. Convincing small strangers that they should do what I say was not in my skill set—and I was certain that whatever spare change I might earn would not be worth humiliating myself while trying.

For the same reason, as a young adult I never longed for children of my own. I suspected that, once my little ones reached the crawling stage, I would have to start ordering them around—for at least the next 18 years and probably much longer than that. I knew they would discover my leadership deficit as soon as they were old enough to comprehend the commands I hesitantly gave.

Instead of raising well-adjusted children who would make the world a better place, I would be spawning little anarchists. As venerable public institutions crumbled one by one at my grown children’s hands, how would I explain to my family and friends what had gone wrong? No, no, I decided: Leave the rearing of children to those who have both the aptitude and the courage for it.

Given my lifelong dislike of telling people what to do, I was taken aback last month to hear myself say to my older nephew, a few days before he left for his first year of college, that I was thinking of putting together some tips for him and how would he feel if I emailed them to him after he got to school?

I half-expected him to shrug and say, in a barely audible tone, “Whatever,” as he checked his Twitter feed on his phone. To my great surprise, he looked my way and said something like, “Sure.” Unless I completely misinterpreted the expression on his face, he even seemed to welcome my offer. And so it came to pass that I—a woman who has raised personal non-interference to the level of a spiritual credo—found myself facing the formidable (and, to make matters worse, self-imposed) task of crafting solid advice that an 18-year-old college student would find neither laughable nor irrelevant.

What accounts for my startling switcherooney? The only plausible explanation I can offer is that my antipathy toward imposing rules of behavior on others was outweighed by my fervent desire to spare my older nephew the pain of making the same foolish mistakes in life that I had made. Since “start over” was not a life option for me (as far as I knew), I could at least use my experience to steer a beloved young adult clear of the behavioral pitfalls into which I had frequently stumbled.

With the zeal of the newly converted, I set to work. Almost before my nephew had learned his way around campus, I put together a four-page, single-spaced set of 14 tips, each accompanied by a one-paragraph explanation, that might have stood proudly on a bookshelf next to the 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour” the young George Washington adopted some 270 years ago. As a concise guide for a member of the Twitterverse, however, my list left much to be desired.

After a panicky consultation with my brother, the brave father of my two fabulous nephews, I adopted a “two tips a day” strategy. Following an introductory email in which I set the scene for what was to come, I began emailing my pearls of wisdom in pairs, with the longest (“Ask for advice, guidance and help”) a meaty 172 words and the shortest (“Keep making music”) a trim 49 words.

Because I am insecure, anxious and hard on myself, I developed tips to address each of these areas, including “Have faith in yourself,” “Don’t panic” and “Be kind to yourself.” I dreamed up some advice on my own, but was not shy about referencing a broad variety of other sources, from a modern dance instructor I had in college (“Make a graceful exit”) to Facebook’s headquarters (“Done is better than perfect”) to a friend who graduated several decades ago from the college my nephew now attends (“Learn to say no”).

I even included a special bonus section with eight one-line tips from my father, who repeated these so often during my childhood that they all sprang to mind immediately when I began to recall them, as if my dear departed Dad were standing next to me reciting them. (The most classic of these eight classics? “Do as I say, not as I do.”) And I let my late mother have the light-hearted last word: “Take time out to have some fun yourself.”

There was no response to either my initial scene-setting email or the two that followed, which contained tips 1 through 4. Fearful that my nephew was less than impressed with my efforts—and that I had been right all along about my inherent inability to shape behavior in others, I sent off Tips 5 and 6 with great trepidation. To my surprise, delight and relief, 11 minutes later I received this reply: “I’m really enjoying these!”

There is, of course, no way to know if the tips I sent my nephew will resonate with him through the years. Perhaps he will ignore all of them until the day, decades hence, when he finds himself unexpectedly volunteering to give advice to his own brother’s college-bound firstborn. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed my maiden voyage on the sometimes choppy Sea of Unsolicited Advice so much that I am now thinking of sending off one more tip, with this bold heading: “Don’t be afraid to try new things.”

 Copyright 2013 By Susan Hooper

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