Advice for the Ages

A long time ago – we’re talking about when I was a child, here, so while it’s not exactly the Dark Ages, it is a fairly long while back – Dad used to grace me and my siblings (all four of us) with his wisdom on a regular basis. Some of it was what you might call “Dad stuff”, with the usual issues that would apply.

A lot of it wasn’t. There are those in this world who could stand to take notice of Dad’s advice, but alas, none of them read this site unless they’re looking for something to pretend to be offended by so they can scream about whatever their pet issue happens to be.

He had two big pieces of advice that came out a lot – which really isn’t surprising, given that we were a large and rather rambunctious family at the time (things are quieter these days and we’ve scattered to the far ends of the earth. I do believe those two observations are related). The first, “It’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

I’m pretty sure he’s quoting someone (Churchill, perhaps?) but it’s good advice in many situations. It’s really good advice for those of us who are a bit smarter than the average mollusc, simply because when you’re the most intelligent person in a group for a long time, you tend to forget that there are others who are smarter than you. Basically, don’t try to pretend you know more than you do. You’ll tie yourself up in knots and beclown yourself in interesting and humiliating ways.

This applies to any person speaking about something where they have neither expertise nor experience. I may have a largely-forgotten geology degree and a broad scattering of surface-level knowledge about a lot of things, but I’m not going to try to tell a rocket scientist how to do his, her, or its job (although I did once get into a room-clearing discussion with an evolutionary biologist when I asked him if he thought dogs had speciated. After a lot of interesting detours, his answer came down to species being a rather imprecise way to divide living things and having been more or less grandfathered into modern biology because it had been around for so long and made a useful way to distinguish certain groups. Oh, and if you asked the question about dogs to ten evolutionary biologists, you’d probably get at least eleven answers).

The other one he used a lot when I was actively involved in various amateur musical groups, although it also applies to a lot of things. “Don’t tiptoe around what you’re doing. Go at it with confidence. That way, if you make a mistake everyone will know and you can fix it.” Making timid, half-hidden mistakes means nobody knows what you’re doing so nobody corrects them.

Not to mention, depending on what it is and where, mistakes made with sufficient confidence can actually be… well… not mistakes at all. It’s a bit like old-school jazz – if you pussyfoot around and you’re timid, it will sound like you’re doing it wrong no matter what you do. If you’re confident – or even if you fake confident well enough – it will work. I can attest that this is true. I’ve done it more times than I care to count.

Oddly, the two pieces of advice aren’t contradictory. They tend to work well together: when you don’t know something, don’t try to pretend that you do, but when you do know it, be confident about it. Chances are, going into a situation with confidence (however faux it might be) you’ll do better than if you tried to sidle into whatever it is.

So, write with confidence, but don’t try to pretend you’re better/smarter/whatever than anyone else, and you’ll get there. Wherever “there” happens to be.

15 comments

  1. Not just people smarter than you, people who have lived different lives than you.
    It’s a humbling experience to have a mind-blowing insights dropped on you by someone who isn’t very bright

    1. Oh yeah. Intellectual does not in any way equal life experience. It kind of helps to treat everyone as your equal or your better. Not only do you not piss people off, you stand to learn more that way.

    2. One great thing about primary source is getting your history from that sort of people in the era. Not from historians.

      1. Well, you at least get how they perceived the history, anyway. I haven’t noticed that primary sources are any less biased than secondary ones.

        1. Primary sources may be no less biased than secondary or further down the line, but they do tend to reduce the telephone game effect – although if you go far enough back you’ve also got to deal with the shifts in the language.

          200 years is enough to have some things seem really bizarre to modern readers.

        2. Their bias is part of what you come to them to learn. How some historian hated Christianity is not relevant to the late classical period; how some pagan did, is. (Especially since he will get his paganism right.)

  2. Yeah, I’d add “Admit when you’re wrong. Doubling down on wrong because it’ll make you lose an argument just makes you look stupid.”

    1. True, that. And sensible people respect a “Mea culpa. I screwed up. I’ll try not to do it again” way more than they respect trying to double down on wrong or weasel out of it.

    2. “The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is stop diggin’.” Something a flight student learned the hard way after running her mouth and running her mouth even though the pilot examiner was trying to get her to see her error. Finally, he just pushed the dirt in on top of her and she got to do the whole test (oral and flight) all over again.

  3. The first, “It’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

    In an American context, I’ve seen this one as, “The First Amendment gives you the right to tell the entire world what an idiot you are, but the Fifth Amendment gives you the right to keep it a secret.

  4. The first maxim is straight out of the book of Proverbs

    I’ll note that while it’s great to admit when you’re in error, it’s also important to realize the vast difference between things that are wrong (and thus should be done differently) and things that are just a matter of preference or culture. Not that I know any people who can’t tell the difference…

    1. Well, yes. Different preferences and/or culture is not necessarily wrong. Not necessarily right, either, of course – although the room to argue where to draw those lines is somewhat larger than the Pacific Ocean.

  5. One I’ve come across is “when in a crisis and you don’t know how to fix it, do something. If it’s stupid everyone around you will let you know. If it’s not stupid, everyone around you will pitch in to help.”

    1. With the caveat “unless you’re a politician.” It’s pretty much a guarantee that anything a politician does in a crisis will be wrong.

      Not that I’m cynical or anything.

  6. My dad always said, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

    This might explain things about my life.

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