I’m four days from my fortieth birthday, and thinking hard about what I’ve learned over the past four decades. Over the next four days, I’m going to write about the four lessons that were hardest for me to learn – these are not necessarily the most important, or the most valuable, or the most insightful. They were just goddamn hard to learn, and in fact I’m still struggling to get them right.
People who give advice usually believe that some particular experience has given them an authority that others might want to regard seriously. That isn’t the case with me: although I’ve had many instructive experiences, I don’t think my historical record is what makes me qualified to give advice, and I don’t think everyone should take my advice seriously. Instead, what makes me qualified to give advice is that I am spectacularly bad at taking it.
I’ve had the great good fortune of having many wise people tell me many wise things, and my usual practice is to squander that good fortune by refusing to take even the best advice at face value. Instead, I question, I doubt, I criticize, I experiment, I delve down dark alleyways of impulse and instinct – and in the end I painfully find that I should have listened to the wisdom of my betters.
The problem with wise advice is that you have to have wisdom to appreciate it beforehand. And if you had the requisite wisdom in the first place, you wouldn’t need the advice so badly. I never understand good advice until I’ve had the opportunity to fail to follow it. Only by living the bad consequences first-hand can I understand the underpinning that upholds solid wisdom.
Let’s hope that my misfortune is your bounty in these next four posts.