As I approached my birthday, I started to think of the things I’ve learned in my first 29 years on the planet. I thought it might be fun to put together the lessons I gathered into a list. I started writing it out, and though I had some mildly clever thoughts, I realized that most of my lessons came from my family, friends, bosses, coworkers and the great writers of the world. Here I’ll provide a small homage to the lessons they’ve taught me, in shaping me into the woman I am today. It’s a sort of collection of educational gifts I’ve received over the years.
1. “You can never be too kind.” — Mom
My mother is known as Marilyn the Good for a reason. She’s so giving, thoughtful and conscious of other people’s needs. She has done this as a nurse for more than 35 years and as a family and community member. She once told me a story about how she was taking care of a patient who was recovering from a difficult surgery. A colleague told her that she was spending too much time with the person, that she was being too nice. My mother replied straightaway and directly, “There’s no such thing as too nice.” Kindness shouldn’t be limited, as you never know the difficulties someone else is dealing with. When I’m frustrated with an interaction, I often think back to this advice, take a deep breath and work on my smile, my empathy, and my kindness.
2. “Would you rather be happy or be right?” — Dad
We were sitting around the supper table one summer evening, talking about everything from food to music to politics, and as they often do, the debates ebb and flow. Sometimes heated, though mostly we stick to the friendly banter and badgering. But Dad came up with a simple question: “Would you rather be happy or be right?”. It seems like a pretty easy choice really, as being happy is sought after whereas no one really cares about who won the argument. However, in the heat of the moment, there’s a big temptation to clarify why you are right and they are wrong. But, with any good debate, when opinions are aired, in the end, the winner is the one who walks away happy and isn’t worried about being right.
3. “Get to bed early.” — Grampie Macdonald
Every time we left Nana and Grampie’s house, Grampie’s parting would always include “Get to bed early”. Grampie was a doctor, one well-loved for his compassionate care and house calls, so that no trip to the grocery store could be made without at least one doting conversation with a former patient. He saw a lot of changes in medicine in his career, but his everyday advice was to get enough sleep. It’s a simple remedy. No medication, no elaborate wellness plan, just get to bed early. I try to follow his guidance, as my worst moments usually come when I’ve done the opposite. It’s funny that such a simple self-care step can be forgotten, but with Grampie’s advice, I try to make it a healthy priority.
4. “Feed the men, for gosh sake, feed the men.” — Grandma Coady
This is a phrase we would always hear from the kitchen on Coady Road: “For gosh sake, feed the men!” Now, this might seem like a phrase from a traditional farmhouse. But Mary Jessie was the matriarch, and also someone who taught me about feminism through this phrase and her ways. Not that she would have called it that. She often called to her eight daughters to make sure the men were fed. She said this because the men were often working in the fields and needed a timely, hearty meal. But the phrase continued even as the family grew older and the farm needed less work. Part of her rationale behind the phrase is that she knew the women could always take care of themselves. She herself taught for years and didn’t have her first child until she was 29. Which, considering how I feel even some pressure to have children turning 29 in 2016 is a reminder of how she didn’t concede to societal pressures. She raised seven very strong and self-reliant women who are models of feminism for my third generation through their compassionate, clever and sometimes global work. Though the statement itself seems conservative, the heart of it is about pushing women to take care of themselves, to be compassionate to others and to get things done.
5. ‘Do it the right way, no matter which it’s been done before.’ – Susan King*
In a non-profit, you get the benefit of trying a wide range of tasks. I had my first serious experience with budgeting, proposals and client management. I also wore a gigantic water-drop costume and was paraded about town. But in all the diverse tasks, there was a guiding principle I took from my boss Susan King. I would refer to her as a moral compass. There are many ways to complete a project, some shorter, some longer, some better, some worse. Susan would always take a fresh look, even if the same task had been done 42 times before. In an array of options, she would be easily able to see and explain the right way to complete a project to make sure it’s done in the way that best combines client expectations, staff effort, and end result. In many conversations, I would feel inundated with tasks and paths, but she taught me to trust my gut, not what’s been done before, and do it the right way. She gave me the ability to clearly see the end goal. It may not be the quickest route, but my work became easier with this certainty in knowing what needs to be done to do the job well.
*This is not a direct quote (therefore the use of ‘ vs ” in punctuation). I don’t remember Susan using this exact combination of words, but the essence of the phrase was said many times.
6. “What would you do if you were in Nunavut?” — Philippe Gingras
I learned a huge array of new skills when working with EnGlobe in Alberta. I learned how to fix a smashed monitoring well, how to survey in seriously remote locations and how to navigate environmental regulations around the world. But one of the most valuable lessons was the mindset I learned from my boss, Phil: there’s always a solution. When trying to use a frozen water pipe at a site outdoors in -30C, I didn’t think there was a solution. The problem seemed at first logistically impossible given the situation at the time. But to Phil, it was a matter of framing the issue. You simply need to figure out how you would solve the problem if you were in Nunavut. If you were far away from any resources, you only had the tools at hand, and you can’t just leave the problem and come back anytime. Sure enough, a simple kettle of boiling water solved the pipe problem and the project continued. If you have to find a solution, you will find one.
Prose and Proverbs
Desiderata — Max Ehrman
This prose poem is wisdom beautifully put. Each line contains advice on how to live peacefully in the world. It’s clever, simple and always relevant. I return to it at least once a year because I love its grounding messages. It’s the kind of poem you could keep in your pocket for when life is rocky, to read and feel better.
The faintest ink is better than the best memory. — Chinese proverb
My love of to-do lists is an homage to this proverb. If I didn’t write down my lists, my thoughts, my goals, they would have long disappeared from my memory.
Every event, project and decision I’ve made have taught me that the simpler option is the better one. It’s easier to explain, easier to understand and easier to take action on. I thought this was so important I even started a blog on the subject!
From 29 Winters on Earth
I did start a list of lessons in the first version of this post, so I have some advice that I think is still worth sharing. Though I don’t have 29 clever quips for my 29 years, here are a few thoughts for what it’s worth:
- If someone offers you a glass of water or a home-cooked meal, always say yes, please.
- Journaling is a great way to have a conversation with yourself (and not seem crazy).
- It’s really difficult to be gentle with yourself. Which must be why it’s so important.
- Genuine forgiveness usually means forgiving someone else but also forgiving yourself.
- Buy less plastic. It’s better for everyone.
- Common sense is not common. Be grateful if you’ve got it.
- It’s really difficult to create change in the world, but you can always change yourself to be in line with the world you want to create.
As I round out my twenties, I feel pretty lucky to have been surrounded by such wise role models. I find it’s rarely the advice directly given that has the most influence. It’s the thoughtful actions in-line with the words that really have an impact. The quotations above are reflections of how the mentors in my life lived. So, I realize the it’s almost silly to share a list of my own lessons and advice. Take it with a grain of salt. What’s the best advice you’ve received?