Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Three little things

Our summer vacation took us to Seattle to visit our older son, Patrick. Our downtown base was linked with a southern suburb and the bakery where he works by Rainier Avenue. On the several trips up and down this artery, we passed the announcement board (marquee?) in front of Franklin High School, and noted the following pithy advice:

Go to school

Do your work

Be nice

At first glance it may seem obvious and a bit simplistic. But I soon heard echoes in other sober reflections from a variety of sage sources.

“Go to school”

Rightly, perhaps, this is the first piece of advice: “Perseverance is the very hinge of all virtues,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in a letter to his brother. Perseverance has been neatly defined by none other than Newt Gingrich as “the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” This quality is seen, I sense, more often in nature than in politics: “A diamond is a piece of coal that stuck to the job,” wrote Michael Larsen. Also known for sticking to the job are drips of water, as in Lucretius’s observation that “dripping water hollows a stone” and Sa’di’s maxim that “drop on drop collected will make a river. Rivers upon rivers collected will make a sea.” Even creative show business types stress the importance of attendance: Woody Allen wrote that “eighty per cent of success is showing up.”

And Bob Hope noted of his career; “I have always been in the right place at the right time. Of course I steered myself there.”

“Do your work”

Albert Einstein placed work very prominently in his equation for success: “If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.” Margaret Thatcher also stressed that talent and having a clear goal are not enough for significant achievement: “What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing you are doing: knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.” Many such thoughts are neatly summarized in the anonymous comment that the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.

But perhaps my favourite quotation on this topic is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his journal:

“To every reproach, I know now but one answer, namely to go again to my own work.

‘But you neglect your relations.’ Yes, too true, then I will work the harder.

‘But you have no genius.’ Yes, then I will work the harder.

‘But you have no virtues.’ Yes, then I will work the harder.

“Be nice”

This reminds me of Willy Loman’s line: “The man who makes an appearance [which sounds again like “Go to school”], the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Clearly, creating personal interest includes taking an interest in others. As Alice Duer Miller put it: “Good manners are the technique of expressing consideration for the feelings of others.”

Francis Bacon echoes the famous metaphor of his contemporary John Donne, putting it this way: “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.” As Sarah Orne Jewett put it,“Tact is a kind of mind-reading.”

Alexander Pope stresses that being nice starts with being comfortable with oneself: “True politeness consists in being easy one’s self, and in making everyone about one as easy as one can.” This use of the word “easy” is very similar to another British comment from the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift’s “Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse.” From the same time and place comes this comment from Samuel Butler: “it is tact that is golden, not silence,” although Disraeli later wrote that “Tact teaches you when to be silent.” Or how about this very thorough account from J.G.Randall, who explains tact as “a number of qualities working together: insight into human nature, sympathy, self control, a knack of inducing self-control in others, avoidance of human blundering, readiness to give the immediate situation an understanding mind and a second thought. Tact is not only kindness, but kindness skillfully extended.”

One can only hope that this powerful combination of empathy and self-restraint is both taught and modeled not only at Franklin High School, but in any educational context.

The Franklin High tryad reminds me of Garrison Keillor, who has a similar three-part urging at the end of each day’s Writers’ Almanac on NPR:

Be well

Do good work

Keep in touch

There is clearly a good deal of overlap, and we might try melding the two lists by interpolating a few details, something like this:

In order to shew up every day, you need to take care of yourself, eat, rest and exercise appropriately.

If you do that, you will be in a position to always do your best work.

But your success also depends on the collaboration and support of your colleagues, so stay close and treat them well.

Which, I fancy, is not a bad recipe for success, not only in academic contexts but in professional and social environments as well.

Which tempts me into one final stretch, the arena of relationship advice. When considering possible partners with whom to share your life, consider this little check list:

Are they willing to admit they don’t know everything and to always keep learning ?

Are they prepared to work on the relationship while continuing to do their own work of personal growth?

Do they take care of themselves, in all senses, from the dietary to the spiritual?

Do they continue to communicate (including listening) even in the difficult times?

If you get three or four affirmatives to these interrogatives, then hold on tight to the individual in question, for you have found someone of whom the authorities at Franklin High School would surely approve greatly.

I know I would.

No comments: