Advice that made a difference
Observer, Dunkirk, NY
by Daniel O’Rourke
Observer, Dunkirk, NY
by Daniel O’Rourke
The new year is a time for resolutions, good intentions and giving and getting advice. Advice, however, can be dangerous. Author Walt Schmidt wrote, “Advice should always be consumed between two thick slices of doubt.” And the humorist P. J. Woodehouse tongue-in-cheek said, "I always advise people never to give advice." So this new year I won’t give any either.
Instead I’ll take a look back to advice I’ve received that helped and still helps me. I’ll try to filter out the bromides and platitudes and to speak to that which really worked. Initially, much of this advice pertained to the workplace, but inevitably it made a difference in my life away from the office.
When I first worked at the University, I was involved in a long-forgotten administrative squabble. An older colleague took me aside. “Remember, Dan,” he said, “administration is a contact sport.” Administrators -- and all of us -- often battle for limited pieces of a finite pie. Whether it’s the company or family budget we compete -- and hopefully negotiate. We are all after the rebound under the banking board. There you’ll often get and give an elbow in the ribs, but when the game is finished, remember that it was only a game. Don’t nurse your bruises, feel sorry for yourself, or take it personally. It was just a game. Move on. Administration is a contact sport, but so is life.
I came upon some related advice in the autobiography of Tip O’Neil, former Speaker of the House. Tip never took the game personally. His advice: “Your adversary on this issue could well be your ally on the next.” Don’t label people as good or evil, management or labor, friend or enemy. In fact, don’t label them at all. Despite your differences, work with them whenever, on whatever you can. Be genuinely affable. Remember Tip O’Neill, even his adversaries liked him. In the long run affability will mean more than all your strategies and talents.
Another work related gem with wider implications was making decisions on the office paper flow. “Never think,” the advice went, “in terms of temporary parking places.” Make a decision. Do something about the letter/form or report. Move it along. Follow-up, obtain more information, make a phone call; forward it to someone, file it properly, throw it out. But never, never let it lie around. Be decisive; keep it moving. Not only your desk but your mind will be uncluttered.
In order to decide however, we must accept the reality that our decision will be imperfect. Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing imperfectly. When personal integrity and principle are not fully involved -- and they seldom are -- be open to the practical compromise. If you can’t get the entire loaf, settle for half -- or if you must for a few slices. Politics after all is the art of the possible -- and many decisions are political.
Moreover, keep things in perspective. Someone once counseled me. “Take the five years test.” Ask yourself what will I think of this five years from now? Will I even remember it? Is it really that important? Are there more significant facets to consider? Is “winning” more important than damaging a relationship?
Long ago when I was appointed to a responsible position in the religious order to which I belonged, a priest friend told me, “You’ll need help, Dan. No one can do this alone. Think in terms of the people who can help you.” We all need help. We need it raising our families, doing our jobs, volunteering, writing a column. As John Donne reminded us, “No man is an island.” Admit it. To do so is not weakness; it’s wisdom. Look for help. Ask for it.
A huge piece of advice that made a difference was from time management expert Steven Covey. He preached, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Stay focused. Don’t be distracted by the bells and whistles. Stay on the main road. Don’t wander down seductive alleys. Covey’s famous quadrant can be immensely helpful, a powerful antibiotic for procrastinators. In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey divides tasks on the basis of their importance and urgency. The trick is to spend most of your time on the important tasks in order to keep them from becoming urgent. The term paper assigned at the beginning of the semester is important; it is not yet urgent. That, however, is the precise time to start researching and writing. At the end of the semester, the paper will indeed be urgent -- and pressure, if not panic, will be churning in your soul. Covey would have us deal with tasks reflectively and calmly without the stress and shortcuts urgency entails.
Finally, every summer Harvard University sponsors a seminar for newly appointed college presidents. For years Father Timothy Healey, long-time President of Georgetown University, was a presenter. His advice to the new presidents was simple, “Never lie,” he said, “obfuscate, if you’re forced to, equivocate, evade, fudge, quibble, but never, never lie.” A tad Jesuitical, Father, but solid practical advice.
All that advice, for what it’s worth, still helps me. I hope it helps you to have a fruitful and productive year.
Daniel O'Rourke is a married Catholic priest. Retired from the Administration at SUNY Fredonia, he lives in Cassadaga, NY. His column appears in the Observer, Dunkirk, NY on the second and fourth Thursday each month. He has published "The Spirit at Your Back," a book of his previous columns. It may be purchased or comments sent to firstname.lastname@example.org