I once had a professor who liked to joke about being grateful for his envious colleagues. He said that because of their own peculiar manners, they insured that no one one in close proximity could ever suffer from swollen head syndrome. He then explained how there was an unwritten custom in his department against anyone exhibiting the slightest outward display of pride or elation if one was fortunate enough to receive acclaim or accomplishment external to the university. Doing so, he said, would be met by stony silence, indifference, or outright jealousy. He imparted to us his own simple, cautionary axiom:
“You are always more popular outside of your own neighborhood.”
I lived by that admonition for years. It served as an apropos consolation for the times in my own career when I may have felt timid in regard to my abilities or standing. Unless you are predisposed with an excess of confidence (in which case you probably have more to worry about than you realize), I always saw my own work history as one that had significant peaks and valleys of accomplishment. Like most of us, I went through periods of personal triumph followed by moments of furtive apprehension. That old saw of “you’re only as good as your last success” does have some truth.
The same condition — perhaps one with more personal consequences — exists within a coterie of familial and fraternal connections too. The more familiar we are with someone because of a long-standing or intimate relationship, the greater the opportunities become ripe for contemptuous remarks and acerbic observations made at our expense. For instance, I am the youngest in my own family and have three older sisters. No matter how successful I may have been in my field, or maybe in spite of a particular expertise I might hold on a topic (about which my siblings are not as conversant), any nugget of wisdom I may wish to impart is nonetheless subject to the scrutiny of my older, wiser elders. I am even certain this will be the case when I hit 80 and they, God willing, are still alive.
I digress here for a telling of my favorite, Dave Barry-inspired, “I swear I am not making this up,” memory involving said siblings. Upon meeting the woman who was about to become my first wife, my next oldest sister closest in age decided to provide her own personal take on the man my then-fiancé was about to marry:
“Yes, you see in the beginning there were just us three girls… and then Jesus Christ was born.”
Even I had to admit that as sarcastic familiarity goes it was brilliantly phrased. If only she had been able to pull it off by saying it in Yiddish, it would’ve been even more trenchant.
My poor father had to deal with my own stubbornness the further I clawed my way into adulthood. Certain that I knew better than him, I constantly pushed back at his thoughtful suggestions and advice. He was the last person I felt could offer me any advice. Yet the minute he was gone I missed being able to call him to ask about things. I still miss him in fact.
Nevertheless, my old professor was on to something about respect and regard outside of your own professional adjacency. A year and two months into my retirement, I was recently able to experience on a small-scale the dynamic of how physical separation from the work setting allows me to be a safe choice to ask for my expert, analytical, and absolute brilliant judgment.
A former work friend of mine from a previous job contacted me last week for career advice. He is thinking about applying for what amounts to a big promotion with another employer, and he asked for my opinion. This is someone with whom I have always had cordial and friendly relations, but not someone I would have necessarily had a discussion with about professional aspirations. As part of our back-and-forth on e-mail and then later on the phone, he revealed to me his own strengths and weaknesses as a candidate for the position. He also brought up some of his fears, to which I offered in response a blend of sympathy and the requisite “bucking up.”
He e-mailed a few days after our last contact thanking me for my help and to tell me that he had decided to apply for the job. He also revealed that myself and one other person were the only people whom he contacted and ask for advice. In spite of our not previously having this level of sharing between us, I was both a safe choice and also someone he knew could give him the kind of guidance he felt he needed.¹
My ego now sufficiently boosted, I have in the last week strutted around our home beseeching Gorgeous to refer to me as “Sage Husband” or simply “Sage.” Thoughts of hanging out a virtual shingle in which to consult on career guidance have been percolating in my head, and they in fact will stay there until roughly about the time this post is completed. The thing I like most about rested laurels is the literal connotation of the word “rest.” I have about as much ambition in my chromosomal makeup as Rick Perry and his erstwhile campaign for president. Some ideas are good to die a quick death.
Still, it’s good to feel that a certain cachet remains from the friendships and associations made over the years. As so many of my anecdotes and examples about life lessons begin to take on that dated and non-relevant quality, I am reminded that the best advice one can offer is that which is solicited only. Wait till you’re asked. Otherwise the unsolicited and uninvited forms of advice given gratuitously die a quick death. They also help to explain why phone calls, emails, and invitations will suddenly dry up.
So, got a question? I’m here. Come On-A My House.
¹ I have his permission to write this post.