By Alex from Ithaca, NY — FlickrUploaded by Ekabhishek, CC BY 2.0,

The Best Advice

In a recent conversation someone asked me: “What is the best advice you have ever received?”

I stumbled. I eventually came up with something appropriate and safe: “A friend told me to marry Theresa (my wife).” And it was excellent advice. And very definitely the best advice. But somehow it didn’t quite fit the bill. I returned the volley to the questioner and she gave me a great response, the famous quote of Teddy Roosevelt’s: “Credit belongs to the [person] who is actually in the arena…”

The conversation moved on, but I didn’t. I brooded for a while trying to come up with a better answer.

Two Kinds of Advice

In trying to do a better job in answering the question, I realized that there are really two kinds of advice: tactical and strategic.

Great tactical advice included my undergraduate advisor Terry Nichols-Clark telling me to abandon my pursuit of an urban planning degree and instead seek a Master’s in Public Policy. “Planning is a 19th century notion,” he said. “No one is planning cities any more, they are running them. And that is Public Policy.” Equally good was the advice of OMB Director Frank Raines who told me that if I was going to make the then-questionable decision to go work in the District of Columbia Government (in 1998): “Work with the Police Department. If you can help make a difference there you will improve the quality of life for everyone in the city at the most fundamental level.”

Somewhere in the middle of tactical and strategic was the advice of my mother who told my brothers and me that: “The words ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Thank you’ are the easiest and often the most appreciated. And yet some people find it almost impossible to say them.” There was also the advice of the soccer coach: “Look where you want to shoot the ball, not where you don’t” (i.e. the goalie). And to steal the trick of my interlocutor, taking a quote and using it as advice, the great Wayne Gretzky who said: “You miss 100% of the shots you do not take.” (Or something to that effect. None of these are direct quotes!)

Which gets us to strategic…

My negotiations professor Stuart Diamond taught our class that: “The second best outcome of any negotiation is walking away.” Better to get nothing than to get something you didn’t want. Maybe more constructive and strategic was his advice on what to do in the case you couldn’t resolve a negotiation: “Make the subject of the negotiation bigger.” By extending the area of discussion there is more opportunity to find items to trade.

Yogi Berra may have said “Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.” I saw this as a humorous reminder that challenges my team and I faced were often long-standing in their origin. Another version of an admonition for patience was Jack Valenti’s famous quote: “The three most important words in the English Language are: Wait. A. Minute.” However, patience should not outweigh the passion for change and difference-making. This tension Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation describes as: “Burning Patience.”

But my favorite advice/quote is from Bobby Kennedy. A politician I admire for the fact that he would not talk down to his audience. He would raise them up to the higher ideals he was trying to build coalescence around.

I am most inspired by his statement: “Some see things as they are and ask, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

The best advice inspires and motivates you to act. And the best questions are the ones that you continue to try to answer even after the conversation is over.

What was the best advice you ever received?