Advice I Received From Strangers in 2016

By Sunita Singh Hans, Storyteller for RU Student Life

Life lessons come to us in so many ways. Sometimes they come in the form of mistakes or accomplishments, or in the simple act of living day to day. But sometimes important life lessons come to us in the most unexpected of places, such as in the back of a cab or in a furniture store. In 2016 I travelled a lot, and often those travels led me to many people with different perspectives on the world. Most of the time those people were strangers and the wisdom and knowledge they shared, however big or small, still resonates with me more so than any other advice that I’ve ever received.

  1. “Blank out the audience.” — Theatre worker

At the start of 2016 I was working as Stage Manager for the Ryerson Musical Theatre Company and I felt completely in over my head. The week leading up to the play involved several 14 hour days in the theatre, going over every intricate detail of the production, gathering my cues and trying to keep the cast organized as best I could. As opening night approached faster and faster it became more and more anxiety inducing. I had only ever been a performer in theatre, and when I worked backstage on any productions I was usually assistant to the Stage Manager, so although I was very grateful for this position it was also terrifying at times. A few hours before opening night, things were still being rearranged which meant my cues were changing right up until the final dress rehearsal. It felt like I was never going to be able to pull it off, when a guy who worked at the theatre approached me and offered me some simple words of advice. He told me he had worked as Stage Manager in several productions, and the only way he finds a way to really focus is when he blanks out the audience. I took this in for a second. Blank out the audience? How could I possibly? Yes, a curtain separated us, but I would be able to hear their reactions and see some of them on screen. But what if I just ignored the screen until the audience was seated and not as noticeable? What if I treated their reactions as just a laughing track? I decided on the first night to treat it like another dress rehearsal and I completely blanked out the audience as I called out my cues. Surprisingly enough, it worked. The train did not derail. Yes there were hiccups, like there are on most opening nights, but we sailed through them smoothly and calmly as though it was just another rehearsal and as though the audience were simply not there. During the four nights we performed, I saw the audience only once on the final night, and I had convinced myself so much that they weren’t real that it was startling to see actual humans sitting in front of me.

Since this experience, I like to apply this advice when I’m working on something new that I’m proud of but that I’m too scared to share. Sometimes amazing ideas come to us and we just want to take control of the wheel and conduct our dreams, but the thought of sharing it with the world can be discouraging and downright scary. But when we blank them out, it’s then that we find the courage to do it anyway, to take the driver’s seat and steer our life into any amazing direction that we desire.

2. “Enjoy right now.” — Fortune Teller

This piece of advice was so invaluable to me that I wrote an entire blog post about it. But to sum it up, Irish fortune tellers are the best people to go to when you’re feeling lost in your life. It’s so easy to feel lost in your early twenties and that can derail us, leaving us searching for answers in the strangest of places. It’s important to have your perspective on life refocused every once in awhile, and sometimes even fortune tellers will you to “Stop looking so far into the future. Enjoy right now.”

3. “Fight for who you are.” — Troye Sivan

Now this one is kind of a push, because it wasn’t like Troye and I went for lunch and he shared his deepest darkest secrets with me. Instead he was speaking to a crowd, but I consider concerts an intimate experience in which the artist intends for every person in the crowd to feel like they’re speaking exclusively to them. Also, this advice is just too relevant and important not to share.

On the night of the presidential election I was atTroye Sivan’s concert. The votes were being counted as Troye played for the crowd, and for a moment it felt like the weight of the world was lost on us. I wasn’t thinking about the inevitable doom that was about to hit America, but rather I assumed it would be a night of celebration. And it was, as a guy proposed to his boyfriend in-between songs. Troye saw this, and when he addressed the crowd before singing his song “Heaven” which celebrates the LGBTQ community, he talked about the disruption in America that’s been caused by the election. He talked about how important the LGBTQ community are and how much they have had to fight for who they are. He talked about people who had died from AIDS, and how their loved ones went to the White House and spread the ashes as a sign of protest because they weren’t getting enough funding for HIV research. And how there is now a person “trying to get into the white house who is trying to use that funding for gay conversion therapy.” Just a few hours later that person would be elected into the White House. Troye ended his speech by saying “No matter what happens in the US tonight, the LGBTQ community has always been here, we will always be here. We’re gonna be fine.” He then thanked the couple for inspiring him, and taking in what just happened and the words of Troye, I realized just how important it is to constantly fight for others, to assure that they are recognized and aware that they are loved. More so than ever before.

4. “Use the timer trick when working.” — Guest Speaker

I took a Dramatic Writing class in my second year which was one of the more challenging times of that semester. I’ve always loved writing, particularly scriptwriting, but I don’t feel like I have the time to really do it as much I’d like to. Even when I was taking a class that focused entirely on writing a script I found it to be a daunting experience when I had too many other classes that I also had to focus on. In one of our classes we had an experienced scriptwriter come in for a guest lecture who spoke to us each individually about our concerns for our scripts. After explaining my struggle to him he admitted that he experienced the same difficulties when he first started writing, because he felt like he didn’t have the time to perfect his writing as much as he would like to. “There’s always a distraction,” he said to me, “To have the self-discipline to sit down and write and shut off, it’s a very difficult task, especially when you’re required to do it for hours on end.” Then he explained how he started using a timer when he worked, and for one hour each day he would dedicate it solely to writing. So instead of saving hours on the weekend to write when he’s more likely to be distracted, he now sets a timer for one hour everyday and shuts off completely from social media and his cellphone. I’ve since tried this and found that writing in a very constrained amount of time has definitely made me so much more focused and a better writer, and it’s much easier to shut off from everything when you know it’s only an hour of each day.

5. “Self-love is not a Dove commercial.” — Dainty Smith

A few months ago I attended the “Art Heals: Interventions in Addressing Sexual Violence panel” during Social Justice week. I listened to five incredible women speak about their experience with sexual violence and had a chance to talk to them after the panel. Something that really struck me was when one of the panelists named Dainty Smith was talking about self-care. “Self-love and self-care is not a Dove commercial. Sometimes it means binge-watching TV shows or eating that burger. It’s a tricky process. One day you feel like Clark Kent and the next you feel like Superman.” This struck a chord with me and changed my entire perspective on self-love. In order for self-love to have any effect, I always assumed it had to be an activity in which you’re doing something that’s healthy and productive and even glamourous in order to feel good about yourself after. Dainty, however, cited watching Netflix, taking herself out on coffee dates, and reading fashion magazines as her definition of self-love. This made me rethink how I approach taking care of myself, and since then I’ve found that indulging in guilty pleasures every so often doesn’t actually make me feel as guilty as I thought it would. It actually makes me more in touch with myself and putting what I need before anything else.

6. “Get out of this town while you can.” — Furniture store employee

Over the summer I redecorated my childhood bedroom, and while doing so I stumbled upon many forgotten items of my upbringing that riddled me with nostalgia. Sometimes I feel so guilty about leaving my hometown, and I’m constantly conflicted on whether to settle there or to run. When going to a furniture store to buy a new bed, it was the last place I ever expected to get a fresh perspective on where I started in life and how far I’ve come. When telling my mum stories from my trip to Los Angeles, one of the employees overheard. “You went to LA?” she asked, “What was it like?” I talked to her for a while about LA and moving to Canada when I was 19, and she was completely amazed. It reminded me of how rare it is for anyone from my hometown to leave Ireland. The girl couldn’t have been older than her mid 20s, and she started telling me about her children. “I love being a mom,” she said “but I wish I had travelled the world before I settled down.” I thought about how she was only a few years older than me, yet she had her future mapped out in front of her, and I was completely unsure of my own. I found it ironic, really, that I was looking for a place to settle and all this girl wanted was to run. It’s a typical thing to want the life you haven’t experienced yet, and although I want to be more settled in life she reminded me how invaluable these years are, my chance to explore the world and experience it, to mess up and to keep on moving.

7. “Be a good person and good things will happen to you.” — Tour Guide

During my trip to Los Angeles, I went on the Warner Brothers tour where I met a man named Hector. Hector was my tour guide, and over the course of the day he tolerated my fangirl moments and gave me invaluable advice about the television industry. Hector took us to the Ellen DeGeneres studio where he works as a wrangler, a job that many of my friends in Media Production would kill to have. “How did you get the job?” I asked him, and noticed in his hesitation that he wasn’t really sure how to explain it. “It’s actually a funny story,” he said, “I was never meant to have a permanent position here. I was just called over one day to wrangle guests and to make sure they were comfortable and happy before the show. I got talking to one of the guests, who just so happened to be Ellen’s wife Portia. Portia told Ellen that I was really kind to her that day, and she would be crazy not to hire me full time. And now I work at the Ellen show.” It amazed me how simple it all seemed, but Hector assured me that the key to success really is easy. “You never know who is paying attention to your kindness,” Hector said, “Just be a good person in life. Good things will happen.”

8. “Life is too short for grudges. Just look at what happened to Prince.” — Uber driver

On my last day in California we took a drive to chase the sunset to Redondo Beach. Our Uber driver was a woman named LaShona, and it was her first day on the job. She talked to us about how much she was loving her first day because she loves chatting to people, and how she took this second job while she was studying nursing in order to support her son. She told us about how much she loved her family and living in California, and her overall appreciation for life which was astounding and inspiring. When we had landed in Los Angeles on the first day, Prince songs were playing everywhere. I didn’t think much of it since I had just landed and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Los Angeles to honour incredible icons. A few hours later I heard that he had died. On this last day, LaShona expressed how precious she found life. “Life is so short,” She simply said, “Too short for anything negative. If you have a problem with someone, sort that out. Life is too short for grudges. Just look at what happened to Prince.” Since then we have lost so many more iconic artists in 2016 that were gone too soon. During our last drive in California, LaShona reminded me of the beautiful fragility of life and how important it is to spread our magic when we still have the chance.

And my first piece of advice from a stranger in 2017:

“Be a badass woman and don’t apologize for it.” — Women in restaurant

We’re now a month into 2017, and it’s been easy to feel discouraged with everything that’s been happening in America and here at home in Canada. However, despite the discrimination and hateful acts, I’ve found hope and comfort in the words of women and minorities who demand their voices be heard. The Women’s March was one of the most incredible acts of defiance I have seen in my lifetime, and I’m so grateful for every single person who marched and stood up for women everywhere. On the day of the march, I met my cousin for lunch who was holding the sign she had made the night before. Many other people came in with their signs, looking exhilarated and empowered. Donald Trump appeared on the TV in the restaurant, and I saw for the first time his title “President Donald Trump” appear on screen, feeling absolutely sickened. As we were leaving, three women who were at the table next to us told us that they loved my cousin’s sign which read “Women’s rights are humans rights”, and we expressed our appreciation for their sign that boldly stated “Bring it Donald! We women have lots of practice fighting sexist egomaniacs like you.” We talked about the march and how important it is, now more than ever, to fight for our beliefs. “It’s the one good thing to come out of this election,” one of the women said, “Look at how powerful we are when we come together. Let’s keep it up.”