Friday, 29 August 2014

Thoughts about advice.

I’ve been thinking about advice this week. I’ve been thinking about the good advice I have been given in my life, and the advice I would give to a young person if I were asked, and the advice I would give now to my twenty-one year old self.

The two best pieces of advice I ever heard came twenty-five years apart.

The first was from an older and much wiser friend. I was twenty-two, painfully in love with the wrong person, and flailing. She looked at me, very gently, and said: ‘Would you rather be proud? Or would you rather be happy?’

One could parse this and unpick it and examine it from all angles. One could put nuances on it and argue with it. But at the time, it made immediate and profound sense to me and I think of it still, every single week of my life.

What I think it meant was: misplaced pride will only make you miserable. Pretending you are untouchable when you are not, or able to do something without help, or doing fine when you are falling to pieces, will not bring you peace or joy. Humility and vulnerability might seem like hard and painful things, but in the end, being humble and vulnerable will make you a much happier human than being proud ever could.

The second piece of stellar advice came from one of my best beloveds, one who goes back all the way. We have been friends since we were eighteen, and I can’t imagine my life without her. Only last year, she introduced me to a new theory she had carved out. It was, whenever faced with a confusion or a difficult decision or just sheer raw pain or fear, think of what is the worst that can happen in that specific scenario. The answer often comes very quickly, rising from the subconscious like a trout to a fly. It often goes something like: I will fail, people will laugh, I will be left alone, I will be heartbroken. Then, you ask yourself if you can deal with it. Most often, the answer is yes. It will be hard, but the worst will not sink you. This makes taking the decision or facing the fearful thing much, much easier.

I also think you need a really good friend to go through this with. I remember mapping out one such disastrous scene with the very beloved who invented the theory. We were riding together. Over our heads, there was a bright spring sky; under us, the good horses were moving easily and kindly. In my head, all was darkness and bafflement.

‘What is the worst that can happen? she asked.

I told her.

I faced it. I contemplated it. I examined the worst from all angles. I thought I could weather it. She thought so too.

And you know the funny thing? The worst did happen, in that particular play. The final curtain did not ring down on triumph, but on messy failure.

It was difficult. It did hurt. The ramifications rippled on for months afterwards. (They can catch me still, on a bad day.) But because of that ride with that good friend, because of contemplating the crash with another sympathetic human heart, I damn well did get through it.

I think now, what would I tell someone of the Younger Niece’s generation, if they should ask for some of my aunt-ish advice? What is the most important thing I have learnt in these forty-seven years?

I have nothing very pithy. I think I might say something like: don’t disdain the unshowy virtues. Brilliance and wit and talent are all very well, but what really gets you through are the quiet virtues, like reliability, and gentleness, and dogged determination, and consistency, and patience. I would recommend my old friends, kindness and stoicism.

I think I would say: not everything is about you. Don’t make it all about you.

I may add: the things you think are the end of the world almost always are not.

There are the very obvious ones – don’t be afraid to fail; don’t be frightened of being wrong; risk falling flat on your face and be the first to laugh at yourself if you do.

I would say: empathy is an awful word, but a lovely thing to be able to do.

I would obviously tell them never to dangle their modifiers.

I would insist that human beings have much more that unites them than divides them, and that most divisions are mere constructs, hardly more than flickering shadows on the cave wall.

Something like that. I admit it needs a little work.

Everything I know comes from somebody or somewhere else: from humans I have loved, books I have read, unexpected voices on the radio, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Yeats and TS. I think the only original idea about existence that I ever came up with is not really original at all, it is just that I thought it for myself rather than pinching it. It is quite recent, and I like it.

It is: are you living a life or proving a point?

I suspect this says more about my own flaws than revealing any great wisdom, but still, it is useful in my own mazy mind. I think I may have spent quite a lot of time trying to prove a point. Look at me, with my step ball change and my jazz hands. Now, I don’t want to prove anything. I am too old for that, too chipped around the edges. I want to live a quiet Scottish life, a life that is useful in some small way, a life that adds rather than subtracts, with these trees and these blue hills and this red mare and this lurcher dog and this good earth.


Will you tell me yours? The best advice you ever got, the best you ever gave, the best you give yourself?

Only if you have time, of course.


As I finished this, I went next door. The kind Sister has given me a delightful chair. It is upholstered in very pale colours, and since I live a life of animals and mud, I put a blanket to protect it, in case the dog sat on it. The dog, it turns out, is sitting on it. I think Stan the Man has found his new favourite place.

It’s not for everyone, but some of my best advice ever would be, of course: get a dog.

Noble face:

29 Aug 1

Comedy face:


Hills and earth and sky:

29 Aug 5

Grass and heather:

29 Aug 7

Every morning she greets me:

29 Aug 10

I love this one, even though she had come too close and I was all out of focus. It makes me think of Stubbs, for some odd reason. And sometimes I like including my mistakes:

29 Aug 11

PS. Wrote 2445 words today and edited the manuscript to the end. Tomorrow, I start the third draft. So, even though I hate excuses, I must confess that my eyes are squinting and my brain has gone. Which means: THERE WILL BE TYPOS. Forgive me.


  1. Oh hello you! Firstly - I loved your ice bucket challenge on facebook; so nice to hear your voice. Oddly that is one of things missing when one has an online friendship that exists only on the screen. For all ice bucket folk it has been interesting and good to hear voices.

    Secondly I love this post about advice. This is something I have given much thought to as I have a teenage daughter and if ever there were advice to be dispensed it is now! I have a Pinterest board entitled 'wisdom for my daughter'. I print them out and stick them on her mirror for when she gets back from school. I have become a running joke with her friends for this activity. But I will shoulder that, as I feel so strongly that advice and having a moral compass is EXACTLY what grounds us. In summary, the best advice I ever got was from my Mum who is the gentlest but firmest influence in my life. Also a beloved friend who has faced some pretty dire circumstances in her life and maintains that no matter how bad we imagine it could get (the worst possible outcome), if it does actually happen, we have enormous human resilience to get through it. She says it is never, ever as bad as we think. This comforts me very much! Take care, happy Friday, Lou x

  2. I love this post too. I once worked for an incredibly difficult man, bordering on the tyrannical. It seemed that nothing I did was good enough and all my efforts were for naught. The day I left his employ, he told me that I could achieve absolutely anything I wanted to achieve with my life because I had every skill under the sun, that there was no reference on earth that could possibly do me justice. I was utterly dumbfounded. He had given not a flicker of encouragement in the nearly 3 years I worked there but on that last day he sent me on my way with words that resonate still. You can do anything you set your mind to. And you know what? So it came to be, in no small part because I felt I finally had permission to fly and nothing need hold me back. I don't know if this is a good example and it seems a little self-laudatory as I read it back, but I think it is incredibly empowering to be told something like that. The only boundaries are set by you. Happy Friday to you and all your like-minded readers.

  3. Oh and Stanley on that beautiful chair with that gorgeous, jewel coloured throw - absolutely stunning.

  4. My dad also used to suggest thinking about the worst and the best thing that could happen! My fave advice is from my Mum - a woman should have a vocation/qualification (a way of earning a living) and property. Am also fond of the Michael Neill way of thinking - most of the time stress comes from thoughts/stories we tell ourselves. Not advice as such, but calm-making.

  5. Never write down anything you don't want read out in court.

  6. Not so much advice as an attitude - "It is what it is". First heard from a friend who has applied it to everything from staff troubles to HMRC enquiries! However, it has also just got him and his wife through the loss of a still born baby - an outcome that they knew about many weeks before the birth.

  7. "Are you living a life or proving a point?" I'm not religious or particularly spiritual but if I were I'd say that I stumbled across those words for a reason. Just what I needed to hear today, so thank you. Best advice was passed down from my grandma, "look to yourself."

  8. "practise, practise and all is coming" Great yoga guru.
    "accept the suffering" A dear friend when I was suffering and fighting it rather than surrendering.
    "when the demonic voices come, ask yourself: if I wasn't the horrible person I know I am, what would it take to make me feel better. Then do it regardless of the demons telling you, you don't deserve it." (It's usually a very small gesture, like a cup of tea, or a walk in the park, or a yoga class). Actually that advice, which is from another great friend, also translates as "when in desperate straits, put yourself first even if you feel you are letting others down" and it has saved me more than once.
    "keep expectations low and be grateful for what is yet hopes can be as high as mountains" I've sort of worked that out on my own, though your blog helps.
    "nothing good ever happens after 10am at night" (That was my grandmother - and what she meant was no phone calls, no heavy conversations. Leave it all until the morning.)
    "Don't worry about whether it is any good. Just do it." From my partner on creative production at which he is very good.
    Loving the blog as always, Rachel

  9. Sorry, still don't understand "commenting as" . . . . and what's a URL? So I'll have to be anonymous. Just to say how much I agree with your best advice - get a dog. And preferably get a rescue dog, that's the best way to rescue yourself and give a wonderful animal a chance for a happy and healthy life. If anybody doesn't understand that sentence, you could always look at the website for Many Tears animal rescue. And then get a dog. Thank you Tania - another inspiration blog. Gillian

  10. Dear Tania ! Don:t know if this gets transmitted: I'm your most loyal reader since 3 years ago, when crying over your post and feeling better after that. I love dogs very much and have a dear old beagle lady. Have come to understand, that loving a horse must be a similar feel. Love your photos too. Christiane (in Germany)

  11. Took me a lot longer to leave this comment than anticipated, because I saw the first comment and had to go searching FB for your ice bucket challenge video so that I could hear your voice, too.... IT'S LOVELY!!

    Now, to the comment. Best advice I ever received:

    1. "Just don't get pregnant." - Dad, when I turned 18 and went totally off the rails.

    2. "Wait until he's not looking, then ball your fist up tight and hit him as hard as you can from the floor up." - Dad (I was in 4th grade, being physically bullied on the school bus by a boy in 7th grade. That boy went home with a huge black eye the next day, and never bothered me again. Thanks, Dad!)

    3. "People are where they want to be, and they're doing what they want to be doing." - Mom, after I commiserated with a friend who was always telling me what an awful relationship she was in, even though she was never ready to break it off. My idea was to "help her". My mother explained that people have to want the help first, and they often have to instigate the change themselves, or it just doesn't work. Excellent life advice.

    4. "JUST DO IT" - Nike I've always hated people who whinge and whine about things, threaten things, and worry aloud about things. Figure out if there's anything you can do, figure out the best way to do it, and JUST DO IT. People spend more time and effort whining about stuff than they would spend if they just got on with it. I'm not a big fan of brand advertising, actually... I'd been saying "JUST DO IT" for years before it came out as an advertising slogan from Nike. I bought the simple black bumper sticker, and it was on my beat up 1975 Nova for as long as I owned the car.

  12. These are so lovely, and so wise. Thank you for taking the time. I'm really touched.

  13. Fantastic advice, both to and from you. (And Marcheline gets the award for practical advice in your comments section, in my opinion.)

    Would steal your chair in the heartbeat. Lovely . . . but it does look particularly good with Stanley in it. He is flattering to any chair, especially in purple.

    To echo Lou, saw your Ice Bucket Challenge and it was nice to hear a voice. Suddenly realized that I never had -- guess your words were always your voice.

    PS Hearing your introduction of Red, must admit I scrambled about trying to find her actual family tree. Don't worry, I couldn't.


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