1. Kindness. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think she was right, and kindness is one of the best ways of making people feel the way you’d like them to. But quite apart from how you are remembered, acts of kindness (even rather small ones) are an investment that pays immediate and continuing dividends: they will help take your mind off your own problems and remind you that you have a chance to make some positive difference in the world.
2. Forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask “Forgive us our sins [debts, trespasses] as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Many people who recite those words may not pause to recognize the quid pro quo: in order to receive forgiveness, we must be forgiving of others. And there are times we must all be forgiven by God, by family and friends or even by ourselves.
3. Religion. Is there a God? If so, what is His (Her) nature? These are questions for which the answers are unknowable, or at least I have found them so. But if they are unknowable, they nevertheless deserve continuing reflection. And the answers that others believe they have found deserve our respect, no matter how unpersuasive we may find them.
4. Family. The importance of a loving and stable relationship, with a spouse or partner, can hardly be overestimated. Maintaining such a relationship requires all the advice on these pages and then some. Children can be a source of searing pain or astonishing joy and comfort. They should be brought into this world with a clear sense of responsibility, but if you raise them with understanding, patience and humor, there is a good chance that one day they will treat you the same way.
5. Health. Diet and exercise are important matters to which I regret having paid only spasmodic attention. At the moment, I enjoy undeservedly good health, but I find that, as a newly-minted septuagenarian, I am unafraid of death but terrified that I might suffer a serious and prolonged illness.
6. Honesty. The adage that “Honesty is the best policy” is good practical advice. Most people who have gotten into serious trouble did so by committing acts that, morality aside, were never worth the risk. When I left the government, a friend asked me what I learned. One thing I said was, “If someone ever tells you not to worry about something because “it will never come out,” do not believe them.”
7. Seriousness and Humor. Try to think serious thoughts about serious matters at least some of the time (for example, the preceding paragraphs), but without taking yourself too seriously. Never forget that all advice is easier to give than to follow (even by the one who gives it.) Cultivate your sense of humor. As Ogden Nash once said, it can be “a shield, a weapon, a survival kit.”
8. Procrastination. All of us tend to put things off, but as Shakespeare wrote,”Procrastination is the thief of time.” Ah, the man had a way with words and there was no wiser observer of the human condition. Procrastination is a thief not only of time but energy and morale. Some problems may be illusory and will disappear on their own, but if a problem is genuine, or a task must be undertaken, it will probably be less formidable if confronted sooner rather than later.
9. Caution with Facts. Much of what we “know” simply isn’t so, or is a mixture of fact, opinion, impression, surmise and imperfect recollection. It may not make too much difference in everyday conversation, but in a serious discussion, or if you’re making an important decision, it pays to try to sort out what is really (provable, documented) fact and what is not.
10. Education. When you receive formal instruction (from schools, colleges and graduate and professional schools), try to learn not just what will be necessary for “the test,” but what you want to carry with you and remember (in much abbreviated form) in five years, or ten or twenty-five or more. Informal education is all around you, in books, newspapers, radio and television, the Internet, friends and neighbors, colleagues and mentors at work. The process is constant and the trick is to identify what’s worth learning and remembering. (There is no job, however boring, from which you cannot learn something.)
11. Writing. We all write, and are instructed in writing, in school, but there is always great room for improvement that can come only from continued practice. In many lines of work the ability to write clearly is essential. But for everyone, it is an important form of communication outside the workplace. Moreover, making yourself write well, or as well as you can, will inevitably clarify your thinking.
12. Music and Art/Mathematics and Science. Whether you have any gift for creating music and art, you should try to learn enough to have some depth of appreciation as early as you can. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. I know. Anyone who is going to succeed in the 21st Century will almost certainly need a far better grasp of mathematics and science than I have ever achieved.
13. Keeping in touch. As you move from school to school, job to job, and area to area, you will continually make new friends, but fall out of touch with others. Work at keeping up your relationships. In business, it’s called networking, but apart from any commercial value, it can be source of personal satisfaction and strength.
14. Superstition. Don’t be superstitious, but why take chances by writing a 13 paragraph memorandum?