I’m not above confessing that I am one of those spectacularly aggravating people who ask for advice and genuinely want to hear the feedback, but then swiftly ignore the whole thing, usually opting for whatever stupid plan I had in mind the whole time anyway. Now, that’s not because I’m careless with the thoughts and opinions of others—I think, generally, it’s simply that I use those sentiments to help dissect what I really think of something. To help me really figure it out, whatever “it” happens to be.
This may be the precise reason why some of the best advice I’ve ever received was unasked for, given more like a casual, unexpected gift rather than a forewarning, lesson, or consultation. For me, the best advice isn’t the stuff that just happens to sound nice (like everyone else, I have a Pinterest account for that); it’s the prescription that helps me think, rethink, and, best of all, learn.
My favorite pearls of wisdom go like this.
“Learn to distinguish what’s a you problem and what’s a them problem.”
-Henni Iwarsson, friend and executive producer
My friend Henni is a real-life version of one of those zen quotes you read on the paper end of a tea bag. She drinks a homemade green smoothie every morning, she meditates, she knits, she does yoga, she takes her lattes straight up, no syrups. She is, in many ways, the cool, calm antithesis to my wreck of nerves.
One evening, while on a production project for an advertising agency we both worked at, I asked her how she kept so uber chill. Did I, in fact, need to purchase an $80 yoga mat? (I would literally never, even if it was her only suggestion.) She very kindly, but directly, suggested I master the fine art of only caring about problems that are mine—and, more importantly, to first be able to distinguish what belongs to me and what doesn’t. Which, I exaggerate not a single bit, was a notion that had never once occurred to me before.
She very kindly, but directly, suggested I master the fine art of only caring about problems that are mine—and, more importantly, to first be able to distinguish what belongs to me and what doesn’t. Which, I exaggerate not a single bit, was a notion that had never once occurred to me before.
People encounter a life we aren’t often privy to; they wake up angry for no pin-pointable reason, they’re leaping mental health hurdles and sometimes catching their big toe, they have family stress, they’re overworked and understimulated, sometimes their dog is sick, and other times they’re just plain nasty because that’s their default mode and these things sometimes cascade into the world around them. A ricochet of aimless tension. This slant in perspective helped me stop concluding that every short email or noxious tone was because of some vast shortcoming on my part. In most cases, the root of the problem is far from related to me—even if it may feel obligatory to the everyday empath.
(Henni, whatever’s in those smoothies, it’s working for you.)
“Remember to say thank you.”
-Mike Haeg, friend and mayor of Mt. Holly, MN
I’ve never received more unasked-for advice than right before I got married or right before I had a baby, including the truck ton of clichés like don’t go to bed angry (actually, do) or sleep when baby sleeps (pffffft, that’s cute)—you know, all that means well, doesn’t actually do well in practical application stuff. The one slice I did hang onto, though, was the simplest. Say thank you. Say thank you for the big stuff, sure, but especially for the little, everyday stuff.
Two people tend to habitually take on certain tasks that end up being invisible to the other person. Putting the bills on autopay, making the vet appointments, closing the cabinet doors, restocking the toilet paper, closing the cabinet doors again, noticing we’re out of coffee, getting up with the wiggly toddler at 6 a.m. The monotony of doing these things over and over and over without appreciation or acknowledgment is where resentment lurks. And sometimes shooing it away is as straightforward as expressing some gratitude.
“Don’t be a chicken nugget.”
-Julie Feyerer, friend and creative director
Full disclosure: I’m tabling this piece of advice until further notice. Specifically, ’til after I’m no longer parenting in some of the toughest conditions in generations. But, whenever, however that happens, I’ll get back to it.
The gist here is that kids will naturally be inclined to like kid stuff—Baby Shark and bubble gum ice cream and, yes, chicken tendies. But perhaps part of the fun and magic of parenthood is to show them stuff they may not seek out on their own. Art, music not featured on KIDZ BOP, old movies, classic books, travel, and beets, I’m assuming? And though there’s plenty of Paw Patrol and mac with powdered cheese in my home, this little, um, nugget, is always in the back of my mind. Don’t children deserve the opportunity to have the same curiosity, awe, and admiration for some of the stuff we love so much? I like to think so, even if it’s at a later date.
“When people show you who they are, believe them.”
-Maya Angelou, the Maya Angelou
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…reread these words from our patron saint Maya Angelou.
“You need three things in life: a project, a crush, and something to look forward to.”
-Cheryl Meyer, friend and VP creative director
Lastly, but not least-ly, my all-time favorite piece of advice from one of my all-time favorite humans. I couldn’t tell you the date of when she said it or where we were or if it was written in an email or card or spoken very matter of factly while we chose from headlines strewn across her office floor, near one of her two lit-even-in-July Christmas trees, but what I do remember is thinking that I had to trap it in my brain and repeat it over and over and over. I had to dedicate myself to memorizing those exact words, in that exact order. It’s rare that advice is that good.
If something feels off, I ask myself if I’ve got those three things happening in some capacity or another and, if not, it generally means I need to add a new project or something to look forward to—even if it’s just Mucci’s hangover kale.
Now, it’s become something like an equation to get through life. If something feels off, I ask myself if I’ve got those three things happening in some capacity or another and, if not, it generally means I need to add a new project or something to look forward to—even if it’s just Mucci’s hangover kale.
It’s also become my favorite piece of unasked-for advice to pass along. So, dear reader, I hope it is half as helpful to you as it has been to me.
What’s the best piece of voluntary advice you’ve received? I’d love to read about it in the comments.
April (Swinson) Smasal spent her formative years in Wyoming, where her career options were limited to rodeo queen or writer. Foregoing the lure of an impressive belt buckle collection, she opted for the word thing. Now, she’s a copywriter and writer-writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, Nick, baby boy, Hank Danger and very cute-slash-spoiled French Bulldog, Arnold E. Biscuits.
BY April (Swinson) Smasal - February 15, 2021
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.