When my nephew was about 16, he asked me what one great piece of advice I would give him, as he headed into manhood. Seems he was asking everyone that question (special kid, my nephew).
I was stumped and overwhelmed with responses at the same time. I never answered his question – may have told him I’d get back to him. Never did.
And since then, I’ve answered it, to myself, so many times. Different answers float through my brain, but in the end, if he ever asks me again, I will settle on this one:
You’re never as smart as you think you are.
I was a smart kid – school came pretty easy to me and it never occurred to me that others might find it challenging. I think I was contemptuous of my peers, even before I knew what the word meant. When 14 became 18, I looked back and frowned at the silliness of my younger self, believing that NOW I knew better…NOW I was really smart. So the contempt continued.
Then I went away to university, and my world opened up in ways I could never have imagined. New music, new freedoms, new ideas, insights. Suddenly, everything that had come before was so base, common. My family, my high school friends, couldn’t possibly understand what real life was like. Their interests were bourgeois, their tastes banal. In the meantime I led my life inside an odd dichotomy of pretentiousness and self-doubt, making poor choices, putting myself last and telling myself I came first, all the while turning, turning, turning my back on the people of my past.
It continued through my twenties, and thirties. Cruelty, born of self-importance. that I inflicted on so many people. I was cruel to so many people. Superior, impatient. I thought that whatever life experience I had at the moment was so much more than I would ever need, that I was more intelligent, saw more clearly, than anyone else.
I was horrible to Greg Stone. Poor, sad Greg Stone, who had the misfortune to be my boss when I was about twenty-five years old. I thought I was so clever, tricking him in his idiocy. I remember trying to bait him into mistakes, proving to myself, and anyone else who might be willing to observe the debacle, how superior I was to him.
I’ve been thinking of Greg Stone lately. Ernest, kind, trying so hard to get back to a marriage that he had failed, a career that had gotten away from him. He was just a guy. A man, not much older than I am now, coming into work every day and trying to endure the young brat who worked for him. He didn’t deserve the derision I laid at his feet most days; no one deserves that.
Greg Stone is on my mind as an agent of them all: my parents, friends, colleagues, who witnessed me at my worst, thinking I was at my best. It shames me still, decades later. And yet probably I still commit this crime, perhaps less violently, or often, but I commit it nonetheless.
And I’ve seen others commit it. The youngsters coming up through the ranks, full of promise and confidence (or doubt disguised as confidence), making all the mistakes that I know I made. I wonder if one day, they will stop, and notice, and apologize, as I apologize now, to every Greg Stone I have denigrated, or if they will continue to climb the ladder, not noticing the whitened fingers wrapped around the rungs upon which they trod.
To my nephew, I would counsel to avoid those mistakes. To accept that there is always someone in the world who knows more than you do, and if you are lucky, those people will be generous with their knowledge. And that there is always someone in the world who knows less than you, so be kind. Be kind.