Working Together

Carolyn Chute wrote a letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which is a collection of letters from creative artists, independent film actors, and writers and poets. In her letter Chute writes about coming together and finding true value in everyone.  Chute writes, “Another nice thing to try is forgetting everything you learned in public school.  Especially the competition part — the “there are winners and losers” part.  try to think in terms of working together.  EVERYBODY has an A+.”  What she is explaining with this quote is that public schools get us in a mindset of constantly comparing ourselves to others and competing in certain situations to see who can have the best grades and prove themselves to be special.  The problem with this style of competition and proving our self worth through school work is that it excludes some students based on their personality or skills. Chute continues, “Everyone’s A+ isn’t visible or marketable or reflected in their possessions, appearance, or social graces.” What she is speaking of is true from grade school through college, into the business world, and all the way to parenting.
The school situation that Chute referenced is a reflection of how we judge people in our society, and how we chose to evaluate the successes and failures of others.  In society we tend to judge people based on their financial success, how big their home is, and what type of car they drive.  We assume that the greater they are in these areas, the happier they must be, and the more successful their relationships and health must also be.  The school system builds this in by putting us in situations where everyone hides their failures, and hangs their A+s above their desk for all to see.  And what is worse according to Chute, “School recognizes only those things you can WIN at. or at the things you can do quietly at a desk.”  In much the same way, society only judges people based on an individual’s financial “wins”.
Judging a student as successful based solely on their ability to complete their multiplication tables or score well on a vocabulary test misses out on what makes that student unique, and does not reveal the student’s personality, character, or interpersonal skills.  Judging them on a few categories that are easily visible and simple to compare against others does not give us a full understanding of the value of the student.  What Chute does in her brief paragraph is help us realize that we fall into the same pitfall in society when we judge others based on their financial status and material gains.  Comparing outward financial projections is an easy way to compare our value against others, but it certainly is not the right way, accurate way, or meaningful way to determine who has been successful or lived a valuable life.  What Chute explains is that we can not approach the world from such an individualistic perspective because we must all be connected in order to build a better planet and establish society together.  Each one of us has special skills and abilities, and we should all be working to highlight the strengths of others as opposed to working to make our own skills stand out.

Take Chances

There are a few things that I have always been terrible at doing.  Planning for trips, meeting up with friends for a late night, and getting involved with group volunteer activities are a few that come to mind.  What all of these activities have in common is that they require that I leave the comfort of my own home for a new adventure.  I enjoy the familiar and the routine, but like anyone else, I become bogged down without the opportunity to have novel experiences navigating the unknown.  The relationships I could build if I made more of an effort to get out and volunteer, spend time with friends, or explore new places would be worth so much more than the money I bank by taking things easy and settling for a quiet evening and an individual workout.


James Harmon in his book, Take My Advice, includes a letter written by  Michael Thomas Ford in which the author states, “Take Chances. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s harder than you think.  I seem to pick this scrap a lot, probably because I need to be reminded of this on a fairly regular basis.  The older you get the more excuses you come up with for why you can’t quit your job and spend three months writing that screenplay or why it’s ridiculous for you to even think about running in that marathon.  of course it’s all a fear of failure. But failing is a lot better than wondering what might have happened.  If you’re pretty sure something isn’t going to kill you, there’s no reason not to give it a shot.”


I think that Ford’s quote hits several major points for me.  Taking chances and putting myself in new situations does sound like an easy thing on the surface, but once my day gets started it begins to feel impossible for me to do all of the things that I would like to do, especially when a bigger risk is involved with any given thing.  With my limited time I find that I fall back on the comfortable habits that I have developed.  I have worked hard to build myself a routine where I take care of all the work I need to in a day from work itself, to exercise, cooking and cleaning, prepping for the next day’s lunch, and organizing small things.  What soon looses a space in my day is the exciting and fun that accompanies the unfamiliar.  Spontaneous dinners with co-workers often don’t find a way into my plans, and I never seem to plan that road trip I have been longing for.


Ford is encouraging us to get out of our comfortable daily routines that maximize our responsibility and efficiency. He certainly is not advocating for us to be irresponsible and lazy, but rather he is urging us to do something new that will build memories in ways that material items and a checklist never will. The fear of failure that Ford mentions is what drives us into a mere existence as opposed to a full life.  We want to impress others, prove our mental strength, and be productive, but sometimes our motivation for these activities stems from external rewards and sources.  Shutting off the outside voices allows us to ignore the fear of what people would say or what may happen if we do fail at something, and gives us a new reason to do the exciting thing we have always wanted.

Our End

Roger Scruton wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, and in his letter he discusses living a life that is meaningful.  In a thought experiment Scruton asks the reader to imagine their death with one of two scenarios.  In the first, you imagine that you have a lived a life full of instant pleasures, but you have not made a deep impact on the lives of others. In the second you have left a legacy not of instant pleasures, but of character and deeds that are treasured by those who were close to you.  Scruton writes, “you will come to see that there are worse things than death, and that, in the end, death is not the most grievous of your losses.  Far worse is to live too long, clinging to a life that has lost its enchantment.” This quote caps off the thought experiment, and leaves us at a place where we can consider exactly what the value of our lives should be.
This quote speaks to me about the importance of putting others first to develop meaningful relationships that will last longer than my life.  Scruton is encouraging us to make difficult decisions that will lead others to trust us, feel more open and closer to us, and want to build meaningful relationships with us.  I believe that this is the first step in living a life that is not monotonous and bland.  By actively involving others in our lives, we will open new doors and possibilities for ourselves. In turn this will lead to building lives that remain interesting and exciting as we age.

Thank Your Parents

In his collection of letters from creative people, Take My Advice, James Harmon includes a two sentence note written to him by Bettie Page, and the first sentence reads, “Show your parents that you love them by thanking them for all the good things they do for you.”  I really like this quote because so often we get caught up in life and forget to be thankful for the things we have.  I think in this quote Page is referring to the same idea, but in regards to the way we treat our parents. Not everyone had super star parents, but for those who did, it is important to remember the sacrifices that parents made so that their children could grow up in a positive situation with plenty of opportunities.


For me it has been easy to look at other people and feel as though their parents helped them more with certain things, but when I do, I am being blind to the many ways that I am lucky to have the parents that I have.  By refocusing on the positive things that my parents did to help me become the person I am today, I shift my thoughts towards being grateful for their help.  I think that Page is encouraging everyone to try and see their parents in this way, but to go beyond simply thinking about how lucky they are, and to actually make an effort to thank their parents for all of the love, support, and guidance that they receive from their parents.


At the end of his letter for James Harmon’s published collection of letters, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, Joe Dallesandro leaves the reader with one final piece of advice, “If you have to be beautiful, then do beautiful things for someone other than yourself.” This quote shows an idea of personal sacrifice, a way of looking deep within ourselves, and thoughtfulness for others.


In this quote I really enjoy the idea of being beautiful in the ways in which you help other people.  It becomes very easy in life to constantly think about yourself, and how each action you take is going to be beneficial for yourself.  It is not too often that we think of how we can do something meaningful for others, and even rarer still that we think of how we can do something for another person without thinking of how it will come back to benefit us in the future.  I know that one of my struggles involves the desire to do positive things like volunteer or donate to worthy causes without my motivation for those things being my own personal gain.  When I donate to charity I know that I will have a personal feeling of satisfaction from being a good person and helping out. Times when I have sacrificed time to volunteer and assist with things have also had an underlying motivating factor of knowing that my volunteering could be a resume booster, or possibly help me network.


By trying to think of making personal sacrifices for the good of others in the frame that Dallesandro provides us, I think we can avoid having so many of the hangups I described earlier.  When we focus on our own outward beauty and appearance we become more self absorbed, but if we try to be beautiful on the inside, and try to be beautiful through actions that are geared towards other people, then we create an attitude that is as much about serving others as ourselves.

Knowing Where You Are

Joe Dallesandro wrote a letter for James Harmon to publish in his book, Take My Advice, which is a collection of letters from creative writers and poets, independent creatives, and passionate artists.  In Dallesandro’s letter he writes about many topics, and touches on our life’s work, “Nobody’s going to fault a guy for moving on if a good opportunity comes up, but people switch jobs these days for the perks, for bragging rights, and their life’s work suffers.”

I love this quote because as a recent college graduate with a great job, I have definitely felt the pressures of wanting to have an important position, a clear work plan, and something I can brag about to my friends and family.  What is difficult for me is to envision where I want to go in a career, and still remain happy and content with the job that I have now.  I think that part of what Dallesandro is saying is that we need patience and to be self aware so we recognize when we were in a good place.  I read this quote several months ago, and even wrote this blog post itself a few weeks back. At this point I am now reading, Two Feet Back, Grant Korgan’s novel about his recovery after he broke his back and was paralyzed from the waist down.  In Korgan’s book he constantly mentions his though process during his recovery, particularly one idea, “We are exactly where we need to be.” For Korgan who was recovering from back surgery, he could not judge his progress relative to others or allow his progress to be determined by other people.  He had to focus on constant improvement moment to moment, and his refrain helped him stay focused on the present without fear that he should be doing anything other than what he was actively doing. This quote merges perfectly with what Dallesandro writes.

For me, this means that I do not have to shun the thoughts of wanting a job that pays more or sounds more impressive than my current job. I do not have to feel bad for wanting those things, but I do have to be honest with myself about where I am in my current job.  Right now I am in a job that I enjoy, but that I do want to grow within to reach new opportunities. At the same time, I have been able to recognize the ways in which my job has pushed me, and what areas and skills my job has helped me build.

Dallesandro’s quote speaks to the importance of growth and being in a position where you can maximize your potential and grow.  Finding that place and being aware of when you are in that position is important, and according to Dallesandro, when we leave that position to try and impress others, we risk ending up in a place where our skills do not fit.  Korgan would add to this idea saying that we need to be fully present in the life we currently live. For him, if we cannot be confident in the person we currently are or the position we are currently in, we will not grow and strengthen ourselves to find the change we want in life.

A Balanced Meal

In a letter written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, Joe Dallesandro writes, “When you’re young, you’re given a plate and you’re given all sorts of things to choose from, and whoever your guardian is should be trying to give you a balanced meal.”
As I have left college and entered the world of the 40 hour work week, I have begun to have major doubts about the idea of balance.  A popular idea that I have come across in podcasts from the world of business, productivity, and entrepreneurs, is that there is no such thing as a work-life balance, but rather choices of what we want to focus on.  We all have the same amount of time in a day, and how we spend that time will determine what our focus is, how well we meet goals, and what we do to achieve the things we want to achieve.
I think that the quote from Dallesandro is very interesting because it suggests that there can be a balance in interests, activities, hobbies, and meaningful work or family time, specifically when you are young and not in the world of a 40 hour workweek.  I can definitely understand Dallesandro in this quote when I look back at my own life, but I also see a major conflict.  Parents who are working 40 hours a week and who have no ability to maintain a magical balance, have to be the ones who shape and provide a balance for their children.  Left to their own, children will zero in on a single focus and loose sight of balance, and in today’s world that may mean video games, Facebook, and other unproductive activities. I am not a parent and hopefully not anywhere close to being one, but I am very encouraged by the metaphor of providing a child with a balanced meal to help them grow in many directions as they move through school, possibly into college, and off to their own independent lives.