When Words of Wisdom are not so wise, and the very best things go unappreciated

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I’M ALWAYS HUNGRY for good advice no matter where it comes from. And advice from a former boss or mentor is usually the best.

That’s why a recent Wall Street Journal article titled ‘The Best Advice a Boss Ever Gave Me‘ grabbed my attention. But it was the subhead that really pulled me in, because it teased the article by saying, “We asked five luminaries for the most indelible counsel that has stuck with them over the years — and you might need to hear it, too.”

Sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it?

I certainly thought so, however marketing has reached the point that all too often the pitch is FAR better than whatever it is that they’re actually pitching.

It seems that I got drawn in by the headline and subhead on The Wall Street Journal article, but this was a classic case of something being oversold and a lot less than advertised.

Real wisdom is in the eye of the beholder

Here’s how the Journal set it up:

“Truly good advice from your boss — the kind that turns a manager into a mentor — is rare enough that when it comes, it stays with you (sometimes as a Post-it note permanently attached to your monitor).

As part of a special deep dive into ways to improve one’s work life, we turned to luminaries in the fields of design, fashion, food, technology and travel and asked them for the best counsel a supervisor ever gave them. The wisdom that stood out amid all the platitudes and buzzwords. Read on for universally applicable lessons on martial punctuality, culinary experimentation and more.”

REAL WISDOM IS in the eye of the beholder, of course, and what the WSJ was touting is really more professional advice that resonated with the recipient.

It left me wondering — how many of these five examples of wisdom and sage advice from a treasured boss are so unquestionably great that they should be shared with the large and influential readership of The Wall Street Journal?

By my count, only two out of the five make the cut, and while a .400 batting average makes you an all-time great in major league baseball, it’s middling at best for a publication like the WSJ.

Great insight from a real Mythbuster

Adam Savage., longtime host of Mythbusters

The very best advice in the Journal article — again, wisdom that should resonate with a LOT of people — was from Adam Savage, who was labeled by the WSJ as “a special effects designer and editor in chief of Tested.com.”

That’s all true, of course, but it fails to note what most people really know Adam Savage for — as co-host for 20 years (with Jamie Hyneman) of the Discovery Channel television series MythBusters.

Here’s the advice and wisdom that stuck with him:

“Back when I was a young model maker, my boss and I were bidding on a prop build for an indecisive client. After six rounds of communication, we still didn’t know enough to make our bid. My boss told me to tell the client we got another gig and couldn’t take the job. ‘When the client is difficult before you’ve even agreed to work with them, they’re going to be a nightmare,’ he said. I’ve found that holds true”

Yep, that’s really good advice that can be applied to a great many situations. It’s well-worth remembering, and the version of it that I found to be solid wisdom was this: things are usually at their best in the very beginning, and if they aren’t good at the start, they’re probably not going to get any better in the future.

It’s the same wisdom Adam Savage imparted with just a little twist to it.

THE OTHER GOOD ADVICE from the WSJ article was from Bear Grylls, who is described in Wikipedia as “a British adventurer and television personality,” and by the Journal as “the host of ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge,’ on the National Geographic channel.”

Bear Grylls.

Here’s what he told the Journal:

“When I first joined the military, a sergeant major told me: ‘If you’re less than five minutes early, you’re late.’ I’ve never forgotten those words and have always tried to make it a mantra when filming or working. I really notice it in others too, on expeditions for example. It speaks to diligence and dedication.”

That’s the kind of advice my Dad used to give me, and it’s the kind that a lot of people get because it speaks to the importance of being punctual and serious about whatever task you have chosen to undertake.

But the words of wisdom from the other three “luminaries” touted by The Wall Street Journal? Not so much, They were moderately helpful, at best, but not anything like “If you’re less than five minutes early, you’re late.”

You should check out ‘The Best Advice a Boss Ever Gave Me‘ and see if you agree.

Sometimes, the best things are the least appreciated

ONE MORE THING: As someone who has been an editor for a few years, I’d file this Journal article under the category “good idea poorly executed.” That’s because only one of the five luminaries had a really memorable story with great wisdom that would make an impact on the average reader.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but that’s what happens when the story is touted as The Best Advice a Boss Ever Gave Me‘.

Still, it got me thinking.

The one and only Tom Plate

My former boss, the late, great Tom Plate, who I wrote about here when he passed away in May 2023, had a lot of wise insights. Many were things his mentors passed along to him, but that’s the way it goes when it comes to wisdom and advice because much of what we get are things that have been passed down through the generations.

Want some examples? Here are a few that I heard when we worked together at Hearst’s Los Angeles Herald Examiner:

  • Always go with your best stuff — It may sound like a non sequitur, but this stems from the heyday of daily newspapers when editors were constantly juggling articles to make sure they had something good for the big Sunday paper. Tom Plate’s admonition was that editors worried too much about tomorrow when they just needed to go with their best stuff today.
  • Always aim up when writing or editing for readers. Tom always felt that all too often, publications tried to oversimplify things for readers. He felt, rightly, that readers should be given the benefit of the doubt, so writers and editors should avoid dumbing things down and always needed to aim up, not down, for everything that went in the newspaper.
  • Less is more: This is one I passed along to my college students when I taught opinion writing at Cal State Fullerton. It’s based on the premise that people don’t need to get overwhelmed by facts and figures when you’re trying to persuade them. I still practice this “less is more” philosophy when I write this blog. As I re-read and edit what I have written, I do so with an eye toward what I might be able to take out. Less is more is ALWAYS the ultimate goal.
  • The 10 percent rule — Tom picked this up from Clay Felker, the legendary editor who founded New York magazine. Felker felt that every article could be improved by cutting another 10 percent out of it, making for a quicker, easier read. Tom proved to me that Clay Felker was right.

Tom Plate was a good friend, a mentor and was always there with wisdom and advice. I wish I had spent more time making a list of all he told me before he was gone.

But I sell myself short sometimes, and in my search through old emails from Professor Tom, I found something I wrote to him when he asked what I thought about an opinion column he wrote back in 2020 for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s English language daily newspaper.

Tom wrote me and said he thought this April 2020 column titled Donald Trump may not be a coronavirus expert, but it doesn’t mean he’s completely wrong, or that science is always right. He said that it was his “latest wisdom, but methinks it will be misunderstood.” I responded with an email about how I liked his column, and his insights, and I ended with this:

“Keep the faith, Prof. Plate. Thank God you’re expressing a view that desperately needs to be a major part of the discussion, and remember that sometimes, the very best things that people do are the least appreciated.”

Yes, sometimes the very best things that people do ARE the least appreciated. As I look back it this, I’m surprised a bit of wisdom like this was imparted by someone like me.

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