How to Live Your Life? You’ll Need a Plunger, for Starters – The New York Times

Everybody could use some guidance navigating the world, particularly the young people who are looking ahead to the next steps in their journeys. Who better to provide it than those who have done it all before? We reached out to our readers to collect their advice on life and got over 800 responses.

Here is a selection of some of the best answers, edited for clarity and length.

Life is messy. Expect it and embrace it. We’ve been brought up to expect perfection. But things happen — we make mistakes at work, we lose our jobs, we have disagreements with friends and loved ones, there are accidents, we divorce, our loved ones die. My mom always said to us as teenagers, “This too shall pass.” And it does. And it’s O.K. to be uncomfortable, sad and frustrated while journeying through that messy moment and coming out the other end stronger and wiser. Colleen Crum, 66

You will have a time that requires moral courage, but the event may be unexpected. When I was a medical student in the 1970s I did not dream of being an AIDS doctor. My moment requiring such courage came in the early 1980s when I cared for young men dying of AIDS and appeared on local television to discuss the disease. I am somewhat shy. Appearing on television to discuss an illness like AIDS in 1984 was very uncomfortable, but I did it anyway. James Horton, 67

A bad marriage, not finishing school, or working for someone you don’t like — all mistakes I’ve made — are not things to regret and certainly not things that should stop you from making better choices when the opportunity arises. Don’t let anyone tell you that correcting these kinds of errors is somehow wrong or evidence of a character flaw you should hide. It isn’t. Getting a divorce, going back to school later in life, or restarting your career are all O.K. if they make you a better, happier and more successful person in the long run. David Chassin, 55

When I graduated from high school, I made a vow to never go to school again, as I found it boring and a waste of my time. At age 26 I found myself a single mother after leaving a violent marriage. I went back to college under a great plan sponsored by the Carter presidency that helped welfare mothers get an education. I finished with a M.S. in civil engineering and had a great, enjoyable career. It’s never too late to change your life direction. Marie Zanowick Bourgeois, 68

I was an 18-year-old college student working part time in a cabinet shop. Mitch, the cabinet maker, was a great guy who taught me everything I know about woodworking and also an important thing about life:

One day we were installing a cabinet that was designed to go from wall to wall at the end of a kitchen. Mitch held up one end of the cabinet and I held up the other, and as we tried several ways to put the cabinet in place it became apparent that it was too long. So we set the cabinet down on the floor, and as I stood up from putting my end down I cast my eyes heavenward as teenagers sometimes do when the adult in the room makes a mistake.

Mitch saw my expression, and then delivered the life lesson. He said, in his very friendly voice, “Let me tell you the definition of a professional. It’s a guy who knows how to fix his mistakes.” Then he started fixing the problem, and within about 10 minutes we had installed the cabinet.

I like two things about Mitch’s definition of a professional. First, it acknowledges that no matter how good you might be at doing something, sooner or later you are going to make a mistake. And second, it says that if you truly are good at what you do, you will know how to fix what you did wrong.Dan Rosenthal, 72

CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

I tell my medical students to appoint a “board of directors” — three to five people — to guide their decisions on career and life. I also tell them to build at least three communities of friends. The communities can be work, a church, golf buddies, dance friends, etc. If you lose one community from job loss, retirement or divorce, you have others to support you. Also, having large, diverse groups of friends makes life more fun and interesting. — James Horton, 67

Find life mentors, not just career mentors. Find people who are good at the art of living, the wise ones, and tell them you want them to be available. They do not need to be friends. Then keep in touch, watch them, listen to them, learn from them. Steer clear of people who are paid to do this or imagine themselves to be gurus. Steer clear of anyone with too high opinion of himself or herself, lacking in self-deprecation or a sense of humor. Find the authentic ones who are a bit surprised you picked them out. You need several. I have been lucky enough to find them. They have made all the difference. — Patricia Hunt, 72

I kept four of my best friends that I grew up with and attribute that to feeling secure about growing up and old in the world. They’re nonjudgmental, but kind enough to know ways to point out helpful solutions when there’s been trouble, which there always will be trouble, along with good times. We have gone in different life directions, living clear across the United States from each other, but we are close enough in heart to be next door neighbors. From the Class of ’66 til now, we’re steadfast — the best thing ever. Georgia Stapleton, 70

Seek treatment for mental illness early. Years of depression and anxiety rob you of so much personal growth and enjoyment. Ignore how others might judge you for helping yourself through therapy and medication. Don’t suffer for years.— Terri Gwinner, 58

I went off to college believing I was stupid, incapable, lonely and needy. I had a victim mentality, and I used substances so that I could feel good and make it in the world. Through therapy and recovery programs, I learned that I could turn my victim state around. I began rewiring my brain: if I thought anything negative about myself, I immediately pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down 10 good things about myself (this was in the days before cell phones). My car and house filled up with small pieces of paper with good things about me. If I found myself feeling like a victim, I said to myself, “I am making a bad choice. But it is my choice to do this.” After a while, I started believing I had choices and I could make different choices. And also after a while, I stopped thinking negatively about myself. I really did rewire my brain. — Thea Iberall, 70

Young people, especially young women and women of color, need to know that the things that make you successful at school, like following rules, working the hardest and being perfect, are not what will make you happy outside of school. Follow your instincts, experiment, try things out, talk to people “way out of your professional league,” and keep dreaming big dreams. There is always a way out no matter how bad it seems — that job, that career path, that relationship — trust yourself enough to let it go if it is making you question your self-worth or it isn’t what you want to be remembered for. Zainab Shipchandler, 26

I made the choice to never date anyone other than my high school sweetheart. I regret not dating others through high school, college and grad school. We dated for eight years and were married for 18. Six years after the divorce, I was able to find the love of my life, with whom every single day is a complete joy.Susan Timm, 55


CreditHolly Pickett for The New York Times

Go on as many first dates and as many job interviews as possible in your life. Both are difficult, learned skills that get dramatically better with familiarity and practice. And no two things have a greater impact on your life outcomes than your work and your love. Hugh Moore, 39

I worked on an emergency mental health/suicide hotline. One really busy night, early in my tenure, I answered the line. Before I got even one word out, a voice shouted into the phone, “I’m going to kill myself and then I’m going to kill you,” and hung up. I’ll confess that my first thought was, “At least you’ve got it in the right order.” But a moment later I had an “aha” moment. It’s wasn’t about me. In fact, since the caller had no way of knowing which of 14 staffers had answered, that anger and frustration had nothing at all to do with me.

It’s a lesson I have been able to carry over into my personal life. I no longer take on the baggage of other people’s emotions. I’m responsible for my own feelings and actions but not anyone else’s. (For anyone wondering, we were able to get emergency services to do a welfare check on the caller. No one was harmed or left in danger.) — Liz Sayre, 56

Communication is an essential skill for a life that is not taught effectively in school. I was a high school English teacher in a great district (Irvine, Calif.) for 36 years, but despite a rich curriculum, the essentials of interpersonal communication were never addressed. Being assertive rather than aggressive or passive is a skill that can be taught, just as one example.

I also taught health for a few years and was able to fit assertiveness training into that class. If they were mature enough to have sex, I taught, they were also mature enough to broach the subject of birth control before engaging in the act. What to say, how to say it — most flailed for an appropriate gambit. Similarly, they struggled with how to convince parents to extend curfews, how to deal with a bully, how to approach a boss for a raise, how to react when they felt harassed by any authority, how to end a relationship other than by text. I was not afraid to share with them the poor communication that led to my two divorces. There can be a very high cost to the lack of communication skills.

The way you choose to interact with your family, friends, teachers, co-workers, clients, customers, intimate partners — everyone — will determine your happiness and success as much as your knowledge and skills. Every conflict you will ever encounter will require a thoughtful response rather than an impulsive one or a nonresponse. — Laurie Kasparian, 68

When my wife and I were leading whitewater canoe trips for neophytes, we learned that the best trip structure had a leader and some helping guides. If she is leading today’s trip, my job is to be her helpmeet — I keep my eyes open and make suggestions, but I do so in a way that preserves her authority and the aura of her leadership. I don’t challenge her in public, but make suggestions quietly, and let her make the decisions and the pronouncements. Tomorrow, when I lead the trip, she’ll act similarly.

We learned to adopt this method in our private lives, as well. Thus, when we disagree about anything, one of us will usually say: “O.K., this is your trip. We’ll do it your way.” — Jay Langley, 70


CreditBrandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

I’m 56 years old now and I’ve accomplished very little. I’ve spent most of my life either using drugs or trying to stay away from drugs. When you become addicted, drug use comes to define who you are and how you view your place in the world. I’ve heard this refrain from many older junkies: “Boy, if I could stop using drugs, there are so many things I’d like to do.”

Learn from other people’s examples and mistakes, lest you become doomed to repeat the mistakes of others. As a young man I didn’t take advice from anyone. So I found myself making many of the same mistakes my peers and predecessors made. Many of those mistakes really hurt like hell. — Bryan Bolton, 56

After 10 years of addiction to gambling and a marriage falling apart, I entered a 12-step program in July 1970. It was a life- altering decision. Surrendering and becoming teachable and living life by following simple guidelines has resulted in a fulfilling and most wonderful life.

I did not have to attempt abstinence and recovery on my own. The most important single word that was the basis for my recovery was and is, “we.” Others with similar addiction problems guided me and accepted me as their equal.— Bill Brosnan, 77

“The less I drink, the more I enjoy it.” My father said this to me once and when I learned to apply it, I discovered its wisdom. This can be applied to any pleasure-inducing substance. Cake. Coffee. Whatever. The principle allows you to really appreciate something when you take pleasure in it, and not take it for granted. — Colleen Adl, 57


CreditCarlos Chavarría for The New York Times

Don’t think that you deserve great jobs or promotions just because you do the minimum and go home. You’re surrounded by people who are working hard who will move past you when the world rewards their efforts. Make sure you constantly “sharpen the saw,” as Stephen Covey would say. Figure out what you want your expertise to be and then build your personal brand around it.

It takes some courage — you have to put yourself out there and take leadership roles to be noticed. Do your homework and learn about the trends, in-demand skills and influencers in your industry. It takes courage to ask someone to mentor you.

And remember to give back — be sure to mentor others. It will take time and focus but it will be worth it. You find yourself with many more opportunities in your career than someone who just punches the clock, goes home to watch TV and then complains about how dull their job is. — Maureen Nelson, 59

After my youngest was born I told Mom I was thinking about not going back to work. Mom took me aside and said these words: “Don’t ever stop working. A woman giving up the workplace completely is giving up a lot more than a paycheck. You are giving up a community that will help you through a lot of catastrophes in life. Right now the world seems pretty bright. You are both are healthy and young. But there are things that can change quickly. If you have a venue open that could help you, don’t close it.”

Turns out I didn’t quit and I agree with her wholeheartedly still. I tell young parents those words every day. While I still think we are young and healthy 24 years later, I do remember how wonderful my work family was when Momma, my rock, got sick. — Liz Estes, 54

When I was 15, I became a certified lifeguard. I remember being almost shocked after passing the test that I was now qualified to be a lifeguard. What I didn’t know then but know now is that experience counts for an awful lot. So if you find yourself with impostor syndrome, realize all you need is little more experience. You will get there. Anne Lewis, 54

Don’t ignore the customs of your world but don’t be afraid to bend them when prudent. In the mid-1970s my wife and I changed life roles for very practical reasons: She held a degree in chemistry and I held one in philosophy and a further one in history. With three toddlers, we recognized that she was best equipped to be the breadwinner. I discovered the life of the at-home parent suited me perfectly and I never left it. — Robert C. Wittig, 72

I chose to not give up when my first husband left me and our child. I chose to continue for a master’s degree and learned to depend on myself. Believe it or not, in 1970 a woman could not get a credit card in her own name. I pushed beyond my fear and became involved with things that were not typical of a “nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn.” I regret that I allowed my insecurities to force me into an early marriage instead of going out on my own.

I am grateful for being thrown out of my comfort zone. It afforded me the opportunity to start my own business at 40 and become somewhat of a pioneer in Park Slope realty. Peggy Aguayo, 75

My husband died out skiing in the neighborhood on Christmas Day in 1985. I was 39 and our daughter was 3. She had started at a local nursery school in the fall. None of the parents at the school reached out to me. Others did. I had visits, food, notes from people close and very distant (friends of friends). Other people disappeared. I had never been taught about offering condolences. I learned a lot.

If someone is having any kind of hard time — death in the family, bad grades, parent arrested, bad publicity, anything, really — you can always say, “I’m thinking about you.” For any loss, you can always say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Then just listen.

Do not worry that you will remind your friend of their loss; they haven’t forgotten. If you only say these words, you won’t say the wrong thing. Corlan Johnson, 73

I grew up with an undiagnosed developmental disorder. I did not get diagnosed until I was 25 but I had been in and out of specialists’ offices since I was a small child.

I am grateful that I learned that I am a capable person. It remains true that I will forever struggle in ways that others may not and that some things others find easy may always be a challenge for me but this should never be an obstacle. We all have limitations, challenges and personal obstacles but never let the people around you be that obstacle. I am grateful for every day that I find I am intelligent, capable and have learned to ignore the impulse, the anxiety of thinking ‘Is this too hard for me?’

Instead I have learned how empowering confidence can be. Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. Everyone tries and fails, some of us more than others. Never be afraid to try and frame the goal on your terms rather than in comparison to someone else. Amanda Collins


CreditLuke Sharrett for The New York Times

When I had just learned to drive and gotten my driver’s license, I drove to the mall for the first time with my best friend, Sue. We were both excited and anxious, and when I missed the turn into the mall I panicked and swerved into the next opening in the highway, which turned out to be the mall exit lane, with us going the wrong way. Fortunately there weren’t any cars leaving the mall heading straight toward us, and Sue and I made it safely into the parking lot.

That came back to me when my daughter, Veronica, was learning to drive and I heard a terrible news story about a car of girls who had just gotten their driver’s licenses. They missed their Beltway exit and swerved at the last minute to try to make it. Their car was hit and several of them died. I found Veronica downstairs and made her swear to remember that there’s always a place to turn around. You never have to panic and swerve. There’s always a place to turn around and get where you need to go. Always. I meant on the road, but for the last 12 years it’s become our mantra — for me, Veronica, and now for my son, Max. — Lynn Mento, 58

My husband and I married young. It wasn’t easy and we really struggled through financial, personal and emotional difficulties. We have been married for 40 years and I am beyond thankful that we didn’t resort to divorce when it would have been so easy to think it would solve our discontent. I would not be person I am today without the support of my husband, I love him more today than the day we married.

It takes work and effort to sustain a marriage, so I would like others to understand and know that it’s worth it. We have a shared history, shared goals and a promise to each other that carried us through the hardest of times. I tell people who marry these days to know that it will be the best of times and the worst of times and commit to taking one more step toward each other than to the door. — Teri Center, 60

I was married at 21 while still in college and we’re still together, best friends after all these years. Many of our grown children’s friends ask me how did we “get there,” when did we know we had “made it.” I respond by telling them a marriage is like climbing a mountain that you’ll never summit. You will never reach the top. That’s the trap.

While the endless climb will be full of adventures and exhilaration, there will be moments of fear, doubt and challenges that will test your courage and question the path you have chosen. But while making that climb each day don’t forget to turn away from the mountain and gaze over your shoulder. The view is always amazing. That’s why the climb is worth it. That’s what sustains you, together. — Robb Moretti, 64

On or around your child’s 10th birthday — when they first enter the “wonder years” — take them on weeklong trip, just the two of you. I did this with my daughters who are now grown and we still look back on that special time together. — Warren Buckleitner, 60

As a physicist, I have worked in technology for my entire career. In large and small corporate labs and in a start-up, I have learned the same lesson. That the research and development, engineering and scientific work we do is 20 percent technology and 80 percent human dynamics. If I had known this earlier, I would have been a more effective scientist. I am sure that science historians will support this view as will anyone with a decent “emotional quotient.”

So to young technologists — remember that you are working with people who think, care, fret, love at the same time that they practice their craft. We are all inescapably human.

Kindness and compassion are never wasted. Absolutely never. Understanding opposing views, underlying motives and accepting differences with grace will simply make you more effective at what you do. — David Ackerman, 64

If you have a teacher or mentor who made a great or even small impact on your life, tell them. Call them, write to them, let them know what a wonderful impact they had on you. Life is too short not to validate the ones who have changed our lives in a profound way. Then there will be no regrets when they pass on because you already told them what was on your heart and your life will be richer for it in ways that you never dreamed. Helen Reilly, 73

Everyday, find time to talk with someone you don’t know. Listen to their story. Do it in person. Learn from them. Be your brother’s keeper, your sister’s shelter. When a neighbor is in need, or a thirsty young mind is denied the challenges and opportunities to grow and flourish, or a sister or brother is crushed by a purposefully flawed criminal justice system that rewards winning rather than justice, find a way to do something about it now. —  Joe Lane, 75

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