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Advising


My office on the second floor of the Administrative Building, which was -- shortly after my arrival -- renamed in memory of a dead Provost overlooked the Main Quad. I watched advisees, sitting across from me as they sipped their tea, as they looked out the window. One can learn a lot about a person by the way that they observe others, the way they crane their neck.

One can tell, for example, whether it seems that they feel like they are missing out, or that they just want to join in the fun; whether they were lonely on the playground as kids, or whether they were the ones running the kickball games. Or at least I imagined one could tell that.

Folks came to see me at all stages of their careers. The youngest was about twenty years old. The oldest, no kidding, was in his sixties. He was asking me advice about making a career change after completing his master's degree in the school for continuing and professional education. He had had the kind of career that nostalgic directors give to the fathers of children in their films. The kinds of careers that belong to archetypical dads who have love to give to those kids, but just don't know how to express it.

The short version: he was an engineer for, like, GE or Ford or something.

"I have absolutely no advice to give you," is how I decided to approach this particular case.

"That is the best thing that you could have possibly said," is how he answered. "Otherwise I would have just thought that you were full of shit."

I didn't need anyone's encouragement to think that I was full of shit most of the time. I was in the business of advising people who were either way smarter than I could ever hope to be and seemed paralyzed by their own brain's inability to articulate what they wanted, or who fancied themselves so much smarter than me that they would never be able to get anything out of our conversations.

The former kinds of conversations were often heartbreaking. The latter were easy. I just let the person talk until they were satisfied that I had provided them with sage advice. Sometimes, it was possible to steer the latter kind of person into the right kind of advice, but only by convincing them that the advice had been their idea all along.

I don't know. I don't want to kiss and tell about all of this stuff. The chief take away, having worked with ridiculously smart students over the course of five years, and trying to help them figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, was that people are often too hard on themselves. That they don't ever see the forest. That typically they are afraid of failure. And that they almost always only need a swift kick in the rear end.

Is that a story? I don't know. I'm trying to figure that out.