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Philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine’s Advice to 20Somethings on Career, Dull Chores, and Friendships

As a hopeless hunter for wisdom on how to live a great and meaningful life, I was pleased to come across James L. Harmon’s curated book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two. He shares in the introduction that his publisher sent list after list of “so-called notables to include.” He aimed to create something more meaningful, something that wouldn’t have the shelf life of a banana, even if it meant lower sales.

Asking through email and gathering letters from various authors, musicians, poets, actors, philosophers and more, Harmon’s focus for providing advice to the younger generation, especially from figures that most of us wouldn’t recognize, provides a refreshing take on the subjects that we ought to be ruminating about.

My favorite of them all comes from the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine—American philosopher, logician, a man who went from Harvard student to professor to professor emeritus who published and revised many books as well as winning a few awards.

His advice is solid, touching upon many facets of a 20somethings’ life, and says it with beautiful precision:

“Cultivate the inquiring mind. Don’t suppress a question, however trivial, that sparks your curiosity. Track it down or look it up as soon as you can.

Enjoy what you are doing, what you are seeing, as fully as you can find anything in it to enjoy. Savor the moment, the scene, the sound, the world. Carpe diem, hiram, minutam.

Try for a career where you can take pleasure or satisfaction in your work rather than just in the leisure after work. Earning less but enjoying your work, you are getting good returns for the sacrificed difference in income.

You must face dull chores and discipline too, for a rewarding expertise takes a dull deal of training. What is wanted is shrewd cost-accounting and a prudent but not excessive investment in futures.

Above all, cultivate easy and sincere friendships with kindred spirits and enter into them with generous sympathy. Sharing is the sovereign lubricant against the harshness of life.”

May I please share one more?

As an avid advocate for the pursuit of self-awareness, I was thrilled to hear the perspective of John Shirley—prolific American author for sci-fi, short stories, novels, and fantasy—on self-awareness. If this book didn’t contain one piece of advice for self-awareness, believe me, I wouldn’t be sharing it.

His metaphor is fascinating and puts into perspective a difficult practice that needs to be more widely embraced, especially by 20somethings:

“If you have to walk along a dark mountain path, don’t you prefer to have a flashlight to shine on the path ahead? I would suggest that it is possible to have that flashlight in life all the time. What does a flashlight give us? Light.

That is, a flashlight sheds light. It is like the faculty of attention—if we turn our full attention to something, we learn more about that thing. We are seeing it with more light. Our attention is our ‘flashlight.’ So it’s all about how much and how fun an attention we consciously bring to life. This quality of attention doesn’t make us hesitant, or slow to decide, particularly—just as the flashlight doesn’t make us hang back on the trail. So, how do we get to the better quality of attention? With attention! That is, we turn our attention on our attention; we start by trying to see how we don’t pay attention. We sort of keep that light on ourselves. ‘Know thyself’ has been an honored ancient teaching, and it’s still a cornerstone of the world’s greatest philosophies. If you watch yourself honestly, in a detached way—not guilt-tripping yourself when you screw up—you gradually learn where it was that you were just blundering along, reacting sort of mechanically, and being asleep even as you were in your waking day. Another way to make this happen is by returning your whole attention to the present—to what’s happening now, in this moment, and this moment, and on—within yourself and around you.”

Take My Advice is an overall fascinating, enjoyable read. Some of the advice is tongue-in-cheek, others are from bitter experiences, and some, like the two above, illuminate and empower a fertile mind. Keep in mind, however, that just because Warren Buffet or Richard Branson isn’t providing this kind of advice doesn’t devalue the work. In fact, it’s helpful to hear different perspectives from a variety of individuals, to mix it all up, to find new heroes, and ultimately to help you think for yourself.

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