To A Grandson on his Seventeenth BirthdayElaine K.

You know all those little advice books about how to get through life? Well, for a long time now I’ve been thinking about what I would say if I wrote one for a teen-ager. If I don’t do it now, you’ll be all grown up, know it all, and it won’t be until you’re middle aged that you will be able to look back and think that maybe some of these philosophical imperatives could be wise and practical.

There are aspects of life that, if well understood, can make our journey along the way easier, fulfilling, and give us control over some of what happens to us. In other words, don’t let things just happen to you. There are some things in life that like a scientific equation, have predictable outcomes.

Most important human characteristics to look for in friends and in yourself: kindness and honesty.

Most important skill: an understanding of other people and yourself.

Most important use of time: nurture your talents.

Interpersonal relations:

Be more interested in what other people have to say than in what you want to say. It makes them feel that you are paying attention to them, and that you are sympathetic. Besides, you can always learn from other people. When I went away to college my Father told me “Everyone has something to teach you.” He was right, even if that something is how not to be.

Wait for them to finish talking before giving your point of view.

Learn how to communicate effectively. Part of this is using pronouns appropriately. For instance, instead of “You’re making me angry.” It becomes “I’m getting angry.” That’s accepting responsibility for your reactions. And by the way, anger is a secondary emotion. It’s felt after feeling something else: hurt, fear, loss of control, disappointment, embarrassment, anxiety. If these are dealt with, then anger can be avoided. Anyway, anger is destructive.

Never resort to name calling, sarcasm or ridicule. These are cruel weapons.

Learn how to get along with people. This self-education never ends.


Think about the consequences of your actions. Ask yourself what the possible outcomes could be. Being smart means you can see what’s going to happen.


Every freedom and every right brings responsibilities. For instance, driving means you are responsible for your safety, your passengers’ safety and the safety of pedestrians, drivers and passengers of other cars, and property.

Learn what your rights and responsibilities as a good citizen are.


If you make a mistake be quick to say “I’m sorry.” Apologies defuse anger. (Doctors who apologize to their patients usually are not sued. Traffic offenders who apologize to an officer for an offense often don’t get a ticket or receive a lesser charge.)

If you do get angry, never, never, never put it in writing! 

Be quick to forgive – yourself and others.

Develop good manners

Good manners give you an advantage. Good manners just mean being considerate of others. They also show that you have been well brought up and are educated.

Always write thank you notes; for gifts, for hospitality, for an interview.

Know who to trust

Understand what makes a good friend, and then be one. If you understand what to say to make other people feel good about themselves, they will like being with you. (See interpersonal relations, above.)

Take what you hear with some skepticism. In a competitive atmosphere some people will try to throw you off or put you on the wrong track by inflating their own accomplishments or giving bad advice. Trust people, but know that they can be jealous of almost anything you have: your stature, good looks, intelligence, your loving family.

Never brag or boast; it is unbecoming. But quiet confidence, which makes you attractive, can be based on knowing your own strengths.

The last installment for this chapter is philosophical advice for dealing realistically with life. It may sound negative, but it allows us to roll with the punches. If you don’t expect to be happy all the time, it makes it easier to cope when hard times come around. And it makes the happy times so much more delicious.

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