I may be getting older, but I’m also getting wiser. That’s what we like to think as we edge closer to a major milestone, such as the 60th that will greet me as this May 16 issue of U.S. 1 makes its way around the greater Princeton business corridor.
But am I really getting wiser? One good test, I thought as the big 6-0 approached, would be to take an inventory of what I had to show for these 60 years. Family, friends, and the ability to keep a roof over my head and store nuts for the winter came to mind, of course.
But since I am essentially in the idea business, I wondered what words of wisdom I had to show for my years of service. Better yet, I thought, could I produce one valuable thought or idea for each year? To make it easy, since I have few, if any, original thoughts, I would allow myself to draw on the words of wisdom of others — family, friends, public figures, or even wise old sayings. A stitch in time saves time, for example, could be on my short list of mental guideposts that have served me over the years. It’s not, but you get the idea.
So herewith 60 little lessons of life:
1.) In the category of managing a business or dealing with people: People don’t do what you expect, they do what you inspect. (My father likes to say that.)
2.) When placed in command, take charge. (General Norman Schwarzkopf’s “Rule 13.” His “Rule 14:” Do what’s right.)
3.) Never criticize anyone in front of anyone else.
4.) All mistakes are opportunities in disguise.
5.) Never change two things in your business at the same time.
6.) When someone calls your business and asks for information, never give “I don’t know” as an answer. Instead respond with a positive statement, such as “I know just person who can handle that question.”
7.) When dealing over the phone with a person with a foreign accent, listen more carefully than usual, and do not immediately assume that you will never understand what they are saying.
8.) Listen carefully when someone tells you that you are a poor communicator, but bear in mind: that person may in fact be a poor listener.
9.) Treat celebrities the same way you would treat a regular Joe. This came in handy during a decade on the celebrity beat as a freelance writer. It suggests to me a corollary that may or may not work, as well:
9-b.) Treat regular Joes as if they were celebrities.
10.) People usually mean the exact opposite of what they say. Editor and author Landon Jones made this remark once. He now says it sounds like something he would say, but he can’t remember saying it and isn’t quite sure what the context would have been. I think he was referring to a situation when, say, a new manager comes into the department and says that he welcomes everyone’s input, or when a baseball owner tells the manager he is behind him 100 percent. But I can’t remember for sure, either, which brings us to No. 11:
11.) People’s memories are a lot less accurate than they think they are. Jones, I know for sure, was the source of this one, made when I was talking about doing a book on the summer of ‘65. I have found it to be equally applicable when thinking back to the summer of ‘05, or back just five days ago.
12.) On the business side of journalism: The most demanding, whining, and unforgiving customer is usually a bad payer.
13.) When faced with a customer complaint, never respond immediately. Always ask for time to think about it and call back.
14.) A corollary for dealing with small children: When dealing with a whining child, simply change the subject and move on. This also works with some adults, but seems to be less effective with teenagers.
15.) An angry customer will never care that a mistake was not your fault.
16.) Every interaction with a customer is a chance to talk about their payment schedule.
17.) Always make it easy for someone to do what you want them to do.
18.) Never believe it when someone says they are going to save you a few dollars.
19.) Free papers aren’t really free — people pay for it with their time. That was my observation in the early days of U.S. 1 and it seems increasingly important as the media landscape becomes more cluttered. It’s a lesson that has been lost on many Internet marketers, who build a website, assuming that they will come.
20.) The Internet will change a lot of things, but it won’t change human nature. Though he no longer remembers the exchange, Princeton based author and editor Edward Tenner told me that, and it has served me well.
21.) On computers and the information age: When a computer malfunctions, balks, or flashes strange messages from Bill Gates on the screen, the first thing to do is to turn it off and then restart it. U.S. 1’s Bill Sanservino offers that advice to everyone in our office — it often works.
22.) Consider a computer as you would a toaster — when it’s no longer useful to you, throw it away. (But under no circumstances give the old computer to an employee. They will hold you forever responsible for technical support.)
23.) The cost of updating an old computer with new hardware or a new operating system is always greater than simply buying a new computer.
24.) Here’s a lesson that seemed right in its time and then had to be turned on its head about two years ago: When selecting a hard disk for a computer don’t waste your money buying the next biggest size. Long before you get close to filling it, you will want another faster computer.
Then, with the advent of broadband and digital photography, the lesson changed. Now it’s always buy the next biggest hard disk — you will fill it fast.
25.) There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who have lost computer data, and those who are about to lose computer data. That advice came from the guy who sold me my very first personal computer back in 1986 or ’87, Carl Davies at Clancy Paul Computers
26.) We are only in the dawn of the technological era — it’s like the early days of the horseless carriage when people rode around in dusters and carried repair kits with them. That advice was offered by Glenn Paul, founder of Clancy Paul, and still rings true today (at least for us PC users — Mac enthusiasts are no doubt smiling smugly).
27.) On dealing with overwhelming problems or circumstances: Nothing’s ever easy. (Except writing — see No. 56.)
28.) It’s always easier not to do something. Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Irving Dilliard offered that advice, when he was teaching expository writing at Princeton in 1972.
29.) It takes a certain amount of time to drink a cup of coffee. My friend the contractor, Hank Sufnar, used that to explain why a home renovation project wasn’t happening as fast as the customer might have hoped. In other words: things always take longer than you expect.
30.) You’re halfway there. That’s a simple but useful benchmark I have noted on many occasions. Readers now struggling with this particular column should take this one to heart.
31.) And here comes some wisdom from the playing fields: Do the little things right, and the big things will take care of themselves. (Penn State football coach Joe Paterno makes that observation.)
32.) Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it. (Former Princeton coach Pete Carril said this, urging his players to keep their minds on the play in front of them, not the play that just happened at the other end of the court.)
33.) What you’re doing is important. When my college roommate Gary Diedrichs and I were both struggling freelancers, he kept this reminder above his typewriter.
34.) There are three critical elements to success in freelance writing (or some other overwhelming position) in inverse order of importance: Physical health, mental health, and patience. Sickness could be overcome by a healthy mind, but nothing could overcome impatience. That was the mantra I recited during the dark and early days of my freelance career.
35.) It’s always darkest before the dawn. To which a friend once offered a postscript: It’s always darkest before the dawn. Then you die.
36.) On anger management: Remember the rule of seven. Will the thing that is causing you to be angry still be important seven seconds from now? Seven minutes from now? Seven hours? Peter Dawson of Leigh Photo offered that lesson in response to an article U.S. 1 did on road rage.
37.) Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy — Aristotle.
38.) On health and fitness: Drink as much beer as you want. But also eat a balanced diet. When you begin to gain weight, cut back on the beer.
39.) Walk 30 minutes a day. Long before I had clogged arteries, a young physician in town, Mark Schaeffer, urged me to have a regular exercise program. The walking wouldn’t prevent clogged arteries, but it would at least alert you to a problem before it hit you while you were sitting at your desk.
40.) Never hesitate to call 911. A West Windsor paramedic offered this explanation: People are afraid they will waste the ambulance’s time by calling when it’s not really necessary. But it’s never a waste — if you didn’t call they would just be sitting at the station waiting for the next call. And they can sometimes respond to that call even more easily when they are already on the road.
41.) If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself. Mickey Mantle said it, borrowing from a number of others who said it before him.
42.) On existential matters of life and death: No one ever has the world by a string. My friend the attorney, Jim Britt, offered that observation just the other day. It’s worth putting on the list.
43.) “Into each life some rain must fall.” My mother wrote that in a 1982 Christmas letter, bringing friends up to date on family news. To the line above from the poet, Longfellow, she added: “This year we had a downpour,” referring to the recent diagnosis of her grandson (my nephew) with brain cancer.
44.) If you have a problem that money can solve, then you don’t have a problem. My friend the architect, Pierre Coutin, said that.
45.) No matter how much money it costs to solve that non-problem, it almost always would have been cheap at twice the price.
46.) Remember that “there is no great achievement in dying, the least of us have to do it; no, the trick is in living.” Sportswriter Red Smith made that observation at a colleague’s funeral.
47.) Relating to writing and editing: Novice writers should try their hand at every type of story. Someone struggling to be the writer of 3,000-word feature articles might turn out to be a great writer of 300-word editorials. John McPhee told me that back in 1972, when I was starting my freelance career.
48.) The first publication you produce is easy; it’s the second one that’s hard. My old friend Gary Diedrichs, who became an editor of big city magazines.
49.) Never judge a publication by one issue, always look at three, at least. More wisdom from Diedrichs.
50.) What’s important is not to be the first one to do a story, but the last one. Brock Brower told me when I was starting out as a freelancer and seeking advice. (Back 30 years ago or so, Lanny Jones told me recently, Brower did 40 thoughts on turning 40 for Esquire magazine. Congratulations, Brock, you beat me on this one, but it’s not important.)
51.) Always ask a subject what their parents did, and if that in any way influenced their life’s work. People magazine editors drubbed that one into me.
52.) When deciding whether to commission a story for your publication, always ask the writer why you should run the story now.
53.) You’re never really done reporting your story until you have had a drink with your subject at a bar. Larry L. King, author of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and a writing professor at Princeton.
54.) “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” Ernest Hemingway, in an essay in the Paris Review in 1958.
55.) Correcting style points in a story adds nothing to the meaning of the story, but the process forces you to read the story more carefully than you would otherwise.
56.) Writing is easy. You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. The sportswriter Red Smith said that.
57.) Nobody ever won a Pulitzer Prize for captions or pullquotes.
58.) Don’t get it right, get it written.
59.) The best headlines are not written, they’re rewritten.
60.) As for that promising headline on the cover of this issue, I have no knowledge whatsoever about sex after 60. Give me another decade, please, and maybe then I will have an idea of what works or what doesn’t. But that’s the final little lesson in life:
Never let the facts get in the way of a good headline.