Growing up, many of us assume that every adult can, by definition, give us life advice. When we grow up a little more, we realize that, like everything else, it isn’t quite that simple: though older people do, on the whole, seem eager and sometimes even desperate to dole out words of wisdom, whether those words apply in our own cases, or even make sense, falls to us to determine. And so we’d do better not to ask our elders to give us advice, but to give their younger selves advice: what, we might ask, do you wish you’d known before, say at the age of eighteen? Writer, comedian, and all-around man of the page and screen Stephen Fry answers in the clip above.
“The worst thing you can ever do in life is set yourself goals,” Fry says. “Two things happen: one is you don’t meet your goals so you call yourself a failure. Secondly, you meet your goal and go, ‘Well, I’m here, now what? I’m not happy I’ve got this car, this job, I’m living in this address which I always thought was the place I wanted to be.’ Because you’re going for something outside yourself, and that’s no good.” The observation that you can’t derive lasting satisfaction from external circumstances may date back at least to the Stoics, who recommend focusing only on your own actions and reactions, but it bears repeating more often than ever in the external circumstance-rich 21st century.
But that doesn’t mean that you can simply turn inward: “Let’s forget what successful people have in common. If there’s a thing that unsuccessful people have in common, it’s that they talk about themselves all the time. ‘I need to do this, I need’ — their first two words are usually ‘I need.’ That’s why nobody likes them, and that’s why they’ll never get where they want to be.” But “if you use your eyes to look out, not to be looked into, then you connect, then you’re interesting, then people want to be around you. It’s about the warmth and the charm you can radiate that is real because of your positive interest in others.”
I myself have thought about these words of Fry’s often since first watching this interview with him half a decade ago. Clearly these pieces of advice to his eighteen-year-old self have wider applicability, and he has much more to offer besides: Spend a few extra moments and a few extra words connecting with others. Efface yourself. Deliberately pursue experiences different from the ones you “know you like.” Travel and read. Have heroes and mentors, and keep learning from them. Sharing the benefits of life is the benefit of life. Understand the dual pull of being a part of and apart from the “tribe.” Test things out instead of taking them on trust. Never read the comments. Kindness counts more than virtue, justice, truth, or anything else.
And, we might add, make sure to ask the right questions when seeking advice — but make even more sure to ask the right people.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.