What is the best advice you ever got?

FDR with his advisers Louis Howe and James Farley (1932)

FDR with his advisers Louis Howe and James Farley (1932)

Intermediair is a Dutch magazine aimed at young “high potentials” that used to live off its many job listings. Now it only appears online, and I’m probably too old anyway, so I no longer read it, but it used to come in paper format to my house, for free and no matter how often and furtively I changed addresses. It always had an interview with someone who was hugely successful in their career, and one of the standard questions was “What was the best advice you ever got?”

For me, the best professional advice ever came from my mother and it was self-referential but no less brilliant: Make sure you always have people around who can give you good advice. Of course, it is also good to know people who don’t give unsolicited advice, but good advice can be priceless. This immediately also introduces a problem with marketing advice: it is hard to say what it should cost. Some charge seemingly far too much for their insights (business consultants, lawyers) and others too little (generalizing wildly, I’m inclined to say: women). But generally speaking I think I believe more than most consumers in buying advice (and services general), rather than buying things. I think FDR might have agreed with me – in any case he did have some fantastic advisers and knew to use their ideas to his advantage.

As a PhD candidate I get a great deal of advice, and – this being Lent and all – I want to say how particularly grateful I am to some of them. Like Frans-Willem Korsten, who has as little time as everyone else but is always ready to spout gems of truth that are concrete, actionable and precisely the unexpected yet indisputably right answer you needed. And like Alice van Harten who understands the academic world, particularly in the US, so much better than I, and tells me who to contact and what to say to them in order to get pretty much anything I could think of needing from American academia. Such as the best babysitter in the world during one’s conference at the other end of the globe. And Cynthia Koch, my mentor at the NCPH conference and former director of the FDR Library, who knows more intimately than anyone I have previously met how presidential libraries work. And last but not least, someone who advises me but also just takes me along: Paul Knevel, who takes me to conferences at the other end of the world, sneaks me into any number of closed meetings, makes sure I end up knowing everybody, and unblinkingly includes my baby son in everything. It’s a pity Ilias didn’t have his business cards on him.

Of course there are others, probably you reading this!

What is the best advice YOU ever got?

Over Sara Polak

Blog about my research: The World We Live In Today Is FDR's World
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