My father is a man of few words.
He is not one to raise his voice, lose his temper or scold anyone unnecessarily. He is firm but fair and honest to a fault. He is not authoritarian when giving his opinion; rather, he makes recommendations in such a way the recipient usually feels glad he has done so.
I can only remember my father giving me direct advice once. If there were other times, this was the one that resonated with me the most. I was 18, freshly graduated from high school, staring down the barrel of my first day as a wide-eyed freshman at UF.
We were in my parents’ bedroom, watching the news together. From the foot of the bed, I was spouting off worries about my imminent academic adventure. What if I don’t get along with my roommate? What if I don’t make friends? What if I enroll in too many difficult classes and fail them all and lose my scholarship and have to come home and go to community college?
My father, taking it all in from his green TV-watching chair, turned his attention away from Brian Williams and focused on me. My father is a man of few words. He used just six to end my slightly hysterical game of what-if.
“Be yourself,” he said, “and don’t screw up.”
And there it was: simple in form, but full of wisdom.
Two and a half years later, I can’t find a piece of advice that doesn’t fit under those umbrella-shaped commands, and they’re still the best I’ve received.
How did I test their validity? By screwing up and trying to undermine my own nature, of course.
There are minor, forgivable ways to violate these commands, the kinds of tiny sins that make you kick yourself for giving in but not hard enough you quit doing it: failing an exam because you blew off studying, running up the credit card bill a little too high on stuff you don’t need, feigning interest in things you’re not interested in to get someone to like you.
But those are the type of mistakes that help us learn humility and gain experience. What I’ve found to be more important than avoiding mistakes is holding onto that advice, especially the first part, and being able to use it when it matters.
Life sometimes leads us to situations where it seems easier not to be who we are, or to ignore better judgment, even though we know it’s wrong.
My father taught me to approach those situations with pragmatism and morality, to know who I am and what I’m made of. The rest will come naturally.
Be yourself and don’t screw up, he said. Everything else will follow.