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How the Best Advice I Ever Received Still Sustains Me

And it's been decades.

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JR Bee
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In my early 40s, I was desperate to have a book published. I’d worked as an editor at a self-help women’s magazine — a perch that led to appearances on Maury and Montel, with my mother beaming from the studio audience. I’d also written articles for major publications and taught magazine journalism at New York University.

However, none of those achievements seemed ego-sustaining enough. As book proposal after book proposal met with rejection, the epitome of success in publishing — my work immortalized between two covers! — remained agonizingly out of reach.

I longed to be Saturday Austin. At 54, my friend was a sought-after writer for talk shows. Whenever we socialized, I carried a notebook (pre-iPhone times) to jot down scraps of brilliance that might fall from her lips. Her best lesson came one summer when I visited her weekend home and fondled her gleaming Emmy.

That’s when she said the phrase that two decades later echoes in my head: Winning an Emmy didn’t bring me eternal happiness. That’s an inside job.” This bolsters me when I drift into the mindset of “my life will be complete if only I receive this one accolade.”

As predicted, publication of each of my four books caused only a temporary high. The true bounty of being alive comes from my day-to-day life — from close friendships, rocking in a hammock, listening to my 12-year-old terrier mix, Shea, squeal with excitement at a proffered treat. My successful friend taught me that external achievements are the ice cream, not the meal.

An informal poll of more smart women revealed further snippets of wise advice. I also weave in lessons from my life experiences — which includes being a child of Holocaust survivors, a divorce at 23, surviving cancer and witnessing the struggles of my psychotherapy patients.

Estrangement from a family member does not define who you are.

Estrangement from an immediate family member — a commonality for 29 percent of Americans according to a 2022 poll of 11,000 adults — is often a source of endless self-recrimination. The 2008 fracture of the already strained relationship between Amy Ferris and her older brother while their mother “was in the thick of dementia” left the author of the memoir Mighty Gorgeous: A Little Book About Messy Love, assuming full responsibility for the breach.

For years, Ferris walked around burdened by thoughts like: “I’m so awful … How could I not talk to my brother?” Then her therapist released her from her inner prison with this observation: “All the shame and guilt you carry is not your own.” Ferris, now 58, realized her brother’s actions were on him. As she put it: “A boulder lifted off me … everyone brings their own crap to the party.”

Don’t assume another person is your intellectual superior.

When Susan Nordmark was studying biological anthropology, her “brilliant and intimidating” female college professor asked for her thoughts on a textbook written by a male scientist. When Nordmark conjectured the author “must know what he’s talking about," her professor responded, “What is his evidence for those conclusions? He’s presenting supposition as fact.”

This lesson in “critical thinking” is a credo that today helps Nordmark, who has experienced significant illness, deal with the medical establishment. The 69-year-old explained, “I read and critique studies in medical journals … I treat doctors like consultants. They have to be willing to partner with me.”

Now for some advice from iconic celebrities:

Create multiple income streams.

With her first album selling over 1 million copies, 19-year-old Dana Elaine Owens, or Queen Latifah, might understandably have focused all her energy on singing. But, as the now 55-year-old said in an interview with cnbc.com, she followed her mother’s advice: “Don’t put everything in one basket.” This inspired her to found with Shakim Compere the production company Flavor Unit in 1995, followed by assuming ownership stakes in varying industries, from bottled water to real estate.

Queen Latifah went on to say: “My mother made me agree to a rule of thirds, in which two-thirds of my money would be set aside for savings and investments while the final third would be mine to spend.”

Treasure every birthday.

While Hollywood has been historically ageist, things are improving with the enduring prominence of mature actors like Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep. In the September 2019 Vogue, Helen Mirren, now 78, shared: “I know the thought of being 45 when you’re 25 is, Oh my God! ... But it’s amazing because when you get to be 45, you’ll realize it’s actually very cool and you don’t want to be 25 again.”

Once I passed the age 60 milestone, I dreaded turning 65. Shortly before my 63rd birthday, I received a breast cancer diagnosis. Turning 65 and still being cancer-free was a celebration. My wrinkles and saggy skin are not causes for shame, but pride. Every subsequent year is a gift.

Speak up for yourself.

Shonda Rhimes became a pioneering TV titan by using her brilliance and powerful voice. The 53-year-old force behind Emmy-winning TV shows ranging from Grey’s Anatomy to Queen Charlotte told Essence writer Sydney Scott that a key lesson from her mother was: “Silent people never get anything.” Rhimes clearly took those words to heart and has developed a strong and confident voice that has produced hit after hit.

Using my own voice to push for what I want has allowed me to do amazing things in my career, such as performing onstage with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall for an article I was writing — and I’m not a dancer. I also spoke up after a former lover came back into my life, professed undying love but was still reeling after a long, dysfunctional marriage. I said bluntly, “I need you to make a decision. In or out?” Eight years later, he remains very much in.

Enforce the statute of limitations on self-reproach.

When my psychotherapy clients are trapped in a cycle of regret and penitence over an action or inaction from years ago, I tell them: “You did the best you could at the time.” This advice has also freed me from the trap of regret.

In the past, I couldn’t bear to be seen as someone other than a caring friend, so I stayed in relationships with people who were taking from my life — as in wanting free therapy sessions — instead of adding to it. My challenges with illness the past few years have taught me to truly appreciate the swift passage of time — and fill that time with the right people.

I have gathered the courage to tell friends who didn’t send so much as a text while I fought cancer, “Sorry if this hurts you, but it’s time for me to move on.”

So, what's the best advice you've ever received? Let us know in the comments below.

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