22 Successful People Confess the Best Advice They’ve Always Relied On
The nation's most interesting and accomplished people share words of wisdom that changed their lives.
These 22 folks—including bestselling authors, cutting-edge entrepreneurs, humanitarians, educators, entertainers, and doctors—answered the question “What’s the best advice you ever received?” Here, insights that will change the way you work, love, and play.
When I was maybe six, I saw a photograph in a magazine of a young woman holding a bouquet of flowers up to a police officer who was pointing a gun at her—it was a 1970s image from an antiwar protest. Terribly intrigued by the contradiction depicted in that photo, I asked my mother about it. She explained that the woman was trying to win over the officer with kindness. Her exact words: “Zap them back with super love.” I’ve thought of that phrase many times over the years in trying moments. I’ve never regretted zapping anyone back with super love.
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, Tiny Beautiful Things, and Torch, in Library Journal
“You don’t want to win the argument. You want to get your way.” It was from the late Rae Wolf McKenna, my first mother-in-law. I have found it popping into my head in many tense situations over the years, to great effect.
Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal
You may always want to argue with your parents, but these pieces of parental advice are worth taking.
Twenty-four years ago, when I quit drinking, an old-timer in recovery asked, “How are you treating the world today, Paulie?” I responded, “Don’t you mean ‘How’s the world treating me?’ ” He answered quickly. “No, I mean exactly what I said. No matter how the world is treating you, if you are caring, loving, and kind in the way you treat the world, your journey will be easier.” This is how successful people end their workday.
Paul Williams, award–winning composer, coauthor of Gratitude & Trust
My parents and I were living in a refugee settlement in Vienna after we left the former Soviet Union. Everything was uncertain, scary, and pretty terrible. This didn’t stop my dad from announcing one day that we were going to visit the opera house in Vienna. I thought playing tourists was ridiculous—we had no money, no citizenship, and no home. “We don’t know if we’ll ever be back here again,” my dad said. “Life is short. It’s stupid to sit here and wallow in our troubles.” Now I realize… he’s right.
Nataly Kogan, cofounder and CEO of Happier, Inc.
I grew up in the northern Himalayan region of Kashmir. My grandfather would take all his grandkids for walks in his apple orchards, where he would pick apples that had been tasted by a bird and carve off the opposite side to give to us. I once asked, “Why would you not offer the ripe-looking apple untouched by the bird?” I felt he was such a miser that he wanted to sell the “good” apples instead of feed them to his grandkids. He rolled his hand over my head affectionately. “The bird would only eat one that is sweet, so I pick the best for you,” he said. “Never assume; always ask.” This is my mantra in my personal and professional life. This is why it’s so hard to take other people’s advice.
Khurshid A. Guru, MD, director of robotic surgery at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York
From a very young age, my parents taught me the most important lesson of my whole life: Listen to everybody before you make up your own mind. When you listen, you learn. You absorb like a sponge. Your life becomes so much better than when you are just trying to be listened to all the time.
Steven Spielberg, film director and producer, in Good Housekeeping
“You can always do more. But if you do too much, they won’t get your best.” My college roommate’s father, a third-grade teacher, told me this during my first year of teaching. I was staying late every night and getting burned out. He helped me accept that I couldn’t chase down every lesson idea or write sentences of explanation for each error. It gave me the freedom to focus on interaction with kids. That’s made all the difference. These are the nicest things bosses have done for their employees.
Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year
On Time Management
I once interviewed a woman named Theresa Daytner, who owns a construction company and has six kids, including twins. She told me that she never tells herself, “I don’t have time.” Instead she says, “It’s not a priority.” I could say I don’t have time to make handmade valentines for all my children’s classmates, but if you offered me $100,000, I’d do it quickly. Since that’s not going to happen, I can acknowledge that this is a matter of priority, not time.
Laura Vanderkam, author of Mosaic (2015) and 168 Hours
Years ago, I shared the stage with my hero Zig Ziglar. Before we went on (there were 20,000 people in the crowd, and I was in way over my head), I asked, “How do you work with people who aren’t connected? How do you get through to those who don’t really want to be there?” What he said changed the way I do everything: “Instead of distracting yourself by focusing on folks who are unwilling and unhappy, give your energy to people who came to hear what you had to say.” What I learned: Shun nonbelievers. Ignore critics. Do your best for people who want to dance with you.
Seth Godin, bestselling author and public speaker
On a wicker chair in a corner of my Cape Cod office is a profile I wrote about a former Phoenix Superior Court judge, who mentored me in the late ’70s in the art of court reporting. As she rose through the judicial ranks, the judge instructed me to keep asking questions. Persevere, she counseled me. “Keep at it until you get the answers!” Little did I know how this training would sustain me in times of great challenge. Today, as I fight the demons of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I still follow the sage advice of my mentor, Sandra Day O’Connor, who became the first woman justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor—whose husband, John, died from Alzheimer’s after battling the disease for nearly two decades—has left me an indelible memory.
Greg O’Brien, journalist and author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s
On being told “no”
I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until my mid-30s. Long days and nights in the library in college produced a collection of C’s. Twelve of 13 medical schools rejected me. I was told that I was the least talented person in my residency and advised not to go into cardiac surgery. Time and again, I was told, “Don’t do it.” But sometimes the best advice is that which you don’t take. Instead of listening to people who told me to quit, I heeded the quote that sits on a small placard on my desk: “What can be conceived can be created.” I discovered only recently that it was from a 1980s-era car advertisement. That’s OK, though, because it reminds me that dreams should be lofty.
Toby Cosgrove, MD, CEO of Cleveland Clinic
On Old Friends
One night I called my longtime friend Lydia to escape from mountains of paperwork and errands. She said, “Don’t you remember what you always used to say? ‘When I die, I don’t want people standing around my grave saying, “Ohhh, she kept a perfect house.” You wanted them to say, “Wow, she was a Woman of the World.”’” I didn’t remember that until my friend reminded me. I was struck by how relationships connect us to a part of ourselves we’ve long forgotten. They remind us who we really are, rather than the person that years of responsibilities have us thinking we should be.
Mary C. Bounds, journalist and author of A Light Shines in Harlem
When I graduated high school in 1980, I set a goal to be on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show within ten years. Through early 1990, I auditioned eight times and was turned away at each. Only after my ninth turn—two months before my tenth high school reunion—did I appear on Carson for the first time. During those years, Jim McCawley, Carson’s talent booker, kept saying something that was incredibly frustrating, but which I later would fully appreciate: “When performing for Johnny Carson, it’s better to be five years late than one day early.” It’s not being at the right place at the right time but rather about being prepared when the time arrives.
Jeff Dunham, ventriloquist and stand-up comedian
“Pretending and ignoring are two different things.” I was 15 when I heard this, checked in to a stress center after swallowing a potentially lethal dose of sleeping pills. I’d told my best friend I was born HIV positive. Classmates called me names and left mean notes on my locker. I was told to ignore my bullies, which I’d done. But as one of the center’s counselors explained, sometimes you think you’re ignoring hurtful behavior when you’re just pretending.
“Were you hurt, Paige?” the counselor asked. Yes. I’d been hurt again and again. It was terrifying to admit; would acknowledging that mean my bullies had won? No. It allowed me to move on. Admitting I was hurt was the only thing that freed me from the pain.
Paige Rawl, HIV/AIDS and antibullying activist and author of Positive
I met one woman in Georgia who has been married to her husband for over 60 years. After being asked for her best relationship advice, she paused and then said, “Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.”
Nate Bagley, creator of The Loveumentary, a study of the 100-plus greatest love stories in America, on businessinsider.com
Several years ago, I was at a lecture by a brilliant speaker, Nido Qubein, who said, “If you’re in the presence of a true expert, you will understand everything they say. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, they are not an expert.” Often when we don’t understand what someone who is claiming to be an expert is saying, we tend to blame ourselves. Now my filters are simple. I cut people off if they don’t make sense.
Julie Morgenstern, professional organizer
My mother and I were riding a trolley on a Saturday morning in West Philadelphia. I told her how much my first-grade teacher Miss Invernessy loved me, boasting that I was the teacher’s pet. I didn’t know that Miss Invernessy’s own mother was riding behind us. She heard everything. On Monday, Miss Invernessy kept me after class. After she told me, to my total humiliation, what her mother had overheard, I expected her to scold me for my hubris. She said, “The important thing is that you work for yourself, not for my approval. If you feel that doing well matters to you, you become your most loyal fan as well as your most severe critic.”
Judith Rodin, PhD, president of the Rockefeller Foundation on the RockBlog, rockefellerfoundation.org
On Your Circle
“You’re the average of the five people you associate with the most.” A wrestling coach told this to me in high school. I’ve never forgotten it.
Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, on businessinsider.com
My seventh-grade football team had just been soundly trounced. Our opponent was a bunch of ragtag kids from an Oklahoma City Salvation Army shelter. Their helmets didn’t match. Some wore jeans. The kid across from me had put his number on his shirt in masking tape. But when we snapped the ball, that kid hit me so hard, my left shoulder still hurts when it rains. After the game, my dad told me, “Boy, you just got a lesson in the power of desire. The difference between winners and losers is that winners do things that losers just don’t want to do.” If I want something bad enough, I better be willing to work however hard is required. If not, a boy with a taped-on number might take it away.
Phil McGraw, PhD, host of the television show Dr. Phil
On Raising Children
Hours after our first child was born, a nun at the hospital handed my husband a typed poem:
“Be careful where you go,
Be careful what you do.
Two little eyes are watching
Two little feet will be
It’s easy to overlook that those little eyes soak up things you might not be aware you’re transmitting. Like how family members treat one another. How often please and thank you punctuate the day. Whether you come to a full stop at a stop sign. The kids might look oblivious, but they’re watching.
Paula Spencer, journalist and author of Momfidence!, in Woman’s Day
I had three children while I was earning my PhD at Harvard. When I met with a therapist, one of the first things she asked was, “When was the last time you read a book for fun?” That day, schlepping my preschoolers through the grocery store, I picked up a copy of Jurassic Park. I read all night. That question became a pivotal part of my career as a coach and self-help author. Inject fun into any joyless portion of your life. Everything can change.
Martha Beck, PHD, sociologist, life coach, and author
My no-nonsense mother used to say, “Make yourself useful.” It referred to clearing the table or taking out the trash. But as my ability to be useful expanded, so did the opportunities. Add something to a meeting, a party, or a project. Being useful is so widely applicable and enormously satisfying.
Kelly Corrigan, author of Glitter & Glue and The Middle Place