Times' life lessons

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New York Times Opinion Page

We asked readers to share their hard-won wisdom. Take a look at what they said.

Everybody could use some guidance navigating the world, particularly the young people who are looking ahead to the next steps in their journeys. Who better to provide it than those who have done it all before? We reached out to our readers to collect their advice on life and got over 800 responses.

Here is a selection of some of the best answers, edited for clarity and length.

Expect the unexpected

Life is messy. Expect it and embrace it. We’ve been brought up to expect perfection. But things happen — we make mistakes at work, we lose our jobs, we have disagreements with friends and loved ones, there are accidents, we divorce, our loved ones die. My mom always said to us as teenagers, “This too shall pass.” And it does. And it’s O.K. to be uncomfortable, sad and frustrated while journeying through that messy moment and coming out the other end stronger and wiser. — Colleen Crum, 66

“It is easy to be a good person when things are going well but the true test of a person comes when everything suddenly goes wrong.” — Perri Hochhauser, 69

It’s never too late to change

A bad marriage, not finishing school, or working for someone you don’t like — all mistakes I’ve made — are not things to regret and certainly not things that should stop you from making better choices when the opportunity arises. Don’t let anyone tell you that correcting these kinds of errors is somehow wrong or evidence of a character flaw you should hide. It isn’t. Getting a divorce, going back to school later in life, or restarting your career are all O.K. if they make you a better, happier and more successful person in the long run. — David Chassin, 55

Own your mistakes

I was an 18-year-old college student working part time in a cabinet shop. Mitch, the cabinet maker, was a great guy who taught me everything I know about woodworking and also an important thing about life:

One day we were installing a cabinet that was designed to go from wall to wall at the end of a kitchen. Mitch held up one end of the cabinet and I held up the other, and as we tried several ways to put the cabinet in place it became apparent that it was too long. So we set the cabinet down on the floor, and as I stood up from putting my end down I cast my eyes heavenward as teenagers sometimes do when the adult in the room makes a mistake.

Mitch saw my expression, and then delivered the life lesson. He said, in his very friendly voice, “Let me tell you the definition of a professional. It’s a guy who knows how to fix his mistakes.” Then he started fixing the problem, and within about 10 minutes we had installed the cabinet.

I like two things about Mitch’s definition of a professional. First, it acknowledges that no matter how good you might be at doing something, sooner or later you are going to make a mistake. And second, it says that if you truly are good at what you do, you will know how to fix what you did wrong. — Dan Rosenthal, 72

You will need mentors. You will need friends.

I tell my medical students to appoint a “board of directors” — three to five people — to guide their decisions on career and life. I also tell them to build at least three communities of friends. The communities can be work, a church, golf buddies, dance friends, etc. If you lose one community from job loss, retirement or divorce, you have others to support you. Also, having large, diverse groups of friends makes life more fun and interesting. — James Horton, 67

Find life mentors, not just career mentors. Find people who are good at the art of living, the wise ones, and tell them you want them to be available. They do not need to be friends. Then keep in touch, watch them, listen to them, learn from them. Steer clear of people who are paid to do this or imagine themselves to be gurus. Steer clear of anyone with too high opinion of himself or herself, lacking in self-deprecation or a sense of humor. Find the authentic ones who are a bit surprised you picked them out. You need several. I have been lucky enough to find them. They have made all the difference. — Patricia Hunt, 72

Get help if you need it

I went off to college believing I was stupid, incapable, lonely and needy. I had a victim mentality, and I used substances so that I could feel good and make it in the world. Through therapy and recovery programs, I learned that I could turn my victim state around. I began rewiring my brain: if I thought anything negative about myself, I immediately pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down 10 good things about myself (this was in the days before cell phones). My car and house filled up with small pieces of paper with good things about me. If I found myself feeling like a victim, I said to myself, “I am making a bad choice. But it is my choice to do this.” After a while, I started believing I had choices and I could make different choices. And also after a while, I stopped thinking negatively about myself. I really did rewire my brain. — Thea Iberall, 70

“I am giving up worrying about not being perfect, and I am so much happier accepting and loving myself for who I am.” — Sarah Blodgett, 61

Find joy at work

After my youngest was born I told Mom I was thinking about not going back to work. Mom took me aside and said these words: “Don’t ever stop working. A woman giving up the workplace completely is giving up a lot more than a paycheck. You are giving up a community that will help you through a lot of catastrophes in life. Right now the world seems pretty bright. You are both are healthy and young. But there are things that can change quickly. If you have a venue open that could help you, don’t close it.”

Turns out I didn’t quit and I agree with her wholeheartedly still. I tell young parents those words every day. While I still think we are young and healthy 24 years later, I do remember how wonderful my work family was when Momma, my rock, got sick. — Liz Estes, 54

Learn how to offer condolences

My husband died out skiing in the neighborhood on Christmas Day in 1985. I was 39 and our daughter was 3. She had started at a local nursery school in the fall. None of the parents at the school reached out to me. Others did. I had visits, food, notes from people close and very distant (friends of friends). Other people disappeared. I had never been taught about offering condolences. I learned a lot.

If someone is having any kind of hard time — death in the family, bad grades, parent arrested, bad publicity, anything, really — you can always say, “I’m thinking about you.” For any loss, you can always say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Then just listen.

Do not worry that you will remind your friend of their loss; they haven’t forgotten. If you only say these words, you won’t say the wrong thing. — Corlan Johnson, 73

Say thank you

If you have a teacher or mentor who made a great or even small impact on your life, tell them. Call them, write to them, let them know what a wonderful impact they had on you. Life is too short not to validate the ones who have changed our lives in a profound way. Then there will be no regrets when they pass on because you already told them what was on your heart and your life will be richer for it in ways that you never dreamed. — Helen Reilly, 73