Whenever anyone talks about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and her ascendance to the heights of theatrical celebrity, one story almost always gets repeated. As a college student, she enrolled in a class taught by famed novelist James Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin, noticing the joy with which Ms. Parks read her works aloud and, perhaps, noting her unique spelling, urged her to become a playwright. She recalls him saying, “Why don’t you try writing plays?” The rest is history.
Very few people mention another incident involving the college-aged Ms. Parks. After she had adopted Mr. Baldwin’s advice and decided to pursue a career in the professional theater, another professor explicitly told her that she would not succeed. She should give up. In the long run, she would be better off if she pursued a different career path. The lesson: Not all advice should be taken.
Here are five tips for taking advice. (And, of course, it’s up to you whether you embrace any of them.)
1. The most useful advice usually comes from people who have recently taken the path that you’re on. How do airline pilots know when they’re about to encounter turbulence? More likely that not, other pilots not too far ahead radio in and share their experiences with the hope that those who follow will be prepared for what awaits them. Similarly, the best career advice usually comes from those just ahead of you who can understand where you are because they were recently there. They understand you because—more or less—they were you.
This is not to say that you should ignore the advice of very senior or significantly more advanced people. Sometimes, their position of privilege gives them a special insight into the industry at large—new initiatives or opportunities that haven’t yet been made public. The “old heads” can prove invaluable on a macro level. That being said, the advice from those who stood where you currently stand only a few years ago and who now stand where you want to go is worth a close, close listen.
2. Remember that advice is not one size fits all. Each of us is unique. Yes, this sounds a bit motherly—you are special and loved—but it’s undeniably true. Advice is not one size fits all. We must edit it and filter it in a way that best suits our needs.
Our situations—bank account balance, age, sex, gender, health, physical ability, comfort level, and, of course, looks—differ from one another. Stay conscious of the variables between you and others and try to either filter out or adapt the pieces of advice that simply do not apply. Advice needs to be tailored to fit properly. By accounting for and attending to difference, you can more easily clear the obstacles to success.
3. Try to find the positive in even the harshest criticism. Criticism often doubles as advice. People say what they think and then tell you what you should do. In Suzan-Lori Parks’s case, the comment came after a professor had witnessed a rehearsal of her senior thesis production. In his mind, the production was so flawed that its creator had no right to be in the theater.
It’s a lot easier to ignore and not listen to criticism than to face it head-on. Most people do this. Rather thinking of this advice as divine word chisled into a stone that you uphold, it’s better to think of it simply as thoughts coming from one person. Once you’ve done this, just ask yourself what is this person trying to say? What positives can be taken away?
In the case of Parks, such an approach would reveal that the naysaying professor simply had a strong preference for theatrical realism. That form just wasn’t her thing. For a playwright who idolized Adrienne Kennedy such a realization might actually serve as validation. Congratulations! You are squarely within an experimental aesthetic! Of course, that sentiment was veiled in critique and negativity.
4. Trust your gut. What does your core, your “gut,” tell you about the advice you just received? Are your experiencing a visceral moment of strong disagreement—which is what Parks probably felt when that professor told her to jump ship and pursue a non-theatrical career—or are you experiencing the warmth of truth? You know yourself best.
Sometimes, it helps simply to make a decision and then sit with it for 24 or 48 hours. How do you feel after having made up your mind to do X? If you’re okay with it, then you’ve chosen wisely or, at least, in a way that’ll let you sleep at night. If your gut keeps you awake, then do the other thing, not X but Y.
5. Pass it On. The good tips and advice that you gather are pretty much useless to you after you’ve already taken them. You’ve moved on to the next level. You’re facing new challenges. You’re seeking a new set of advice to get you over the next hurdle. Rather than keep your knowledge secret, pass it on. Share it.
Others may or may not embrace that advice. They may filter it or adapt it. They could embrace it wholeheartedly or outright reject it because it doesn’t sit well with their gut. They might look at you and say that it doesn’t apply because you’re old and you can’t understand their situation. In short, they’ll do whatever they want to do with it. At least, you tried to help.
Harvey Young is a professor of theater at Northwestern University. His most recent books include "Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun: Four New Plays" and "The Cambridge Companion to African American Theater."