Business & Work ● November 2016
What's the greatest piece of advice you've ever received?
One of the questions we’ve been asking folks during interviews for our design director role at We Are Mammoth is this: What’s the single best (or worst) piece of advice you’ve ever received? Lately, I’ve thought about how I’d answer this question myself.
I think the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received isn’t a famous quote. It isn’t a saying at all. Instead, it’s derived from a particular shape in mathematics: The bell curve. In some circles, it’s called the normal distribution curve or the Gaussian distribution. Regardless, its shape should be instantly familiar to you.
Now, before you roll your eyes, I promise, this post doesn’t get very mathematical at all. Fuzzy math, at best.
This shape has three distinct properties. At both ends, the curve tapers to the bottom. In the middle, it rises to some maximum. I think my relationship to all ingredients in life resembles this basic shape. The x-axis represents some ingredient and the y-axis represents some desired outcome of the ingredient. The trick is to find out where the optimal “middle” lives.
I’m not sure who gave me this advice. Maybe no one. Maybe the curve just reappears in my head at opportune times.
Whenever I struggle with difficult decisions, I think about this curve. Whenever things are going poorly, I think about this curve. Whenever something is going really well, I think about this curve. The bell curve helps me recalibrate where I am and where I need to go.
Take my relationship with money, for example. How much money do I need to make myself happy? Thinking about the bell curve, the x-axis would represent the amount of money I have (increasing from left-to-right) and the y-axis would represent my happiness (increasing from bottom-to-top).
I grew up without a lot of money. My parents made ends meet despite that fact. They put a priority on living in a good school district and putting food on the table each day above all else. My friends at school were all generally wealthier. We couldn’t afford the things most of my schoolmates could. There were no ski trips or summer homes to go to during winter break. I was keenly aware of our limitations with wealth when I was a child. So, my perception of wealth was simple: The more money I could make when I was older, the happier I would be. Period.
How trajectories sometimes appear
But, numerous studies have shown this isn’t the case. Being wealthier doesn’t necessarily make you happier. One study in 2009 suggested the optimal household salary to achieve the most day-to-day happiness is $75,000. Earlier this year, Time magazine reported on the link between lottery winners and future depression.
The relationship between monetary wealth and happiness, then, could probably be represented by a bell curve–or at the very least some shape resembling the curve, with a line that slopes upward as wealth increases toward some optimal middle before it descends steadily downward.
By the way, I don’t think my mental model of wealth and happiness as a child was wrong. I was simply looking at the curve with a locally focused view based on where I personally saw myself at the time.
Sometimes, our perception of how things ultimately will work out is blinded by how things are working out right now
And, this serves as an additional realization the bell curve has given me. Sometimes, I focus too narrowly on whatever part of the curve I happen to be situated upon right now. If I happen to have little money, I might think that obtaining more wealth (or whatever the x-axis represents) without bounds is the key to more happiness (or whatever the y-axis represents). If something’s feeling just right, I might not even recognize that I’ve struck a careful balance of whatever amount of x I need to achieve y. If I have an overabundance of x, I might assume that getting rid of all of it (rather than just pulling back a bit) will help me get to an optimal y. The bell curve reminds me to be cautious about extrapolating my current path toward the optimum.
Let’s get back to the money example. Using this logic, it would seem like there would be a point where I should actually stop trying to make more money. At some point, wealth has negative returns. But, I personally wouldn’t explicitly pass up the opportunity to make more money, even if I felt I had achieved my optimal happiness from it. So what gives? Sounds like a flaw in the system.
But that’s not the only way to interpret the curve. For me, the bell curve helps re-prioritize the ingredients in my life that need the most attention. If I have the exact amount of money I feel makes me happy, I won’t eschew doing something simply because it makes money. But, there will have to be another reason—something else that helps me find the optimal middle for the other bell curves in my life.
For instance, if I happen to be building software that customers are willing to pay to use, then the happiness I squeeze from it might come from things outside of the bottom line. It might be the satisfaction of making someone’s life better through a craft I love or the accomplishment of my team pushing out a new feature that customers are raving about or the recognition of the public…or any number of other things.
In other words, once I’ve reached the optimal middle for something, I don’t necessarily avoid obtaining more of it. But, I know that it won’t give me the returns it once did. If I continued to assume what once was true (I’ll be happier when I have more money), more money would, indeed, make me less happy.
Everyone’s graphs will be different. My optimal middle for money’s impact on happiness will be different from yours. Not only that, but my middle will change over time. Getting married, moving to San Francisco, having my first child — those life events have a big impact on the x-axis. But, the key is that I know the curve always exists. I just need to think about how the scales actually change. How much or how little they actually do is subject to constant reevaluation. I told you it would be fuzzy math at best.
I’ve used money as an example because it’s instantly relatable to all of us. But, there is a bell curve of effectiveness to just about everything. How much water you should drink to be healthy (you can drink too much water). How much time spent on automating tests leads to more bug-free software (the fallacy of full test coverage convinces developers to let their guard down on other kinds of testing). How much capitalistic extremes progress a society’s overall welfare (and, for that matter, any other form of government). I can go on forever. I find the lessons of the bell curve apply to just about everything in my life—big or small.
All ingredients in life have a limit to their effectiveness. Where that limit lies is different for everyone. Everyone’s bell curve is different. Everyone’s place on that curve is also different. But, everyone’s bell curve exists. It’s up to us to draw them out.
It doesn’t matter where the words of wisdom come from, we carry them with us like a talisman. A tiny pebble of certainty in the shifting sands of life. We still fall over, lose our way and get grit in our shoes. But somehow being sure of a truth, no matter what it may be, gives us hope. Happy New Year!
1. Sir Richard Branson, entrepreneur
My mother, Eve, always taught me never to look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. A setback is never a bad experience, just another one of life’s lessons.
2. Lionel Shriver, author
Sage advice from my old friend Ruth Dudley Edwards is “Get on with it”, a sound approach to everything. If you have the leisure to think about it, you have time to do it.
3. Esther Rantzen, journalist and founder of ChildLine
I like this 2,000 year old advice by Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for me, who will be? If I am only for me, what am I? If not now, when?” I think it means: “Sort yourself out, protect yourself and ensure your own survival – if you don’t, you can achieve nothing. However, selfishness is empty, so ensure that you make a positive difference to others, and do it now.”
4. Cliff Richard, singer
When I was getting serious about singing, my father told me that if I didn’t make it there was still a life to be lived. Then, when I recorded Move It, he asked me: “Do you really want this? If you do then give it your all and give it all the time.”
5. Jilly Cooper, author
My darling grandmother told me: “Whenever you meet anybody, look for something nice to say about them, because even if they’ve got a hideous face they might have fantastic ankles or lovely hair, and compliments do cheer people up enormously.” She did cheer people up and I always wanted to emulate her.
6. Gordon Ramsay, chef
Put your head down and work hard. Never wait for things to happen, make them happen for yourself through hard graft and not giving up.
7. Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain
Darren Lehmann, a team-mate of mine at Yorkshire, told me to make sure I ended my career with no regrets. He meant “don’t die wondering”. I took that attitude into Strictly Come Dancing.
8. Antonia Fraser, historian
A very old Marquess once said to me: “No gentleman is ever rude by mistake.” This seems to me a profound observation about the need for courtesy and consideration to all people at all times. Unless, of course, you have good reason for anger, in which case go for it.
9. Prue Leith, cookery writer and author
On clothing: if it doesn’t go in, it can’t go on. I seem to remember it was given to me by an irritatingly flab-free fella.
10. Brian Moore, former England rugby player and Telegraph columnist
An admonishment from Mr Hoyle, my English teacher: “Moore, there are two sorts of people in life, those that do and those that sit on the sidelines and snigger. Do I have to tell you which one is more worthy?”
11. Nic Fiddian Green, sculptor
Gandhi said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
12. Jo Malone, entrepreneur
Launching my new business, Jo Loves, I chose four key words as my guiding principles: Inspire, Innovate, Ignite, Integrity.
13. Mary Riddell, Telegraph journalist
“Make sure you marry someone who can cook,” from my father who could boil neither a kettle nor an egg.
14. Stephen Bayley, author, design guru
I have three favourites: 1. The old Foreign Office directive: never tell a lie but never tell the whole truth, and never miss an opportunity to go to the lavatory. 2. From Henry David Thoreau: “Beware of all enterprises requiring new clothes.” 3. From Jay McInerney: “Treat everyone you meet as if you have secret information that they are about to become extremely rich”.
15. Matthew Williamson, designer
My co-founder and CEO, Joseph Velosa, said to me years ago: “If you don’t have passion, then you have nothing. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, why would anyone else?”
16. Max Sinclair, English Heritage Angel Awards winner
For National Service I was desperate to join the RAF, but my father advised me to join the Royal Engineers where I’d learn a skill instead. I have no regrets.
17. Alice Arnold, Radio 4 newsreader
When one door closes, it’s shut!
18. Steve Cram, former Olympic athlete
Apart from: “Never leave the bar first because everyone will talk about you,” the best bit of advice I got was from my coach, aged 14. He said I would never achieve anything if I hadn’t already thought that I could. It worked.
19. Joan Bakewell, journalist
When someone annoys you, just imagine them naked. You’ll feel their equal.
20. Camila Batmanghelidjh, charity leader
You’re not that important; it’s what you do that counts.
21. Alex Crawford, Sky News correspondent
Harry S Truman said: “The best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and advise them to do it.”
22. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Paralympic athlete
My grandfather used to say: “Aim high, even if you hit a cabbage.” It is about having a goal or a dream and never giving up.
23. Daniel Galvin, hair colourist
My mother told me: “The sky’s the limit; it’s there for the taking. But you’ve got to go and get it.”
24. Deborah Moggach, author
“Everything matters, but nothing matters that much.” I read this somewhere, and love it because it strikes just the right balance.
25. Edwina Currie, former MP
A favourite teacher wrote this, from Hamlet, in my autograph book as I left school in Liverpool: “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it follows, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.
26. Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival
My father’s advice to me was that people in rural Wales have the same cultural expectations and aspirations as people in Manhattan or Sydney or Paris.
27. Bel Mooney, journalist and writer
Once I was miserable over a nasty book review and my great friend Bernard Levin told me: “Darling girl, you have to imagine yourself floating high in the sky above them all.”
28. Sir Roy Strong, art historian
Never be seduced by any position you hold and always be first and foremost yourself. Jobs come and go but you go on. My then flatmate, Michael Borrie, told me that when I was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery, at the tender age of 31, in 1967.
29. Victoria Moore, Telegraph wine writer
You always have more options than you think you have. Every time I feel stuck or trapped I remember this, take my time, and reformulate my plans.
30. Fern Britton, TV presenter
My mother always said: “It is never your extravagances you regret, it is only your economies.”
31. Richard Madeley, TV presenter
Passed on to me by the playwright John Mortimer, who received it in turn from his father: “All advice is useless.”
32. Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen, campaigner and writer
The best advice I have been given, especially since January when my son’s killers were sentenced, is: “Your strength and courage is admired by many. Keep up the good work.”
33. Xanthe Clay, Telegraph food columnist
I once put out a request for dinner party tips in Weekend. Among the (excellent) replies was one that stood out: “Don’t get tipsy till the cheese course.”
34. Ann Widdecombe, former MP
I always tell the young not to be in so much of a hurry. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
35. Jon Snow, journalist and presenter
My first foreign editor at ITN, John Mahoney, told me: “Never touch anyone 'on camera’, and never be seen on television carrying a baby or an animal.” I broke his rule during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We were almost alone in having a flat-bottomed boat and I found myself carrying a heart attack victim into it. I told my cameraman to focus on the old man, and not on me, in case Mr Mahoney was watching.
36. Lisa Armstrong, Telegraph fashion editor
My mother taught me how to remain sane when faced with the implacable logic of small children: always give them choice, but controlled choice with inbuilt distraction. Not “would you like to eat your vegetables?” but “would you like to eat your vegetables from a green or a yellow plate?” Worked like a charm.
37. Amanda Holden, actress and presenter
“One’s only ambition in life should be to be happy. Nothing else matters”, from my husband, Chris.
38. Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe
My mother once said to me before an interview: “Be confident and not arrogant, and don’t be arrogant and unconfident”, which just about hit the nail on the head with me.
39. Mary Keen, garden designer
My tutor at Oxford told me to: “Sleep for 8 hours, work for 8 hours, play for 8 hours.” I didn’t, and my work-life balance would be better if I had.
40. Michael Caines, head chef at Gidleigh Park hotel
“Take criticism constructively, not personally and see it as an opportunity to improve yourself,” from Bill Heads, my lecturer at Exeter College.
41. Goran Ivanisevic, former Wimbledon champion
Never give up, because if you keep believing and trying, anything can happen.
42. Edith Bowman, Radio 1 DJ
My mother Eleanor said: “What’s meant for you won’t pass you by.” It reminds me not to take decisions by others personally.
43. Robin Page, Telegraph columnist
My geography master told me: “When people tell you that there are two sides to every argument, it is nonsense. There are three: your side, their side and the truth.”
44. Tim Rice, lyricist and author
My mum, circa 1955, told me: “Make new friends but stick to old, one is silver, the other gold”.
45. Julian Fellowes, actor and writer
The best piece of advice I ever received was from my mother: “If you want to be happily married, marry a happy person.” I am glad to say I took her at her word.
46. Jack Straw, former Home and Foreign Secretary
When Barbara Castle was appointed Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, after Labour unexpectedly won the 1974 General Election, she asked me, then a barrister who knew nothing about health or social security, to be her special adviser. My head of chambers at the time, Sir Edward Gardner MP, asked me: “In 20 years’ time, would you rather be in the British Cabinet or a High Court judge?” I replied “the Cabinet”, which eventually led to my becoming Barbara’s successor as MP for Blackburn.
47. Hannah Betts, journalist
My psychiatrist father always told me to “face my fear”. It has instilled me with a lifelong sense that pluck is all, which, Britishly, I feel it is.
48. Peter Barron, head of external relations for Google
All the best advice I received was from my father, and I even took some of it. My favourite is: “The man who never made a mistake never made anything.”
49. Mark Hedges, editor of Country Life
Michael Clayton, a former editor of Horse & Hound magazine, once said to me: “Fall off as often as possible, your hosts will love you for it.” It proved both tremendous advice and, with my riding skills, easy to achieve.
50. Ai Weiwei, artist
Not many people give me advice, but the most memorable came from a police officer when I was released from the 81-day detention in June 2011. He said: “If you work hard, you can become a good artist.” It has inspired me to work harder to become a good activist.
51. James Corden, actor
The difference between doing something and not doing something is doing something. So just do it. Oh, and try not to take yourself too seriously, it’s just not cool.
52. Ed Victor, literary agent
Nigel Nicolson, MP in the Fifties, said of public speaking: “Always know exactly what you are going to say. Never know how you are going to say it.” Since then I have never had a problem giving a speech.
53. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for education
Since tonic is at least half, if not two-thirds, of a gin and tonic, make sure you choose the right tonic.
54. Marcus Armytage, former Grand National winner and Telegraph columnist
The three good bits of advice I’ve been given are all don’ts: don’t do drugs, don’t join the Moonies, and, from my father: “Don’t hit your horse until you reach the Elbow at Aintree in the 1990 Grand National.” I followed all three with, I hope, more than satisfactory results.
55. Robert Bathurst, actor
When Bob Spiers was directing a Nineties sitcom I did, Joking Apart, he only ever gave me one piece of direction: “Make it funny.” It’s all you need to know.
56. Bobbi Brown, make-up artist
The author Liz Murray said: “If you go through things where you feel like you’re in a dark place, you are not alone. You can change your life. In fact, you can transform your life.” This statement made me realise that no matter what challenges you face, you can overcome them.
57. Phil Spencer, TV presenter
My father used to say: “If you can’t be good, then don’t get caught.”
58. Nicholas Coleridge, president of Condé Nast and author
Make sure you have four good friends: one more handsome, one uglier, one richer and one poorer than yourself. That way you experience perfect contentment and humility.
59. Charlie Gilkes, nightclub impresario
My headmaster used to say: “If you don’t say something like you believe in it, how can you expect others to believe in it?”
60. Christopher Warren-Green, director of the London Chamber Orchestra
“If you feel as if you’re falling off a cliff, remember we can sprout wings and fly,” from Margaret Hubicki, harmony professor at the Royal Academy of Music.
61. Rachel Khoo, cookery presenter and writer
My mother still tells me to “sleep on it” if I have any dilemmas. A night’s sleep puts things in perspective.
62. Christine Hamilton, public speaker
My father used to say: “There are no stumbling blocks in life – just stepping stones in disguise.”
63. Harriet Cass, Radio 4 newsreader
When you look back on your life, you will regret only what you didn’t do. If you’re unsure, ask yourself “why not?”
64. Irma Kurtz, advice columnist
My father used to tell me: “Keep still, Irma, and listen!” Let others speak without interruption to hear more than you expected and sometimes more than they meant to tell you.”
65. Helen Glover, Olympic rower
When I was 13 my athletics coach, Peter Meredith, wrote “carpe diem” in my birthday card. Ever since, “seize the day” has been something I try to bring into daily life.
66. Matthew Norman, Telegraph columnist
“Have a think about another career,” from a tutor on the solicitors’ conversion course I found myself on after applying for what I had thought was a course for prospective barristers.
67. Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer, theatre director
The legendary theatre producer Hal Prince once said: “You can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.” However good the music may be, the show won’t work if the design doesn’t fit.
68. Sir Terry Pratchett, author
The author John Brunner once told me: “Remember nearly everything you are using to write a book is tax deductible.”
69. Lizzie Armitstead, Olympic cyclist
My coach Phil West told me: “Don’t believe your own hype,” reminding me to keep my feet firmly on the ground.
70. Arianna Huffington, author
My mother gave me something better than advice: a sense of unconditional loving. This meant that as I was going for my dreams, I knew that if I failed she wouldn’t love me any less.
71. Alan Hansen, former Liverpool player and Match of the Day commentator
My manager at Liverpool, Bob Paisley, had a go at our defence after a game once and said I was the only person to have played well. He then dropped me for the next game and I didn’t understand why. He told me that it was all about experience, and your knowledge makes you a better player over time. He was right.
72. Simon Mayo, Radio 2 presenter
“Respect the women in the house”, “The easier day is never coming” and “Quality time is a myth”. These are all from The Sixty Minute Father by Rob Parsons, and are invaluable and true. Accept no disrespect to sisters or mother, assume that you’ll always be this busy and you only get quality time by putting in the hours.
73. Sarah Gristwood, historian and royal commentator
On a film location once I wound up confiding to Anthony Hopkins my dreams for the future. He shook his head and told me not just to dream, but to “do it”.
74. Colin Jackson, former sprint and hurdles athlete
Daley Thompson said: “You will never be great on your own, you need to be able to work with people.”
75. Skye Gyngell, chef
From a bumper sticker given to me by a surf shop in Bondi: “Do what you love and love what you do.”
76. Paul Smith, fashion designer
Always give yourself time to think, particularly before you answer an important question.
77. Gretchen Rubin, self-help author
Years ago, after I got a promotion, I asked my boss for any words of wisdom in my new job. She told me: “Be polite and be fair.” That short phrase covers a lot of situations.
78. Richard Dunwoody, former Champion jockey
One of my trainers once told me: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”
79. Charles Moore, Telegraph columnist
Alan Watkins, the late, great political journalist, once told me that: “Half-an-hour with Who’s Who is never wasted.” He is right, because a fact about one person mysteriously joins up with a fact about another. Who’s Who tells you what’s what.
80. Santa Sebag Montefiore, author
When we were skiing in Klosters my father would say “It’s sunny at the top”, before heading up the mountain in thick fog. He meant “be positive”, and always be grateful for what you have.
81. Chris Larkin, actor
“Always strive to be a better man.” Kiplingesque words given to me by my stepfather, Bev.
82. Sandi Toksvig, comedian and presenter
My father gave me three excellent pieces of advice: 1. Never trust a man in a ready-made bow tie. A man who cannot concentrate long enough to fasten a bow tie is never going to be a well of nuanced or intriguing conversation. 2. One Vodka Martini is not enough, two is plenty and three is too many. 3. Live your life with passion, or there is no point. You might as well drink three Vodka Martinis with a man sporting clip-on neckwear.
83. Geoff Boycott, cricketer
I took Uncle Algy’s advice: “When two people get involved in a run-out, one of them is going to be very disappointed. Make sure it’s not you.”
84. Chemmy Alcott, Britain’s No 1 female downhill skier
A friend of mine, Eric Dunmore, said: “This injury is an opportunity” when I broke my leg very badly in late 2010. To have someone look on the flip side so positively when you are in a tough place really changed my perception of being injured.
85. Ben Elliot, co-founder of Quintessentially Group
Both my parents always said: “Work hard and be nice to people.”
86. Matt Pritchett, Telegraph cartoonist
Advice from my grandmother: “Never grow old.”
87. John Mitchinson, head of research for QI
“Always walk towards the sound of gunfire.” The late Barbara Castle told me this when I introduced her at a literary dinner along with Jeffrey Archer. I’m pleased to say that as an orator, she wiped the floor with Archer and this exhortation, which means if you think there’s something wrong, there almost always is, is one I turn to pretty much every day.
88. Sarah Beeny, property television presenter
I know it is nauseating but someone I used to work with taught me that positive things happen to positive people.
89. Nina Campbell, interior designer
If you feel like writing an explosive email or letter, write it, but then save it as a draft or keep it in a drawer and revisit it the following day. I find that usually I don’t send it.
90. Lady Annabel Goldsmith, writer and philanthropist
My grandmother, Edith Londonderry, told me to always try to remain impartial in any family squabble and never to interfere or take sides in a marriage.
91. Amelia Rope, chocolatier
Patrick Reeves, who co-founded sofa.com, taught me to: “Keep it simple.”
92. Brian Blessed, actor and explorer
“The greatest danger in life is to not take the adventure,” from Harry Dobson, one of my teachers.
93. George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury
On becoming Archbishop in 1991 a student of mine said: “George, power changes people. Be yourself always. Your integrity is crucial to all you stand for. Value and honour all people and laugh, often, at yourself and the ridiculous antics of the Church.”
94. Annabel Croft, former professional tennis player, TV presenter
A TV producer once told me that the simplest questions were the best ones, and that asking open questions makes people work harder at their answer.
95. James Cracknell, Olympic rower
Abraham Lincoln said: “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe”. No wonder he’s the only US President with a statue in Parliament Square. It took me years to understand the value of this but I genuinely try to abide by it.
96. Susan Hill, writer
If you don’t know what to do, do nothing.
97. Thea Green, founder of Nails Inc
Know what your competition is doing and never stop listening to the customer. They are usually right. And remember that the best is yet to come.
98. Viscount Linley, furniture maker
My father advised me to always strive to do better, learn from my mistakes and aim for perfection. Within my business I encourage this and am always asking: “is this the best of the best?”
99. Wendy Holden, author
One should always be slightly improbable.
100.Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat politician
My father told me: “Never stop learning.”
101. Justin Webb, Radio 4 Today presenter
A cardiologist friend once told me: “Lifestyle changes don’t add up to much, mate, just take the pills and hope for the best.”
Many of those questioned also told us the advice they would most like to pass on. Stephen Bayley, for example, would warn his children never to cook in suede shoes. For many more answers see the article:'Advice that famous people would most like to pass on'.