In 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
Popularity is poisonous, Dad says, encouraging his son not to place too much worth in the admiration of people his own age. Instead, focus on earning the attention and approval of older men and women — especially older women.
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on October 30, 1937
Dear Son: Of course I am pleased that you have become so popular, but I don’t know whether I am more pleased than worried. Popularity can be a subtle poison, especially the kind you are getting your first taste of now. It is so easy for a young fellow with personality to gather admirers. From that to the establishment of a little private court which he can lord over is the next step — and that step is down, not up.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I want you to be popular with your fellow workers. I want you to share their interests and take pleasure in their divertissements. But that is only a small part of your curriculum. You have more serious work ahead. This may run counter to the popular notion of how to achieve success, but popular notions on most subjects are wrong. Savages are not the only ones who are surrounded and submerged by superstitions. For every superstition you can show me in a savage village I can show you 10 in a so-called civilized suburb. And probably no superstition is more popular than the one which says, in effect, that one must conform in order to succeed — that to dare to be different is to court disaster.
Now take your present situation. You are a salesman. You are told on every hand you must be a good fellow; that you must pal around with your contemporaries, make their pleasures your pleasures, their interests your interests, and that to indicate in the slightest way you have ambitions for other things is to be a stuffed shirt and a snob. My boy, that is just a popular song which might be called The Ballad of the Easy Way. Don’t fall for it. The Hard Way is better. Not easier, but better. It is too easy to cultivate your contemporaries, to bask in their smiles, to warm yourself in their approval, to butter yourself with their flattery. They know little if anything more than you do, usually not as much. They can teach you nothing. But they can waste your time. Don’t let them do it.
Don’t waste your time with people who have nothing to contribute to your growth, when you can have just as much pleasure and infinitely more profit out of associating with people who can teach you something. Seek out older men for friends and preferably men who are not in the same line of business you are pursuing. Collect grizzled old doctors, hard-bitten lawyers, skeptical scientists. Enlarge your circle to include artists and musicians and writers. You will learn to be a better salesman by observing how a veteran trial lawyer handles a jury; an old family doctor has forgotten more about the psychology of the human critter than most sales managers will ever know. From artists you will learn how to observe, from scientists you will learn how to question, from writers you will learn how to listen, and from everybody you will learn how to enrich your own life with new and varied interests.
Older men. Wiser men. Let the young fellows you know play around like puppies on a rug if they want to. You trail along with the wise old hunting dogs. “There’s tricks to all trades but mine.” Learn them.
If you wanted to fight you would ask a Dempsey how. If you wanted to dance you would look for an Astaire to coach you. There are masters all around you. You have only to seek them out and tap their resources. Do it and you will have no time to waste holding petty court and impressing shallow admirers with your equally shallow attainments. Cultivate friends who can and will criticize you, shrewdly, mercilessly, and constructively. Young admirers who think you are a devil of a fellow can do you a lot of harm — old critics who know you are a hell of a mess will do you a world of good.
When you are impressionable you are eager to impress. More often than not this eagerness will defeat you. When you meet new people, relax. Be at ease. Make yourself a center of calm, a little pool of reserve. Let them be mirrored in it. Observe quietly, listen attentively. Study the game that’s going on and find out if you know anything about it before you decide to rush in and take part. Scouting the other team is sound practice and good sense. It’s done best from the sidelines, and quietly. If you don’t understand the game, try to learn about it. If you know the game and you want to play, choose your own position before you run out on the field. I am quite sure no one ever told you this in school, and I am equally sure it will save you a lot of grief if you learn it now. Otherwise you may blunder along for years under the delusion that in order to dominate a discussion you must lead it, and to impress a gathering you must impose your opinions on it.
One more small paragraph on this subject before I leave it. The most interesting, the most valuable people in a gathering are not always the most vivid. Learn to seek out the quiet ones, force yourself to cultivate those who seem, at first blush, to be the least interesting. More often than not, as they unfold their personalities, they prove to be deeper and richer than you could have ever suspected, and to the gratifying joy of friendship you will add the satisfying thrill of discovery.
Older men. And older women. When you go to a party don’t make the mistake that most callow youths make — don’t make a beeline for the prettiest girl in the room. She is used to it. She expects it. She won’t be grateful. Bow, and pass on — to an older woman. The older woman won’t expect it — she will be intrigued by your good taste, charmed by your good manners and, likely as not, she will turn out to be the pretty girl’s mother, or her rich aunt from Australia. Now you have a friend at court and the pretty girl’s interest in you as well, for behold, you, a handsome young man, have shown no interest in her!
Or better yet, the elderly lady to whom you have been so polite, so attentive, probably will be the wife of the most influential citizen in the community. Her husband has long depended on her instinct for sizing up people. Someday he may look you over, and her good opinion may be the difference between success and failure for you. It’s a man’s world, to be sure, but behind every important man there usually stands a woman who influences his judgment and helps him to make decisions. The man may not remember your achievements, but the woman will not forget your good manners.