Experience-Based Advice on How to Live a Good Life

A letter from Nancy Kline, to her goddaughter, illustrating behaviors that may dramatically improve the way we interact with others and lead to a fulfilling life.

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Nancy Kline offers deeply stimulating, inspiring tools for the way we think – and live.

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Content Tools

Living With Time to Think (Octopus Publishing, 2014) by Nancy Kline, builds an independent thinking culture in organizations and relationships. Over the years Nancy has refined this highly acclaimed system called the Thinking Environment, identifying 10 behaviors that dramatically improve the way people listen, think, and interact with one another. In the excerpt Nancy gives well thought out advice to her goddaughter as a graduation gift.

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Dear Meghan,

When you were ten years old, I told you I would write something for you, something you could hold close to your heart, that you could turn to for backbone when feeling beguiled, count on to hold your hand when the light dims and the way recedes, and beckon you to joy no matter what.

I said this to you because you had said to me, ‘Nancy, when I am a woman, how can I have a good life?’ I was silenced by the question, by its importance and by your very grown-up concern. So, stalling, I said to you, ‘Meghan, I promise I will think about that.’

‘When?’ you asked.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I will write you a letter about that someday,’ I said.

‘Oh, good,’ you said, ‘when?’

After more silence, having no idea whether I ever could answer that question as fully or dependably as you deserved, I said, hugging you, ‘I don’t know for sure; but I promise I will.’

That was eight years ago. Now you are graduating from high school. And over that time I have written what I hope will be a friend for you. I offer it to you now, on the threshold of womanhood, as your sights soar towards a grown-up life, gracing the earth with your fine mind, your highly hewn awareness of others, your self-discipline, your outrage at injustice and your insistence on time to think and feel and decide things for yourself. With this book comes my love.

You asked me for advice. That is a siren’s moment. We think we know exactly what others need. And to be asked for advice is alluring. But with difficulty I resisted. I don’t really approve of it. I earn most of my living advising (paradoxically) against it. I encourage people (and you now) to think for themselves.

To do that we simply have to refuse to give advice. Only if the person has done their own thinking in our riveted, generative silence first (and has gobs of ideas of their own to show for it), and only if they beg us, can we even consider suggesting what they might do.

This is because most of the time advice is infantilizing. It treats people like children (including children). And that keeps them from thinking for themselves. Advice asks one person to become the other. In that way it too often poisons the soil of the never-before-thought-of thought and is, therefore, probably one reason our world staggers. We are assuming that if we keep on coming up with the same ideas and doing the same things in the same way, somehow the results will be different. Fortunately, the world now sees this as one sign of madness.

In other words, advice by its nature assumes that what went before is good enough for what is needed now. But as there are hardly even two molecules alike in the entire universe, it is highly unlikely that what one person found helpful or elucidating in one complex moment of their life will be more than slightly useful in a differently complex moment of another’s.

So advice is out.

But experience is in. And so is knowledge. They work. They open possibilities and nurture independent thinking. They say, ‘Consider me; then take me or leave me.’

So I offer to you here my experience and my limited knowledge. You can do with it what you want, including highlighting it and dragging it decisively into the trash.

Because, actually, even taking care to use only the language of experience and knowledge I should nevertheless resist altogether and just say to you right now, ‘I’ll stop writing and come to your house, sit on your bed with you and listen beautifully while you come up with ideas for a good life that I have never thought of.’ Then we could put all of those ideas into a book, wrap it with a golden ribbon and one day you could open it and marvel at the wisdom.

But when you were still under five feet tall, on your fourth reading of the entire ‘Babysitter’ series, before bras or boys or lacrosse or SATs, I told you I would write you something. And a deal is a deal. So I want you to have it now as you graduate from high school, and for the rest of your life, long after I am dead, even if it only occasionally grazes your life with relevance or applicability. I hope I have done your question justice. You have honored me by asking it.

Life is short. It is melodious and wondrous. At times it is callous. At its best it requires the best from us. And so, should you someday want to ask me again how, as a woman, you can have a good life, here is what I would say to you.

Thinking For Yourself

I met with a group of six girls last month. They were there, on a Young Women As Leaders workshop, to think about expanding their student government.

We began with a simple question: ‘What do you think needs to be done?’ No one spoke. I asked them again. Nothing. And these were high-achieving, Harvard-in-their-sights 17-year-olds. Then one of them said, ‘Beats me. What do you guys think?’ (Why do girls call each other guys?) She pointed to her friends. They just looked at each other.

This is not the first time this has happened in the presence of that question. These leadership workshops usually begin here, with that blank look staring back at that simple question. The workshops encourage young people to think for themselves and to help each other do that. This scene was familiar.

In fact, leaders of all ages, when asked in the presence of their peers to say what they really think, often go blank in the eyes like that. I see this in corporate meetings and in boardrooms long after teenage conformity, long after Harvard and way too close to the end of life.

‘What do you think, really?’ I ask. They squirm. I ask again. Eventually they speak. But the time-lapse says everything.

Our world rarely wants to know what we really think; no one asks, and so we do not know; and so we plough on, task-focused midwives to the repetitive ideas of others. As a result, what we really think needs careful resurrecting because virtually every adult life has buried it. Schools and faith groups and professionals, not just parents, help in the burial, too – too often, too sadly, too inadvertently and sometimes too on purpose.

You, and only you, can do your own thinking. No one else can discover your thoughts, your perceptions, your insights. And no one else can make your decisions as well as you can after the discovery.

So more than anything I hope you will treasure the incomprehensibly superb capacity to think that makes you so specially human, and so specially Meghan.

A good life depends on it.

Your Purpose

Your primary reference point deserves to be a growing knowledge of why you are here. This knowledge is intact. It is inside you. It arrived when you did, complete with its own intelligence, as you entered the world. It waits for you and is instantly responsive when you consult it. It needs only to be awakened through your careful attention to its signals. It speaks the truth about what you can accomplish best, about what will lead you to joy, what will give your moments meaning and your life impact, about what you must require anyone who deserves your love to celebrate wholeheartedly – and never, ever to denigrate.

The knowledge of why you are here plays no games, wrings no ransom, longs for nothing except its own fulfillment. It is the greatest generator of ease in all of life’s designs. You can refer to it, regardless of your starting point, regardless of your fear, regardless of the prognosis, regardless of the brows of caution, regardless of the question.

You have already begun to do this. You have chosen a university that can help you develop your talents, the things that engage you most. You already are noticing what kind of work gives you joy and will use you well. You know what you love to learn. You know what you need to do to feel your energy growing. This is a wonderful thing.

This question goes beautifully with every decision you make for the rest of your life, and is essential for the good life you as a woman can establish:

In doing this, will I be able to contribute, to achieve, to discover, to offer to people and to the world, an expression of my purpose in being alive?

Is this thing I am about to do elegantly in line with the essence of me?

The answer will honor you. It and your integrity are the only two things that deserve your gracious obedience.

Nothing So Intimate

Let’s do men a favor. Let’s not expect them to be better than we are. They’re not. Not inherently. Not just because they are men. Let’s stop expecting them to be, so that we can spare them our disappointment when we find out they are not. One of the worst things we do to men is to walk backward into adulthood expecting men to save us from the demands of our own excellence and competence, longing (however unconsciously) for them to shoot us up with the feeling of being small and protected, finding our meaning and worth in their eyes.

The world (even in this post-feminist, post-modern, post-everything era) has been telling you in your sleep and in your every waking moment, in most ads and videos (yes, even in Gilda the Magnificent) that however high women may rise in CNN or Congress, however precisely men might share the ironing, the dish-washing, the dribble-dabbing, the scalpel, the gavel, the pulpit or the cockpit, women are to expect men, just because they are men, to do that deep-down, fairy-tale, kissing-awake, rescuing, white-charger, glass-slipper thing – to lift us away from our self-sufficiency with their ‘particularly male’ last-minute saving of the day, offering us the ultimate confirmation: that because they want us, we as women are acceptable and valued, good enough, desirable and okay.

The myth is that men, after all, are superior to women in some non-crystalline, intrinsic sense. God said so. (And he should know because he is a man.)

The world does this a bit more surreptitiously than it did 20 years ago. Its key agent these days is the message inside organizations and politics that, sure, women are welcome here, but to enter they will have to leave their culture behind and take on men’s culture. Come on in if you aspire to, they say to us; but get ready to become like us.

What?, they say to us later when we offer an alternative to the damage some of their culture causes them and us and world policy, you want us to be like you? Men’s culture to incorporate women’s culture? Um, probably not a good idea. We have goals, you know, and we have to reach our targets and please our shareholders and constituencies and win, win, win; and frankly, we don’t have lots of time for, well, fluff. And anyway, if we as men seriously considered women’s culture as a superb component to real success in the world, we would be seen as gay, and that is just 100 percent not okay thank you very, very much, good night.

The message that men (just because they are men) should dictate the rules is in the DNA of most advertising, too. How many designer ice cream advertisements have you seen, for example, in which the ice cream equates gorgeous sex with a beautiful woman who is as strong, smart, forward-looking and in charge as the beautiful man who is also as tender and surrendering as the beautiful woman? Zero. Instead, typically the woman is carried off by the man with her head flung back, eyes rolling inside her eyelids, smeared with a not-so-subtle creamy drip on her chin. Sex is to follow this conquest, and she is to partake, gratefully stupefied.

However bombarded your life continues to be by the carnivorous world of gender conditioning, please consider that being knocked off balance by a man does not ensure a thing: not a life of satisfaction or meaning nor a single second of wonderful sex; and it certainly does not set you both up to engage with each other irrepressibly, or to know the deepest chambers of real love, or to talk and laugh into the night.

In fact, take into your heart this observation: gender conditioning is a Möbius strip of untrue assumptions (a.k.a. lies). It has nothing to do with inherent quality or healthy culture. And take in the irony: men strive to be the very set of things that kill them in the end. This is particularly sad because none of those things (being tough and feeling nothing and leading ruthlessly and taking up all the space and killing) is inherently male anyway. These are behaviors imbedded in men by messages and conditioning, and sometimes by force, from the moment anyone knows they are male.

Women and men are, in any sense that matters at all, inherently equal: equally good, equally intelligent, equally loving, resourceful, smart, ambitious, able to lead, solve problems, think big, fix cars, raise children, write, care, bless the dead, run the A & E, mow the lawn, feel a feeling and get the skin off garlic in one motion. We are both genetically deeply connected to our hearts, to our fondest dreams of peace for the world, to our talent to write software, read genes and chip away magically at marble.

If you just accept that men are not going to save you or give you meaning, because you do not need to be saved and because you came equipped with your own meaning, if you resist even a tiny pull to be resurrected by, outshone by or drop-dead impressed by a man just because he is a man, you will do men possibly the biggest favor in the world: you will not be disappointed in them. That would be a relief for every man on the planet. Otherwise, you will, in that inside place where things are jumbled and not articulated, expect a man to hold you in his superior arms at every crucial moment. And when you wake, not to his kiss but to his humanity, and realize that he cannot and never will be able to replace your inherent effectiveness with his, you may be tempted to resent him for it.

If you long for that Hollywood high of collapsing into men’s power, and then they drop you, you will be furious. But that will have been your doing – because they were never strong enough to hold you in the first place. Only you are strong enough to hold you.

Disappointment is painful. But it is also powerless. It is the view from the victim’s porch.

This truth is liberating: there is no Prince Charming; there is no white horse; there is no glass slipper; and no kiss, however delicious and tender and trustworthy, can ever bring you back to life. Only you can bring you back to life.

So let’s let men be men, people, you know, just ordinary beings, wonderful much of the time, complete with gunshot wounds in their hearts from their often relentless conditioning. Let’s admire them for the ways many of them have stood up to that conditioning and refused to absorb it. Let’s admire them for the moments when they have pulled out those lies’ leechy feet that raped the skin of their souls when they were not looking. We can admire them, as we do women, for the human beings they are. But let’s not expect them to be better than we are.

Then should you find yourself in the chamber of the United Nations or in the Chair of Number One Global Inc., you won’t be surprised to find that the men there are not better than you, either. You won’t need to criticize them for that. It is possible for a man to look up to you without your having to look down on him.

Most important, perhaps, it is possible to know that men do not have to be better than you in order for them to be good in your eyes. I remember the morning I woke up and realized this. I was 35. I was furious at an important man in my life. And within a few minutes of feeling that rage, I became devastated by the unexpected, crushing insight that he was not superior to me. I realized in that place that harbors all storybook hope and grown-up denial, that I had, since I had met him, expected him to be better, wiser, stronger than I was. Inherently, because he was a man. There was a chill about that moment.

I remember thinking that one of two things was true. Either I was a kind of subspecies because the only way you can keep someone in a superior position to you when they are falling is to fall faster and further than they do. Or I was, after all, inherently as good as he was; and that idea I knew would turn my world upside down.

I felt completely alone.

I experienced for several months a kind of withdrawal from a lifetime of fixes. This expectation that men are inherently better than we are is a drug because it is offers a surge of artificial well being, and then it empties you.

But facing it was worth it because I discovered for myself that when you are just you, what men do, or think of you, cannot destroy you. It cannot create you, either, and so you have virtually infinite possibilities of what to do and be in your life.

You can happily live with men, marry them, work with them, make love, dance, cook, create children, set policy, make decisions, stock shelves and accumulate a fortune with them. But you do not need them in order to be good enough.

And you do not need to emulate the rigid, destructive behaviors in their culture. You don’t need to confuse leadership with competition and control. Or let admiration for men as men lure you down that ‘we must do it the way they do if we want to be successful’ road. The world is hemorrhaging because of that model of leadership. You can figure out a better model. And you can invite men to join you, to emulate your culture and weave in the flexible, intelligent parts of theirs, to create a new world.

So, for men’s sake, and for yours, you can be a woman not surprised at her own excellence. A woman who does not hold herself back for fear her success will make a man look bad, for fear she will then have to face the end of the fairy tale. A woman who exults in the inherent equality of both genders and promotes the best of both gender cultures. A woman who enjoys deep and abiding and even delicious relationships with men. A phenomenal woman who defies disappointment and successfully resists resentment.

You are neither diminished nor authenticated by a man.

Thank goodness.

There is nothing so intimate as equality.


Reprinted with permission from Living With Time to Think, by Nancy Kline and published by Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 2014.