3 Life Lessons I Want To Share With My Only Son

On the eve of her son’s birthday, Kate McGuinness contemplates the three life lessons she wants him to learn.

This week, my only child will turn 24. His birthday seems like a good occasion to consider a few of the remaining life lessons that I would like to impart to him. 

The first would be to always own your mistakes. Avoiding trouble is a natural impulse, but ducking blame only leads to more problems. This lesson could be seen as falling within the maxim, “Tell the truth.” That’s a good principle, but I’m thinking more broadly. Even absent an accusation, volunteering your role in a catastrophe, large or small, will defuse others’ anger and clear the air. Doing so will also alleviate your feelings of guilt.

In admitting your mistakes, be forthright and sincere. Do not say, “Mistakes were made.” If you do, you’ll sound like Richard Nixon talking about Watergate. Instead, say “I made a mistake. I am sorry. What can we do to fix this?” Those 14 words will set the stage for overcoming the problem.

I’d like to stretch this lesson a bit further and expand it to owning—or at least consider owning—personality traits that have the potential to damage careers and relationships. I have more than my fair share of these. I’m afraid of abandonment, but uncomfortable with intimacy, to name just two. It’s taken me years to accept the existence of this conundrum as I work my way out of it. I wish I had been willing to consider these possibilities earlier in my life. In this context, the lesson could be expressed as: Consider the possibility you are flawed, as all humans are. Don’t assume you’re being baselessly criticized.

That leads to the next lesson: Don’t assume what you have no reason to know. Assumptions can lead us down dead end streets. Don’t assume you’ll get the job because you’re well qualified. Don’t assume that because your wife has offered a variety of excuses for being late that she’s having an affair. Certainly, consider those possibilities, but don’t assume they’re true. Life is full of curve balls that can easily lead us astray. Making baseless assumptions only compounds the problem.

The third lesson I want to share is: Put yourself in others’ shoes and have compassion for their situation. Each person is inevitably the center of his or her psychological word, and that world grows more isolated and myopic the more time we spend alone on our computers.

Here’s one example. If you feel irritated and resentful about my nagging (something I know I’m prone to do), think about where I’m coming from. When you get yet another reminder about the potential harm of frequent consumption of beef, brats, and bacon, please remember that you are my only child and unspeakably precious to me. You and I have the same congenital heart defect, which makes me careful about my diet and should make you careful as well.

A simpler way of articulating this last lesson is “be kind.” Buddha is reputed to have said, “Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?” That is the most important lesson of all.

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on Amazon.com. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @K8McGuinness.

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