What is the # 1 piece Of career advice you have received?Mentor’s Corner: The best advice I ever had

Perhaps the best advice is not to take any advice at all, but one time in my life advice was truly helpful.

My grandmother Esther Levy Feelus was the owner of a wholesale tobacco and confectionary business in Manhattan nestled in the heart of the fur coatmaking district that still exists there. After school my mom would drive my brother and me downtown to fetch our Nana as we called her and bring her home in what we called the family limousine, which was really mommy’s Chevrolet. While Mommy struggled through midtown traffic, eager anticipation of the promised candy that our family sold bribed us kids to be quiet in the back seat.  Brands our family did not sell were taboo. Always an overflowing  brown paper bag filled with tootsie rolls and lollipops and chocolates including M&Ms and mint patties awaited us, except chewing gum which was plentiful in the store but that Nana considered degrading (“chewing that makes you look like a cow”  she said). Consistent with her personal sense of dignity, her strong repeated advice was:  no matter what people said or did around one, it was important to be a “young lady” a dignitary representing the reputation and embodying the ethos of our family; therefore  graceful clean and gracious in any circumstance. This advice swiftly proved too hard to obey in the decades that followed in my life.

The strongest advice urged upon me was at  the Columbia University School of Law Legislative Drafting Research Fund.  Prof Frank Grad had hired me to ghostwrite about health law and teach legislation while I was finishing my masters of science in public health after my JD. Joint degrees were uncommon but I viewed interdisciplinary training as essential for my career in the law of occupational health. I was elated when I got a book contract for DESIGNING AN EFFECTIVE OSHA COMPLIANCE PROGRAM but he reviewed the contract at my request and pronounced it bad, “The advance is too small for the work” he said looking at the several thousands of dollars advanced in the contract. I wrote the treatise anyway. Royalties from annual updates paid important bills: mortgage and tuition for children’s summer camp for many years.

The best advice I ever had came not from people who knew me well but from a comparative stranger. Mary Louise Brown was a nurse who became the first Region Two Director of the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOSH) in NYC in a mighty federal office building in Manhattan. I asked her  whether I should go to law school. She said “go to law school if it is your passion, it takes too long if you don’t care for it”. “Which one?”  I asked. “The very best one you can get into” she replied, and “get the best education you can while you are there so that when you have finished your degree you will have gotten something out of it even if you never become a lawyer”. Mary was right. 

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