Jennifer O’Connell: ‘If you want advice, find an Irish granny’

Students should remember that grandmothers – not billionaires and popstars – know best

'Advice from Irish grannies tends to be considerably more pragmatic.' File photograph: Stockphoto

'Advice from Irish grannies tends to be considerably more pragmatic.' File photograph: Stockphoto

 

It is approaching the end of the academic year, which means it is time for one of humanity’s more excruciating annual rituals.

That’s right: it is the season of American billionaires stepping out of their bespoke walnut-panelled offices to offer the class of the 2017 – and the rest of us – their wisdom on how to navigate what they promise will be the “thrilling journey” ahead.

Spoiler: this usually involves “getting out of your comfort zone” and seizing “the enormous opportunity ahead” because “there is only one you” and “the future is yours to shape”.

For Bill Gates, this year’s inspirational speech took the form of a tweetstorm, the gist of which was “stop moaning, it’s a good time to be alive”.  Reaction generally was awestruck. “The most valuable tweetstorm ever!” one headline proclaimed.

Really? Although it was hard to argue with his good intentions – tackling inequity, studying AI or biosciences – his advice struck me as, well, a bit bland.

A better way to put it might have been: 'Stop bragging about your accomplishments. No-one cares, snowflake.'

“Surround yourself with people who challenge you, teach you, and push you to be your best self,” he proffered – wisdom that’s all very well when you’re a 61-year-old worth $87.5 billion, but somewhat less useful if you’re a millennial starting out on your first job in a sandwich shop.

Pharrell Williams during the NYU 2017 commencement on May 17th. Photograph: Getty Images
Pharrell Williams during the NYU 2017 commencement on May 17th. Photograph: Getty Images

At New York University, singer Pharrell Williams’s advice to the class of 2017 was to “talk about your accomplishments. It’s very important. Be humble, but not too humble. Don’t be invisible” – which, again, strikes me as precisely the kind of thing that would make millennials very unpopular in the sandwich shop. A better way to put it might have been “stop bragging about your accomplishments. No-one cares, snowflake”.

A few days later, it was Donald Trump’s turn to offer up his unique mix of pugilistic tough guy, whiny toddler and wisdom borrowed from the movie Legally Blonde, to the graduates of the US Coast Guard Academy.

President Donald Trump delivers the commencement address at the US Coast Guard Academy, May 17th. Photograph: Reuters
President Donald Trump delivers the commencement address at the US Coast Guard Academy, May 17th. Photograph: Reuters

Predictably, the central thrust of his speech was the tremendous wrongs that have been done to him. “No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he announced. (Twenty-seven years behind bars, Nelson Mandela? A bullet in the head, JFK? Pah!)

Honestly, if I want advice on navigating my “amazing journey”, I’d rather get it from someone who regards a journey as something best undertaken with a free travel card.

Granny knows best

With this in mind, I have been canvassing my friends for their favourite piece of advice passed on to them by an older friend or relative. It turns out that Irish grannies don’t spend much time reminding the younger generation that “the future is yours to shape”. On the whole, their advice tends to be considerably more pragmatic.

“Life is too short to hang out with assholes,” Mags’s 80-year-old grandmother used to say.

'One bloody aul fella’s enough for any lifetime,' she advised her younger relatives

“No matter what, always keep the front door painted,” is Regina’s mother’s mantra. Amy’s American grandmother took a slightly more cynical view on the wisdom of keeping up appearances: “You can’t polish a turd”.

There is a notable absence of talk of “thrilling journeys” among the older generation – except for the motto of Christine’s late granny, who was still wearing heels and drinking champagne when she passed away at the age of 97. “Save your money. Go on a trip. Save more money. Go on another trip,” she would say.

Cathy’s late mother, Carmel, had her own version: “Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe.”

Helen’s granny’s advice was nothing if not unambiguous on the subject of love and loyalty. “One bloody aul fella’s enough for any lifetime,” she advised her younger relatives.

On morality, the wisdom of Winnie’s mammy Bernie could have saved Trump a whole lot of trouble. “Keep us from sin, shame and bad company,” is her oft-cited motto. But I suspect Trump would have been more taken with Patrick’s father’s caution. “If you’re going to rob a bank, do it big and do it once.”

If my friends’ relatives are anything to go by, the wiser generation is notably guff-free. The closest they come to carpe diem is Andrew’s granny’s pragmatic: “Always say yes now; you can say no later.”

They don’t seem to spend a lot of time talking about the acquisition of wealth, either. On this subject, Mairead’s grandfather had the right idea: “I wouldn’t trade my appetite for a king’s ransom,” he used to say.

So frankly, Bill Gates, if I need perspective, wisdom, or advice on how to live well, I’ll turn to those who have spent their days in the same world as me: the world where people lie awake wondering which day the recycling lorry comes, and whether it’s still safe to eat the chicken three days after the best-before date. (For the latter, I always turn to the advice of my maternal grandmother: “If in doubt, throw it out.”)

Possibly my favourite mantra of all is the one Charlie’s grandmother was fond of: “What’s the use of birds? All they bleedin’ do is fly around in the sky all day and shit on your washing.”

Give me a granny over a billionaire pontificating on a podium any day.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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