Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said that when it comes to advice, fools won’t take it and the wise don’t need it.
y mother-in-law recently gave me a book on advice — she obviously holds out hope that I might improve. Thankfully she is also a woman of prayer. The book, a fascinating and most palatable read, was compiled by Richard Reed, one of the founders of Innocent Drinks, the highly successful fruit beverage company.
If I Could Tell You Just One Thing: Encounters with Remarkable People and Their Most Valuable Advice is based on 62 short interviews with 64 extraordinary people, some of whom are familiar names and others not.
They include political leaders President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Nicola Sturgeon, authors Margaret Atwood and Edna O’Brien, the great David Attenborough, Annie Lennox, Harry Belafonte, Stephen Fry, Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, Dr Maki Mandela, Alain de Botton, Auschwitz survivor Lily Ebert and Judi Dench.
Reed asks them for the single most important piece of advice they have to give.
The results are presented in short, easily digestible chapters that include brief biographies of the subjects, with lots of amazing little nuggets about their lives.
Some of the people I had never heard of, like Dambisa Moyo from Zambia, a global economist and author with a PhD from Oxford, an MBA from Harvard who, at the age of 40, was on the board of Barclays.
Dambisa credits the transformational power of education and her parents insisting on her education as her passport to becoming one of the 100 most influential people in the world, according to Time Magazine in 2016. Her advice is simple and straightforward: “Put in the hard work, discipline, focus and keep going.”
Those words come up again and again in various forms. Stephen Fry briefly abandons the Queen’s English when he advises anyone who wants to be successful to “work your bloody bol***ks off”.
The author visits his subjects in person, he meets them in coffee shops, pubs or restaurants, in their places of work or their homes. His trip to visit Richard Branson on his island in the Caribbean is particularly jaw-dropping.
Although he is a straight man, in the course of his encounter with Simon Cowell, Reed admits to developing a huge crush on the impresario.
His meeting with Harry Belafonte is an eye-opener. Belafonte is more than an entertainer: in the 1960s he was a major patron of Martin Luther King and, at 93, continues to use his money and position to support the struggle for racial equality in the US. He advises us to “discover the joy of embracing diversity”.
Noella Coursaris Musunka is a model, frequently gracing the pages of magazines like Vogue. Born into poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) she was sent to her aunt Europe as a child.
Noelle found her way onto the top tier of international modelling but didn’t forget her home country. She spends as much time as she can back in the DRC running Malaika, an organisation founded by her, which delivers education to thousands of young girls in a country where seven million children don’t go to school.
Her advice is straight to the point: “Whatever money you have, the day you die you die without it, so donate it.”
Reed describes a withering jousting match with Margaret Atwood, who refuses to give any advice until she knows who it is intended for.
Luckily, publisher and literary critic Margaret Busby is more forthcoming and echoes the wise words of US President Harry Truman who said: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who takes the credit.”
One of the most stark pieces of advice in the book comes from a young concert pianist, James Rhodes. Depression arising from abuse led him to the brink of suicide and he offers a wish: “I wish that you are lucky enough to survive when you don’t want to, because things can get better. Just survive. Just survive any way you can.”
Lily Ebert was sent to Auschwitz as a child and credits her survival on the discipline of making sure the one piece of bread she got every day lasted the full day. Her advice springs from that: “Make always the best from what you have, no matter how little it is.”
I’ll leave the last word to my neighbour Edna O’Brien, who advises: “Remain faithful to your first aspiration. Never forget what bestirs you.”
If I Could Tell You One Thing by Richard Reed was published in 2016. All proceeds go to five charities named in the book.