The Mast-Head: The Takeaway

Inadvertent but life-altering advice

“Don’t eff it to death.” That was what the late Sandy Bainbridge said to me one day long ago while we were getting a new bookcase into former Treasury Secretary Pete Peterson’s oceanfront house in Southampton. Truth be told, Sandy had unleashed the F word in full as we were on a jobsite with a bunch of other subs where the profanity flew thick as flies in the air.

What he meant, as he watched and I hand-planed the back edge of the low bookcase to fit against some window trim, was that there was a point at which I needed to just get on with it. Fiddling around was not going to make it better at this point, and knowing when it was done was as important a part of the job as anything.

Sandy was the most meticulous craftsman I had ever known, then and now; his advice was like gold to me, and now, perhaps 30 years on, I think about those four words surrounding the F bomb almost daily. His aside to a young carpenter of middling skills might have been a one-off to him; to me they were one of the secrets of adulthood.

A friend, Chris, and I were swinging in bayfront hammocks over the weekend when the idea of inadvertent but life-altering advice came up in conversation. One sentence from a person you look up to when you are young can stick with you, whether intended or not. As a mentor, teacher, or boss, we don’t know necessarily what it will be, nor what will stick around.

“Do you want to be known around here as the guy who only does what he is told?” It was the mid-1990s, and I was otherwise working in a film production office in the West 20s in Manhattan. The context for this remark is long gone from my memory. I run into my old boss who uttered it every now and then at Louse Point. I am sure he doesn’t remember, but I do. It’s a fine and plain rule to live by.

For his part, Chris related a story from his early years when a teacher confronted him for missing class and then making up an implausible sob story.

“You’re doomed,” the teacher said.

For Chris, it was the beginning of a long walk, a work in progress, to be sure, but a life-changing moment.

I work with a lot of young people these days. In the summer, The Star takes on an intern or two, and I wonder, as I talk to them about writing or reporting or whatever, just what, if anything, they will take away and think back on when they, much later, take their own turns as teachers and mentors.