It all started a couple years ago, sitting around a circle in the lodge right off of Lake Winnipesaukee. I was a student of the New England Literature Program, arguably the most important academic experience I have had across my time as a student. On week four, day six, my mentor, teacher and friend Nick Harp was holding an advice chat. I needed to attend. I have always been a fan of this stuff. In high school, my friend Michael and I once attempted to run an advice column for our school paper, The Mirador. We made up problems and characters and advised our make believe friends in the least helpful kind of ways. You could say I am an expert. So naturally, I felt obliged to impart my wisdom on Nick’s discussion.

Nick began the hour by asking us about a subject on which we might seek help. I wrote something down that I am still working through these days — the current crossroads of where I’m at right now and maybe where I will always find myself. Specifically, I’m now working through the crossroads we all find ourselves at as our time as undergraduates comes to a culmination.

I wrote about the difficulties and complications of choosing a path, not just a career path but a “path” path : “I keep ruminating around this idea … should I dive into a creative, experimental, entrepreneurial world or should I take a more traditional path with the goal of financial stability?” I felt as though if I lived in a world where I acted entirely out of self-interest with little regard for others, I would pursue the artistic parts of my brain. I would write, paint and create little boutique businesses with some sort of philanthropic cause. Alternatively, I felt that if I intended to one day to support my current family, my future family, friends and those less fortunate than me, I would dive into a more traditional career such as law or consulting (this, of course, would be no easy feat).

At the time of NELP, during the summer 2013, I felt as though these two paths were mutually exclusive. The ideas of money and the arts don’t necessarily align in my mind, but I have attempted to re-shape my understanding of the possibility, reshaping the idea that I can create my own path. I don’t necessarily belong in an art community and I don’t necessarily belong in corporate America. This same summer, I felt like there was a decision I had to make. I felt like I had to put myself in one box and stick there. I don’t think the path is twofold anymore. It feels the most “me” to bridge the gaps of business and the arts, so I will attempt to do this to the best of my ability.

This fall of 2014 I interviewed Nick. We returned to the idea of advice and he told me, “I’m always wary of advice because I think to myself, how should I know what is best for someone else? How could I know? So I try (and often fail) to give advice only when I am asked directly, and even then I think all advice should come with a hefty grain of salt. I think when people ask for advice, what they are really doing is asking if they can talk about this thing with you and figure out what they already know or how to answer their own question. Good advice is rarely about directing someone as much as it is about bearing witness.”

In order to help reach my current understanding of my future and myself, it took time. It took many more discussions with people and the help of friends and mentors to help pick at my brain. Watching my writing evolve from my summer crisis of 2013 to my current self, I have borne witness to exactly what was discussed at Nick’s advice chat at NELP. No one endowed me with an understanding of what I should do with my life, but rather my ideas formed through a constant process of being asked questions and speaking with people of all ages and facets of knowledge. Family, friends and mentors can offer you a walk in someone else’s shoes or a wealth of knowledge and experience, but no one really knows the best decision for you other than yourself.

I was studying with my friend in the UGLi last week when my mom sent me a text regarding my latest venture. It read, “Sorry for raining on your parade. But I get the sense that your dreams are a result of opportunities that present themselves to you instead of the other way around. I think you need to look deep inside and think bigger. I really don’t feel as this is going to serve you well and that you will tire of it very quickly from the monotony and not being around stimulating and creative people.” Speaking from a mother’s perspective, I believed this to be honest advice. It was at least something I should think deeply about, as she stated. I then read it out loud to a friend. He thought about her words for a moment and said, “Do you think she is right?” This was some of the best advice I have ever received.

If you want my advice, which many may not, I will always say go for it. When it comes to business plans, adventures and relationships, I will always say take it to the limits. It will most likely lead me to my biggest regrets and my largest accomplishments, but it is an adventure I am excited to take.

When I am asking for advice, I am asking someone to help pick my mind, to ask me questions that will lead me to make the best decision for me. I am not really asking what would you do, but rather I am saying, “Can you ask me about things I should consider or weigh in my own decision making process?”

I have still not figured out how to be the best advisor for my friends and family, but I do know that I am working on it. I may never truly know, but asking questions is always a good start.

Dani Vignos can be reached at dvignos@umich.edu.

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