Social Study

Sound advice on talking politics, falling skies and corporate ladders.


John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to


I’m much more apolitical than most of my friends, and when the subject of politics comes up, I tend to say what Shakespeare said long ago: “A plague on both your houses.” I’ve used this comment for years. It may help you. And it doesn’t leave room for rebuttal. There are times when you can solve problems by being an equal-opportunity offender. Or you could say something like “I like to keep my views on politics and religion to myself. How about those Red Sox?”

If you dare to be unconventional, you could do something mildly outrageous, like someone I met recently. She had attended a Cambridge dinner party, and it seemed to her that everyone present was so sure of the rightness of their opinions. She became so fed up that she finally said to the crowd, “Does anyone here know anyone who actually makes something? Who meets a payroll? Who employs workers other than lawyers and academics?” This was met by silence, she told me. “But I got invitations from that evening. One person who called me said, ‘It will be fun to have you, because it’s like inviting someone from another planet.’ ” If you don’t cave into what’s trendy, it’s amazing how it can bring you attention.

As I answer this, I’m sitting in a cafe (not the weed kind) in Amsterdam. After a great afternoon at the Rijksmuseum, becoming immersed in the Dutch painters, I wandered in a park, looking at the amazing tulips that blossom in the damp, cloudy climate. There, I saw a young woman panhandling. Around her neck hung a hand-painted sign with a big sun across the message, which was “Time to help someone with 1st world problems.” Her large cereal bowl was filled with coins and a few bills.

What you’re observing, the anxiety around you, is worldwide. The late, great Silicon Valley guru Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive.” But here’s a reason not to be too worried: The world’s been going to hell for thousands of years. It’s because of the surround sound of nonstop communication that news of horror, turmoil and tragedy never seems to end.

Think about this: We have more than 320 million Americans. Probably, at any given moment, one-tenth of one percent of the population is running amok, robbing banks, choking babies, cheating on taxes, sexually misbehaving. The Unabomber famously went to Harvard, drawing headlines from all over the planet. But he’s one person from the tens of thousands who have graduated there. Think of the billions of people who just want peace and order and health for themselves and their families. The people providing mayhem are tiny grains of sand. And yet the news of their horrors is instantly spread and waved in front of us.

You have to have dreams for your future. Go out every day determined to be productive. Be with people who enlighten you and make you laugh. Don’t be a headline reader, and concentrate on preventing yourself from going postal.

One of many mottos of mine is “Contrast is everything.” Another one is “Try to be something of a surprise to people,” so that they cannot pigeonhole you into any specific spot in an organization, and leave you there.

I hope that your skills include writing, because you should draft a letter to your boss. And here’s how you should start it: “People tend to take quiet excellence and hard work for granted.” Perhaps another line in your letter would be “People may say that I’m cute. But I’m a steel magnolia. And I want to climb the trellis and have my blooms recognized. Or else, I may bloom elsewhere where the ground is more fertile.”

Don’t be afraid at this stage to stand up for yourself. If you are as you say you are, let your company know how you feel in original ways. If it’s a company that gets it, you’ll be on your way up. If not, it’s probably time to spread your wings.

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