Advice about Advice

      In general, people usually try to be helpful.  That’s true about birders, but it is also true about lots of different kinds of people.  I am amazed at how helpful people try to be on the internet.  You can enter keywords into a web search engine like Google and get useful info on almost any topic.  At work we don’t even use computer technical manuals anymore because you can ask any technical questions on the web and get hundreds of hits.  Frequently numerous programmers have asked the exact same questions that you are asking and posted the answers after figuring them out.  Why do people give away their valuable advice for free?  I don’t know.  But I’m glad that they do.  It makes the world a better place in many ways.

      In giving advice, you have to be careful.  Lots of times you can steer a person down a wrong path, if you provide too much info, or answer their exact question, rather than suggesting a better question.  For example, if you are taking pictures of birds with your very expensive SLR digital camera with a large telephoto lens mounted on a tripod, and a guy comes up to you and politely asks you a question about telescopes, you could say, “I don’t know anything about telescopes.”  Or you could say, realizing that the guy thinks that your expensive setup is a cheap birding scope, “I’m using a camera with a lens.  I could tell you about that, or my friend over there, he has a telescope and he can tell you about them.  If you want to take pictures of birds, my set up is better.  Are you interested in mostly taking pictures of birds, or in looking at them?”  See -- a better question.  Of course that takes a lot more time, but you are standing there for hours and it wouldn’t cost you much to help the guy.  And if you do this enough, maybe a potential new friend will show up or even better a very pretty girl will saunter by to ask you about your equipment.

      Lots of time, people can try to duplicate the success that a friend has had doing something without understanding that the approach is only part of the solution.  Thousands of hours of hard work are usually the other required ingredients.

      Let me put that principle in birding terms, using a comment that Sibley made in his “Birding Basics”.  In his chapter on using bird behavior as an aid in their identification, he commented that when Robins land, they hop twice, but when Starlings land, they stick the landing.  (F5).  On the surface, it sounds like he is suggesting that you learn lots of behaviors like this, so that you can use these facts in the field.  That is part of his message.  But the bigger part of his message becomes clear when you ask yourself, “How does he know about this behavior?”  Most likely, he spent hours watching birds land before he could confidently say that Robins always land in one characteristic way, while Starlings always land differently.  The essence of the advice is that to know about something, you have to get out in the field and study it.  It will take a lot of time and effort.  It is not enough to spot the correct field marks listed in a field guide and add one more “life bird” to your list.  He said that we should actively watch birds after identifying them and learn as much as we can about how they behave and how they fly and what they eat and how they interact and how they get their food.  It’s a process.

      My intention here is to suggest that beginning birders like me need to be careful not to underestimate the effort that it took for the experienced birders to become experienced.  I want to thank in advance all the experts who are freely sharing their knowledge.  I’d also like to remind them that they are talking to someone like me, who may not be ready for a really astute and concise answer, but could benefit greatly from time spent on some of the basics.  Like the nice lady at Bombay Hook who pointed out exactly where the Avocets were and what to look for.  Without her help, I would have missed one to the highlights of the day.  Or the gentleman who is a phenomenally advanced bird photographer, who spent time describing what to buy and what not to buy and where to shop and the brands he would recommend.

      I can remember people asking me for advice (not about birds) and feeling flattered to be asked.  Later when I found out how they used my advice, I felt really bad because I had not helped them.  To the question, “Bill, do you think a job choice should be just about money?” I answered “No”.  But later when I found out that my friend quit his good paying job and moved to another state, taking his wife and kid along, to work at a minimum wage job that was in an area he had identified as his “passion”, I realized that I should have said “No, but it is a very important factor. Other factors are also important, but a key measure for a job choice is that it provides enough income to pay for your chosen life style.”  By doing a Nancy Reagan (“Just saying No”), I missed the chance to actually help my friend, when he was asking for help.

      On a topic that is really important in my life now as a parent, I want to offer some suggestions.  It’s about college and college choices.  My advice is to consider a few things before making a college decision.  I want to emphasize that I said, “consider a few things”, not don’t go to college or only go to a certain kind of college or only choose certain majors.  Consider:

1.       Those people who are most fit for college probably need it the least.  They can usually teach themselves whatever they need to learn.  Unless they need a college degree as part of a licensing process or as a pre-requisite to a particular job, they are probably wasting their time and money.

2.       People who are not ready for college either academically or emotionally are headed for a rough experience that can include sickness, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual abuse, assault, arrest, or academic failure.  This is not an exaggeration.

3.       Kids who go to college without a plan will eventually get a plan suggested by the college employees.  This is like going to a used car lot and letting the used car salesman pick out your car for you.  I won’t pick on a specific major here, but I can tell you for sure that lots of good sounding college majors will not develop any employable skills.  The majors suggested by the guidance counselors will be in areas where the college wants to increase enrollment.

4.       Colleges are businesses.  Yes they are!  They will sell you whatever product you want to buy.  If you buy a useless degree at a very high price, that’s your fault.  The college admissions personnel seem very nice, but have you ever met a sales person who wasn’t trying to be nice.  If they weren’t nice, did you buy from them?

5.       College loans are a very bad deal offered at extremely inflated rates.  Students can get saddled with so much debt that it can pull them down for decades.  College loans are not aid.  They are a dangerous trap.  In many schools, scholarships don’t really exist.  If the size of your grant is determined by financial need, it is not a merit scholarship.  The general formula is “How much money do you have? Give it to us.”

6.       When considering the costs of college, don’t forget to include the money that the student will not be making while he is in school.  Even at minimum wage this would be $60,000 over four years.

7.       Here’s a question:  when students who haven’t decided on a major go on college visits in the summer while the college is not in session, what are they looking at?  The beautiful campus.  That’s all there is to see.  My attitude is “who cares?”  I love going to beautiful parks, but I won’t pay $50,000 per year for the privilege.

8.       An education from several of the elite colleges probably will result in a high income but that’s mostly because of my first point.  The elite college selected a person who was already on the way to a successful life.  Most of that person’s development already occurred before he got to the elite college.  If you have skills or personal contacts that will allow you to enter the work force and do something that you either enjoy or are at least comfortable with, and you don’t have large amounts of cash sitting in accounts ready to pay for college costs, consider waiting for a year or two and working.  If you really do need or want to go to college, and you don’t have lots of cash on hand, consider the less expensive alternatives, at least for the first two years.  Most of what you learn at college will be determined by what you study and how you study.  It won’t have much to do with the college name on the diploma.  Only a very few institutions have brand name recognition that is high enough to be an important factor by itself in employment decisions by employers.

9.       Some majors sound good, but are the “major de jour”.  The colleges suddenly produce scads of graduates in a single area, many more than the job market can handle, for example, in Communications or Physical Therapy.  Right now it looks like huge numbers of kids are going into business majors, when for the last few years even elite business schools like Penn State’s Smeal College could not place large numbers of their graduates.

10.   Just be careful. Come up with a good plan, follow it, and adjust it as you get better info.  Avoid making a disastrous financial decision based on peer pressure or biased advice from the diploma mill industry.

11.   Liberal Arts degrees made more sense in the 1970’s, when the total cost for Hamilton College was $4000, half of it provided to me as financial aid.  I still have the bill.  Back then my parents and I paid only $2000 per year for a degree that is currently costing over $50,000 per year.  After my three years in medical school at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, I had $10,000 in loans.  Tuition was $800 per semester.  In grad school at Syracuse University, I got a free ride plus $15,000 per year paid to me as a Fellowship.  Current costs by comparison are not just out of this world.  They are out of the galaxy.


      So now I have completed a very long rant advising you not to take advice.  If you are not a potential college student or parent of a college student, and you have a good job that you hope to keep, and you are not already an expert birder, then not much in this rant would be particularly pertinent to you right now.  So here is a little nugget for everybody.  If you see a guy walking by and smiling to himself don’t automatically think he is laughing at you.  You probably do not have a food stain on your shirt.  Don’t say to him “What’s so funny?”  He will probably tell you and waste five minutes of your day.  Instead, ask him his name and the title of the book he is writing.  See -- a better question.  Then in a year or two, look him up on the internet with your iPhone and sign up to read his book.  But just in case, check your shirt for food stains.

      Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.  Remember, this is advice only in the sense that I think these are things to consider.  The next section is about…