Jon Golbe on Learning from Taylor Swift and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Noodle Expert Jon Golbe discusses stumbling into non-profit work, taking advice about giving advice from Taylor Swift (to be clear, they haven't actually met), and struggling with moles — the units of measurement — in high school chemistry.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

First of all, I’m jealous of this version of me who gets to have someone teach them stuff for a year for free. Like in "The Karate Kid," Ralph Macchio just moves in and meets Mr. Miyagi, and he agrees to teach him one-on-one for no charge for the whole summer. Who does that ever happen to? That would be so incredible.

But anyway, it’d be pretty hard to beat Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a teacher and spiritual mentor. He’d teach you all about how to lead, preach to, care for, understand, and love humanity. And he would probably be able to help you develop your speaking and writing skills. He’d also be a great resource for learning about the civil rights movement (obviously). On top of all that, he’s a minister: Imagine having a problem where you weren’t sure what to do, or you had done something that might have been a little bad and you wanted to reconcile your actions and your beliefs. Dr. King would be the best at this; I’m assuming he would pull off the combination of wanting you to be your very best but also being non-judgmental at the same time. Of course if they figured out a way to bring MLK back from the dead and he wasn’t a zombie or like a hideous demon parody of himself, it would be kind of messed up for him to just be my personal teacher, available at my beck and call whenever I wanted to learn stuff or talk about my problems. But if he caught a course at my school, he'd be my top pick.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jesus
  • An animal that could talk like a human
  • David Attenborough
  • Yoshiro Nakamatsu
  • Erica Robertiello

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I never give advice unless someone asks me for it. One thing I've learned, and possibly the only advice I have to give, is to not be that person giving out unsolicited advice based on your own personal experience.

—Taylor Swift, in Billboard Magazine

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I’m the worst at traveling and planning an itinerary. I’d start by looking for someplace warm, but that’s me. I suppose I’d ask the student whether she had a friend, family member, or some other connection somewhere that she might like to visit. It’s not only cheaper, but generally a better experience overall to stay in a neighborhood with someone you know than to stay at a hotel.

I’d encourage them to seek out spots of interest. I’d look for an aquarium, but that’s just me. I’ve been working on my Spanish, so I’d want to go somewhere where I’d have an excuse to use it, but again this is me. For those who have never travelled before, I’d encourage them to follow their interests. If they don’t have any real interests, maybe they should stay put for now and cultivate some. Alternately, they could go on a road trip with some friends, maybe to the beach or some nearby city they’d never been to.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I didn't fail a whole lot of times when I was in school. I did badly sometimes, but tests weren't usually so hard that a student couldn't at least pull off a C or D if she put in a tiny amount of work. I failed a science quiz once about converting to moles because I didn't know the formula or really even what a mole was. I learned from the experience that if you don't learn what moles are ahead of time you will fail a test about them. I didn't learn much else from it, other than maybe that one has to put at least a little effort into senior year to avoid total academic failure. One thing I did not ultimately take away from the experience is what a mole is. Weirdly, it hasn't come up.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I work at Working Families, a non-profit that fights for living wages, racial justice, and electing progressives. I found myself there almost by accident. I was sort of a screw-up at the time and needed a job to get my girlfriend off my back. I saw a listing for a field rep position at Working Families on Craigslist, applied for it, and got it.

My initial attraction to politics/non-profit work came because I’m fairly good at getting along with strangers, it pays a steady wage, and I find that being a part of something that helps others brings a sense of meaning to my life. In terms of how it differs from my expectations — I knew all the stereotypes about our politicians being corrupt and our institutions being broken and gridlocked, but I still found myself surprised by the full extent of it. It’s truly a mess out there.

Five years later I’m still working there and I can’t imagine doing anything that doesn’t help people in some way. When I was a freshman in college I was thinking I would be a lawyer. When I was in kindergarten I said I wanted to be a bat. Sometimes stuff happens to you and you don’t really know how you got there until years later. I used to be in comedy because I like to make people laugh, but I was surprised by how boring it got. I suppose it can be useful to have a “five-year plan,” but I’ve never understood those people.

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