IdentityThoughts, Feelings

6 Life Lessons I Learned From Dolly Parton

I love Dolly Parton. Like, I really love her. It started in my childhood in North Carolina in the late 70s and early 80s, when her songs were constantly playing on all the radio stations. You’d hear her on the country stations, on the pop music stations, and on the easy listening stations. She was everywhere. My mother knew every word to Dolly’s songs, and my favourite times were driving down the road, a humid wind blowing in through the window as my mother sang Jolene, I Will Always Love You, Here You Come Again, and 9 to 5, the soundtrack of my early years. These, and all the rest, are the songs that still evoke so many emotions in me today.

But there’s more to Dolly than her music that makes me love her. It’s her. It’s everything about her that makes me a devout fan and lover of everything Dolly Parton. But, I’m not unique—everyone loves Dolly! Can you think of a single person who doesn’t? If so, please introduce me because I have a strong case to help convince them otherwise.

It’s also not lost on me that the work we do in Student Affairs to support our students’ growth and development can benefit from a Dolly Parton metaphor. So please allow me to present 6 life lessons I’ve learned from Dolly Parton. These are lessons all of us can apply to our lives and to our work with students.

1) Be Kind

dolly smile gif

Always start from kindness, and always know that you can make someone’s day better with your smile. I’m not saying that we should all be as cheery as Dolly (has she ever even had a bad mood!?), but putting energy into being kind should be a conscious effort for all of us.

2) Be Very Good at Something & Take That Something Seriously

dolly business

Dolly is a busy person with diverse talents. She has written over 5,000 songs; opened and runs her namesake theme park, Dollywood; has a successful film & TV acting career (I’m constantly repeating words from Steel Magnolia’s salon-owning Ms. Truvy); created a musical (9 to 5 was a miserable Broadway box office failure in 2009, but I loved every second of it!); has written 2 books; owns her own record label; and operates her charity Imagination Library (an international organization that aims to provides books for children from poor towns and schools).

But despite doing all these things—and more—Dolly is singularly focused on one thing: her enterprise. Her nickname in the music industry is Iron Butterfly because she’s known to be a tough-as-nails negotiator and accomplished businessperson. Did you know that she only agreed to star in the film version of 9 to 5 after the producers allowed her to write the title song? Also, did you know she didn’t allow Elvis Presley to record I Will Always Love You in the early 70s because he demanded partial songwriting credit? Though she’s multi-talented, Dolly knows the value of her talents, and she fiercely protects her own interests.

3) Be Humble & Never Take Yourself Seriously

dolly cheap

Despite her huge success across the globe, Dolly stays true to her humble Tennessee roots and never takes herself seriously. Always first to poke fun at herself, she knows that others can only dent her self worth if she allows them to. I think Student Affairs work is best done from a place of humility, empathy, and teamwork, and those things can only be accomplished if you’ve mastered the skill of not taking yourself too seriously.

4) Always Have a Sense of Humour


Dolly has stock answers for questions that always bring a smile to my face. She’s quick with a humorous reply and she doesn’t shy away from a good joke. Humour and laughter have huge potential to make us comfortable and happy, and they can even make a difficult situation more bearable. In our work with students, we’d be well served to keep an appropriate sense of humour to lighten moods (ours and others’), make people smile, practice humanity, and be relatable.

5) Be Authentic

dolly authentic

I know this advice may seem a bit odd. Dolly seems, on the surface, to be about inauthenticity because of her flashy, bombastic personality. She talks openly about her wigs, her cosmetic surgery, her trashy glamour, and her false eyelashes. It seems counter intuitive to a call for authenticity, right?

But I think Dolly’s got it figured out. What if that exterior is just armour worn to protect her from the world’s negativity? I’m not sure if it’s a conscious decision she makes, but I will argue that she makes it work. Somehow, despite that thick armour, she has made her authentic person known to the world. We know what she stands for, we know what she values, and we know her purpose in the world. Can’t we all take a lesson to not let the armour we carry around prevent us from being authentic? Can’t we wear it to accentuate the authentic self we have inside? I think so.

6) Practice Positivity


Life is hard, no doubt. And there is a lot of stuff affecting us on a daily basis over which we have no control. But we can control our attitudes. Dolly is famous for quotes that cognitive behavior therapists and champions of authentic happiness would be proud of. She has a powerful way of making difficult situations more bearable (and maybe even more positive) by approaching them with a positivity that defies defeat. I don’t think Student Affairs work is hard, but it sure can wear you down over time. Practice more positivity and adjust your sails more regularly; I think you’ll find it makes a difference.

Today (January 19, 2015) is Dolly Parton’s 69th birthday, and I offer this as a love letter to her. I also offer it as a love letter to all my Dolly-loving Student Affairs colleagues everywhere. Dearest Dolly, thank you for the inspiration. I will always love you.

  • Ian Crookshank

    AMAZING! Love it John and as somebody who grew up with a second family who was very much into Dolly (My own was into Elton and Brahms), I love that it felt familiar and yet I learned something new.

  • John Austin

    Aw, thanks Ian! Thanks for reading – glad it had some meaning for you!

  • Su-Ting Teo

    Humph. You make a compelling argument for Dolly.

  • John Austin

    Thanks, Dr. Teo. But Dolly speaks for herself!

  • Ian Ingles

    I particularily like point #6 and try to make an effort to practice this through good times and tough times. It makes a big difference in quality of life!

    • John Austin

      That’s not surprising to me, Ian. You always have a bounce in your step and a friendly reply. I appreciate that about you – your optimism & positivity are very evident! Thanks for reading, and thanks for the reply!