The Problem with Advice
May 17, 2019 1:23 PM   Subscribe

A philosopher ponders why advice so often fails to land. She further distinguishes between instruction, advice, and coaching in an illuminating manner. This essay jibes with my self-help journey and ultimate dissatisfaction with the genre.

The money quote for me: "The moral of every great person’s story seems to be that they were not trying to retell another’s. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of advice seems to be that those most likely to be asked for it are least likely to have taken anyone else’s: their projects of 'becoming' are the most particularized of all."
posted by bbrown (38 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
A professor I teach a design workshop with likes to say we are 'closed to information but open to interaction'.
posted by signal at 1:35 PM on May 17 [19 favorites]

I often wonder how did I get this way vs some of my friends--my friend(s) will give advice, but I do not want unsolicited advice nor would I imagine giving it. Is it a cultural gap, or something to do with individualism as a societal trend, does it intersect with privilege? I don't know the answer to how this difference arises between people, but when people give me advice, I definitely notice being given advice.
posted by polymodus at 4:18 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

one of the paradoxes of advice seems to be that those most likely to be asked for it are least likely to have taken anyone else’s

Is this true? It kind of sounds like fortune cookie wisdom to me
posted by BadgerDoctor at 4:36 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

but I do not want unsolicited advice nor would I imagine giving it

Hmm. Well, it sounds to me like you should try giving someone else advice, even if they’re not especially receptive, and see how it feels! If you opened yourself to the experience you might find it’s really enjoyable! [/META]
posted by Ryvar at 4:44 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]

I help manage the vineyard of a friend of mine. I have some decades of experience in small-holding and animal husbandry, specifically with pigs, chickens, goats and sheep.
My friend was complaining about the time he had to spend mowing the vineyard. I suggested that he buy three lambs of the type his neighbors are raising for wool, spend around $50 each, set them loose in the vineyard to keep the grass and weeds down, then butcher them come the fall. Easy-peasy with cheap lamb to boot!
He bought 5 (!) Baby Doll (!!)) Sheep for $250 EACH!
They are now pets.
I am left wondering just what it was about my advice, based on my experience, that was unacceptable to him. Where was my credibility lacking? Why did he choose to ignore my hard-earned wisdom? I just don't get it.
Or maybe those sheep were just too durn cute.
posted by Floydd at 4:59 PM on May 17 [8 favorites]

"The moral of every great person’s story seems to be that they were not trying to retell another’s."

Oooh, I love that. I have a book of profiles of stylish women that I was obsessed with for quite some time years ago. I kept trying to analyze it and figure out how I could possibly emulate these women in my own small way. Eventually it dawned on me that these women were stylish because they hadn't emulated anyone else, because they had each carved out their own path and found a style that appealed to them and worked for their looks and means and era and lifestyle.

And so it is with any endeavour. I knew someone who wanted to be a romance writer and she would write to the authors of romance books that she liked, asking for advice, and then if they wrote back, complain to me that their advice hadn't been helpful, that she still didn't know how they'd written a good book. It bemused me no end. What on earth did she think they would say? I mean, everything they wrote in the book was right there in front of her. Why couldn't she figure out what she liked about the book and try to write in that vein?

There is no hard-and-fast formula for success in life, no one can give you step-by-step instructions to it, you will always need to think on your feet and and learn as you go, and while you will certainly draw ideas and inspiration from others, you will always needs to consider whether those ideas really suit you and your circumstances and goals, and whether you might need to adapt them -- sometimes to a point beyond all recognition -- if they are to work for you.
posted by orange swan at 6:14 PM on May 17 [10 favorites]

So I think about this a lot, and generally it seems that most people are idiots. And it seems like a certain subset of these idiots succeed at the intersection of luck and privilege, and think that this makes them a master of all things. In addition, there are a lot of people who think that expertise in one field makes them experts in every field.

Then, of course, is advice from people who aren't invested in your outcome, so they just tell you whatever. Or even worse, advice from people who might feel threatened by you and deliberately mislead you to try and keep you down.
posted by Literaryhero at 6:38 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]

Knowledge of becoming, by contrast, always involves a particularized grasp of where the aspirant currently stands on the path between total cluelessness and near-perfection.

I like this a lot, and it speaks to meeting someone where they are, rather than retreating into instructions ("Why don't you just...?") and giving an instrumental knowledge-based answer to a becoming-based question.

I don't join book clubs, although I read a lot. I've always objected to the implicit direction of "You should read this." A book has to speak to me. It has to shine out at me and speak to whatever need I'm having just then. My bookshelves are commentary on my higglety-pigglety course as a person--"minute corrections, dead ends, backtracking, re-orientation and random noise."

And I guess I think of Ask MeFi in the same way: sometimes, I see really useful knowledge-based answers that I can use right away, or file away for future use. That's awesome is a particularly satisfying way, and my husband thanks one of you for pointing him toward excellent shoe inserts! His feet are happier! Then there are wonderful becoming answers, some of which resonate deeply, and others that take years to land because I wasn't ready to hear them, or didn't have the openness to them at the time, or hadn't yet reached a point where they were relevant. But they have become excellent advice only after I had enough experience living the questions, and came to need those ideas. (It's Rilke-esque: "Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.") I really appreciate that so many people have shared their lived experiences. The posts may be frozen after the edit window expires, but they can continue to accrete meaning to me as I age, and change, and re-visit them as needed.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:38 PM on May 17 [12 favorites]

In my experience, the best, most honest advice is more revealing than useful. I've been happily married for a long time, for example, and have been asked many times what I think the secret of our success has been. My response is usually some variation of: a 5% combination of love, respect, hard work, and short memories; and 95% luck. You haven't got much of a chance without that first 5%, but even if you absolutely nail those bits, you still have to be lucky enough to grow in complimentary directions. And there's simply no advice that anyone can give to bypass that. It's like the best advice I ever heard for getting rich quick is to be born to rich parents.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:38 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]

In my experience giving advice is easy, and taking it is hard.
posted by Coaticass at 7:38 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I've met a lot of people over the years who think giving advice is just unthinkably rude and never welcome by anyone at any time, just utterly grotesque, and reflects terribly on the person, who do they think they are? How dare they, those shameless narcissists? Personally I welcome it! I try to be tactful and read the room if I think I have some to give and I hope that it makes that person's life easier because that's all I ever want to do.
posted by bleep at 8:01 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

I mean why would I not want to reap the benefits of someone else's experience so I can skip whatever bullshit is awaiting me if I don't?
posted by bleep at 8:02 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

I heard an interview with Al Pacino in which he remembered a simple bit of advice Robert De Niro once told him. It was: “If you’re working with people who don’t know how to rehearse, don’t rehearse.”

Pacino remembered that, and so have I. It has actually informed how I work with musicians. It recurs periodically in my mind. Maybe you will remember it, too.

My point is that there is a small subset of advice that is so clear and specific and surprising that it can transform your life, albeit in small ways. I agree with the author that the vast majority of advice is filler, but certain pinpoint insights can stay in your mind like an Alka Seltzer that never stops fizzing. And probably they will only fizz in some people’s minds, not everyone’s.

But I agree that “write every day” is not in that class of advice.
posted by argybarg at 10:06 PM on May 17 [9 favorites]

People are inclined to value advice they pay for (whether monetarily or otherwise).

This has profound effects, both positive and negative.

I mean why would I not want to reap the benefits of someone else's experience so I can skip whatever bullshit is awaiting me if I don't?
posted b

Thus, education.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:46 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Education is just formal advice.
posted by bleep at 10:52 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

In my experience giving advice is easy, and taking it is hard.

Yup. Also boils down to "the person advising you isn't emotionally invested like you are." And "the person advising you isn't going to have to figure out how to do it, YOU are." This is why I don't really take it personally when people don't take my advice.

Words that sum it all up:

"Dump the motherfucker already" vs. "But I love him."
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:44 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]

Kind of a ungenerous take on Atwood when the "message" she's relating could as easily be taken as that of you find yourself through the act of writing and until that happens you won't find success. Being inhibited in that sense means seeing writing via some expectation of how it is supposed to be rather than being uninhibited and seeing it for what it is and establishing your own sense of voice. You can boil that down to practice writing, but when someone is asking for advice there is good reason to believe they are laboring under expectation of there being a "right way" otherwise they wouldn't have asked, so telling them to find their own level of comfort with what they write and keep at it until they do, using the wastepaper basket as part of the process (and why would wastepaper baskets have fallen out of use? I have one and I'm not even a writer, I use it for mail, notes, and the like.)

It seems to me that unasked for advice often won't be heeded because it feels like an imposition, stealing something of a sense of accomplishment from those who want to find answers for themselves. Giving advice when asked often doesn't work because most situations are complex and paring them down to simple answers won't work. The better response there, to my thinking, is helping provide options by talking through different possibilities the person asking can then apply for themselves, there is no direct advice given, rather other ways of seeing the problem that one person might miss for being too caught up in it. It's just a process of helping open the view of a problem to wider possibility.

That's different from coaching, which takes place over time and seems to me to be able to be separated into instructive coaching, like job training where specific necessary skills and actions need to be learned and that vague notion of "life coaching". The author of the piece seems to be putting more weight on that ambiguous sense of advice, the want to become someone new through near imitation of a role model, which is advice as something that is not exact wording to accomplish a specific task but providing a theme through which one can become that hoped for better model of/for self. I find that latter concept dubious, but it isn't a path I'd choose so I leave it to others to decide the value of that for themselves.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:57 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Old saying: Free advice is worth every penny you paid for it.
posted by Cranberry at 1:16 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Callard cuts nice distinctions between advice, which she says doesn't work, and instruction and coaching, which she says do.

If I read right, asking for advice is like looking at a massive bodybuilder and asking "How do I get like you?"

Asking for instruction is like one bodybuilder pointing at a cord on another's corded tricep, and asking "How do I get that?" and getting shown an exercise.

Coaching is like whatever it is that good personal trainers do. It is teaching, her profession, and she is modest to call it coaching.

You might want to call those three things by different names, to distinguish them slightly differently, to add other forms of counsel to the list, or to subdivide any or all of them further, but overall I think it a useful distinction.
posted by ckridge at 5:10 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Write every day, not too much, mostly vegetables.
posted by XMLicious at 7:24 AM on May 18 [13 favorites]

Old saying: Free advice is worth every penny you paid for it.

I don't agree with that saying. Sometimes free advice is gold, and sometimes it's shit. One does have to sift through it to find the nuggets that are worthwhile. I suspect that people who complain about advice being useless are often those who aren't willing to do the work of figuring out how to apply it to their own situation.

My own rule is, "Take good advice from any quarter," and I try to weigh all the advice I'm given and not dismiss sound counsel because it was given in an offensive way or came from someone who seemingly hasn't benefited from it themselves. I mean, I regularly contribute to relationship AskMe questions despite the fact that I'm spending my life alone. Some might say that the fact that I'm single means I'm categorically unqualified to give advice on relationships, but in my view what matters is the quality of my advice. My advice is based on personal experience from past romantic relationships and my many long-term platonic or familial relationships as well as observance of the relationships of those close to me, and I honestly think I have a healthier and more helpful perspective on romantic relationships to offer than quite a few people I have known who have spent decades in shitty relationships and still don't have a clue as to why their relationships are failures.

I like giving advice because I like helping people, and as someone who is struggling financially and has chronic fatigue issues, it's often all I have to give. But there are pitfalls to giving advice that I watch for. One does have to read the room, to have the respect for others' boundaries and not give advice when it's not wanted or be at all pushy about it, and to be humble enough to realize that one's advice may be wrong in some way.
posted by orange swan at 7:58 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]

One of the best bits of free advice I ever got was "you don't have to tell everyone the truth, but you do have to tell yourself."

Another, from Terry Pratchett, was "Do the job in front of you." I guess I technically paid for it because I had purchased the book instead of getting it from the library. I hardly bought it looking for life advice, though.
posted by bunderful at 8:04 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]

One of the things I learned from interface design is that people don't like changing the way they do things. It's painful to change one's conception or habits.

But what I learned from branding and marketing was much more frightening. People are almost incapable of changing their beliefs. Most marketing is about finding out what people currently believe and then banking everything on people sticking with those beliefs.
posted by xammerboy at 9:02 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Do the job in front of you.

I saw a free bit of advice on Twitter once that I often say to myself: "Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can."
posted by orange swan at 9:14 AM on May 18 [13 favorites]

I really like the advice vs. coaching distinction, and the recognition that good coaching requires a relationship.

I think there's a case to be made for adding in a category that's more about sharing one's own personal history and letting people take from that what they will, which Callard talks about but doesn't include in her categories. It's not really role-modeling, but storytelling, I guess. We can learn a lot from storytelling.
posted by lazuli at 9:18 AM on May 18

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of advice seems to be that those most likely to be asked for it are least likely to have taken anyone else’s

This is kind of silly. Sometimes I ask people for advice because they have more or broader experience on the subject than I do. Sometimes I ask people for advice just because I need an outside perspective from someone I consider to be generally reasonable (I did this just yesterday, in fact). These are just...people in my life? They're not raw geniuses torn from the thigh of Zeus.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of advice seems to be that those most likely to be asked for it are least likely to have taken anyone else’s

This is kind of silly.

I agree with praemunire. Success doesn't happen in a vacuum, and no one is wholly or even largely original. I guarantee you that if you ask someone who has accomplished something genuinely worthwhile in life how they learned to do what they do, they will readily point to teachers and role models and other influences and credit them with being instrumental to their achievements.
posted by orange swan at 10:05 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

These are just...people in my life? They're not raw geniuses torn from the thigh of Zeus.

Probably just as well. Raw Zeus thigh genius is overrated, if you ask me.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:18 PM on May 18

I've ignored a lot of good advice in my time, some of it from ... well, me!

Just last week an ex reminded me of a drive into eastern Washington we took several decades ago, on the return leg of which, passing through the town of Gold Bar, she heard me intoning under my breath 'better slow down now - you know how these little towns make their money' and a couple of minutes later we were on the side of the road waiting for the cop to walk up to the car.

After he handed me the ticket and I was putting the car in gear, she said 'why didn't you listen?', and I said 'what are you talking about?'

She gave me a wide-eyed look and explained, but I had no memory of saying anything, yet I believed her because I already had a history of sotto voce stuff like that, some of which I did remember, but most of which I have not paid attention to.
posted by jamjam at 7:39 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

When people ask for advice, 99% of the time what they really want is for you to validate the bad decision they’ve already decided to make.
posted by mpbx at 4:28 AM on May 19 [4 favorites]

Speaking from my history as a more-or-less city streets kid you have to have the mental radar to distinguish between good-intentions advice, no matter how relevant or useful it turns out to be, and advice that is anything but, that is actually an attempt at control and manipulation. You have to be both humane and paranoid. An arrow very hard to split.
posted by Chitownfats at 5:58 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

Ohhhh I can tell my story from work yesterday that vexed me. So, I am a Public Librarian - my job is to give advice, unbiased, non-judgemental, and appropriately sourced and cited. One of my staff spent and hour and a half with a patron yesterday. I wasn’t paying attention but I saw she was showing the patron how to use the catalogue and the patron kept saying how amazing public libraries are (why, yes, they are).

Finally my staff person had to tell the person they were going on break and, appearing to take the hint, the patron stopped by to tell me (the manager) how helpful my staff person was. That gave the patron the chance to re-ask their original question and seek my input. Basically, she was a successful corporate person (I think sales?), and was planning on writing a childrn’s book and wanted to know how to get it published. Great! I have thirty years experience and 17 years of post secondary education SPECIFICALLY on publishing/libraries. It was her LUCKY day!

Except she didn’t want to hear any of my advice because she had decided her (Christian) children’s book was going to make her a lot of money with very little effort. Right now Indigenous authors are hot in childrens, Christian Childrens’ books are dead; even hugely successful authors make a pittance in Canada, especially childrens authors even if you whore yourself out to the school market. Being an author is a labour of love, usually accompanied by being married to someone financially supporting the author. I was sensitive to how she was self-perceiving her chances, but I wasn’t going to blow smoke up her ass either.

So this person who self-admittedly hadn’t read a book in twenty years was telling me how they were going to refuse to send their proposal/manuscript to any publishers until the publisher signed an NDA, had zero recognition of the name scholastic, thought that self-publishing was a legit way to get published, and for some reason hated Margaret Atwood ... but was crowing how she would come back and rub her future success in my face (I may have mentioned the lack of money four or five times...). I can’t wait.

So, any advice on how I can deal with her in future? (she is going to keep coming back to talk to me, I can just tell...)
posted by saucysault at 11:55 AM on May 19

Oh! And when I was ending the reference interview she asked “one last question”: what three pieces of advice would I give her to guarantee she gets her book published, it was like it was something she had read and was just spouting off at me.
posted by saucysault at 12:04 PM on May 19

Smile and nod.
posted by bleep at 12:09 PM on May 19

So, any advice on how I can deal with her in future? (she is going to keep coming back to talk to me, I can just tell...)

I see what you did there.
posted by bbrown at 12:50 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]

I wonder if "advice," as defined by the author, is a problem of scope.

To use a field I'm currently studying to teach, advice for "becoming a good dancer" is going to have all of Atwood's problems.

But one can meaningfully give instructions for learning to perceive rhythm in music, for developing a stronger hop, for any of the thousand and one discrete skills of a dancer.

And in many cases one can even give good instructions for determining if someone is in need of improvement in these areas.

I guess at some level I'm positing that "becoming a good X" for many if not all values of X is not a single transformation but the accumulation of many, individually tractable transformations.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 1:23 PM on May 19

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