On the Giving and Taking of Advice

In which wisdom comes slowly, if at all

After doing the episode on How to Outline any story and a YouTube Video called "How Story Structure Works" I have found myself being asked for advice about particular stories that people are writing. Even as I've given my, I haven’t totally been convinced it was a good idea; for me, or the person I was giving advice to.

In fact, the more I've thought about it, the more dubious I've become about the whole business of giving advice, especially when unpaid. I'll get into the reasons why in a moment, but first I'd like to observe that the giving of advice is a universal thing. As a species, we love to tell other people -- even total strangers, what we think they should do. And close friends, and family members, well, I'm certain you know how those people could be doing something better.

Except, do you? Do you really? Because the first problem with advice is the assumption that you have enough of the correct information about another person's situation to not only diagnose what's going on, but also prescribe a remedy. And this is almost certainly not the case. Because life is very complicated. Especially the internal life of human beings.

It is kind of a founding principle of the Enlightenment that decision-making should be, as far as possible, pushed down to the people who the decision affects the most. That is to say you should be the one to make the important choices about your own life.

Sure, you should seek out experts, you should do research, be thoughtful -- but when you look very closely, experts are terrifyingly limited and often wrong. Because, by definition, it is impossible to be an expert in everything. And the important decisions in life are about big messy things. Big decisions are about everything. Or you might say, or how things are to be traded off with other things.

So, I argue, the only expert in your life is you. You not only have the best insight into what would be worthwhile for you, but you also have the greatest incentive to make good decisions. Not that you or anyone else always will always make the best or even good decisions, but that seems to be the least bad way to conduct a society.

It’s also the only moral solution. Remove meaningful choices from people's lives and you've effectively enslaved them. Which you might be comfortable with, but I'm not.

But even with my discomfort, I still have the urge to give advice and get upset when it is not followed. I mean damnit people, I have lived through things. I been around. And I sincerely do my best to come up with the best course of action when someone asks.

So let's call that the first problem with advice. You feel bad when your advice is ignored. Sometimes even when your advice should be ignored.

I think the second reason not to give advice is that it might not even help people when they take it. Because of something called the "Curse of Knowledge." You see, when you know something, the curse is you can't imagine not knowing it. Go on, forget that 2+2 is 4.

When somebody asks me how I do something I'm very good at -- Unless I really work at it — I'm probably giving an answer that's not very useful. An answer that only makes sense if you already understand how to do that thing well.

This can be overcome and a lot of my professional career has been helping people explain things they know to an audience that doesn't know them. My biggest assets in this process are ignorance and curiosity. And language skills, of course. It's no exaggeration to call this English-to-English translation.

But what about the other side of the equation: the taking of advice? Who's advice should you seek out? And what should you do with it? This too is fraught with peril.

If you want my advice (and there are plenty of good reasons why you shouldn't) never take advice from someone who has a life you don't want. A lot of unhappy people read lots of self-help books and can tell you many things about happiness. But, when you get right down to it, I believe that their advice will only get you to where they are. And maybe, it’s a place you don’t want to go.

This is very tough with people like authority figures and parents. Because we very often want (and have been taught) to look up to them and respect them. But if you've got a boss you love, who tells you how to get ahead in 'this business' but he's not getting ahead in 'this business' -- the advice is probably not worth following.

And lastly, I've become wary of taking advice from people who have never faced my problems.

There's this great joke that illustrates this point. I first heard it on an episode of The West Wing. Josh, an aide is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder -- having breakdowns -- and a shrink is called in to diagnose it. And when they get to the bottom of it, he's worried they're not going to let him work in the White House anymore. And as he starts to explain to his boss what's going on, Leo, the White House Chief of Staff abruptly launches into this joke:

"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in this hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey doc, I'm in this hole, can you help me out?''

The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

And then a priest comes along. The guy cries out, 'Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?' The Priest writes out a prayer, throws it down and moves on. Then a friend walks by. 'Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole.

The guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both stuck down here?'

And Joe says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before. I know the way out.’"

Which is a great segue to a thing I just learned from a friend of mine. Instead of giving advice, tell a story about something that happened to you, what you did and what happened. Maybe include what you learned.

The rationale behind this is, when you give advice, you're not really giving very much. You're kind of taking agency away from the person because you're just giving them the answer. And for big questions, the answer isn't worth very much. But if you give someone another experience through which to view their problem, now you've given them something that has more value. It's a way to use a story to give someone your thinking rather than your answer.

And I love this. The best drama teacher I ever had never answered a single question I asked him. He just asked me a better question. We put up this English play one summer. And in it, there were the names of English place names that were absolutely not spelled as they sounded. This was before the internet, so we had no real good way of looking these things up.

And that guy let us mispronounce Leicester (Lester) as Lie-cester all summer long. I distinctly remember him being asked what the correct pronunciation was and him responding, "How could you find out?"

And now, more than 30 years later, I'm finally starting to understand the wisdom in that.