I’m a consultant. That means, in theory, that I’m paid to give advice, but our clients are bright as dolphins, knowledgeable, and often creative, too. The art lies in engineering epiphanies–designing experiences that let them play with possibilities, then come to their own conclusions. From time to time we remind them that in these sessions they’re allowed to be people as well as professionals–parents, cranks, fans, shoppers, readers, patients, advocates, and voters. Then we stand back, holding out snacks, sticky notes, and Sharpies. It’s harder than telling people what to do.

It’s got me thinking about the nature of good advice, and how much of it lies in timing and delivery. When I was younger, I wanted to be a teen-magazine agony aunt. Interfering in other people’s problems, at the safe remove of a tear-stained letter, would play to my wisdom and worldliness, I felt. I hadn’t counted then on knowing less each year. At least my expanding ignorance has made it easier to hold off on giving advice, even when I fixate on the women who wear leggings and shouldn’t, or the futility of fake butter. Sometimes I want to force my friends to read some article in _Oprah_ magazine or Valleywag, or try my new favorite something, or start meditating, but mostly I leave them alone.

Fifty-odd years ago, an English clergyman who was also a trained psychologist found his congregation shocked by the suicide of a young mother. He announced from the altar that he intended to open the vicarage for people to come and discuss their problems in complete confidence, so that such an act might be prevented in future. So many people came forward that his drawing room filled up each night. The “church ladies”–the local volunteers who kept the parish running–began to organize shifts to offer tea and sympathy to the people waiting.

An strange thing happened. The clergyman/psychologist discovered that people felt better even before they spoke to him. Some didn’t even keep their appointment–they thanked him and went home. The simple act of unburdening to a sympathetic church lady, who offered no profound analysis or advice, was enough. It wasn’t flattering to a professional counsellor, but he was wise enough to shush his ego. His discovery led him to found the Samaritans, which trained volunteers all over the world to listen quietly, supportively, and anonymously to people who needed to talk themselves through a crisis. “You never know,” is their training mantra–that, and “Just shut up and listen.” It’s among the best advice ever given, and the hardest to follow.

And yet. Good advice is like beef jerky, or poems off by heart: you may not want it right away, but miles down the road you’re glad of it. Good advice makes sense of your past mistakes, and if you’re lucky, saves you a few steps forward. I spend hours looking for the stuff, but rarely think just to ask for it.

So here’s an experiment. There are so many people who read this blog whom I look up to. There are more still whom I don’t yet know. Some of you have already given me free advice, like “It might be time to start teaching,” or “Think about ordering your list of heroes,” or “Check out the San Francisco Streetcar Festival.” So here are a few questions for you.

What was the best advice you ever got?
Did you take it?
What advice–on anything–would you give me?

You can answer here in the comments, by email, on your own blog, or the next time I see you for spaghetti and meatballs at Emmy’s.

(Asking for advice is intimidating. I just discovered that.)

19 thoughts on “Advice”

  1. Honestly, I can’t recall anyone ever giving me great advice. This is telling, on various levels.

    Not surprisingly, then, I have no advice to give you. All I can think to say is “write,” but that, like most advice, is a disguised wish.


  2. Interesting piece. I used to be highly suspicious of advice. Especially growing up in risk adverse 80’s Ireland, where unsolicited advice was usually a way of keeping you in your place. “Now what you should do is…” As a result I never asked for advice, it was almost a point of pride with me. I make really quick decisions; I did then and do now. I still believe if you make a quick decision and it is wrong, it is much easier to correct with another quick decision. Agonising over a decision often means missed opportunity. However, When I met Natasha I quickly learned that there is a big difference between unsolicited advice and requested advice. One of her great qualities is her ability to solicit various opinions and sift through it and make a decision – eventually 🙂 But, she comes from an Indian background, and there is no such thing as a private decision! Everyone has an opinion
    I also think like Niti said above, you should go with your hunches. My experience is that you usually know what the correct decision is, but it is wise to seek advice. Almost always the advice is just a way of examining and dismissing other options and proving your hunches right.

    So my advice is go with your gut, but prove it by seeking advice, just don’t wait too long to make the decision!

    There is one other, and you will appreciate this. The redoubtable Father Murray, ex headmaster of our alma mater gave us this advice a few months before our Leaving Certificate: He said, “If you want to get a A, you must aim for 100%, it gives you some room to fall back, if you want a B aim for an A etc, that way you may do better than expected, but if not you still have a greater chance of hitting your target”. I think that’s pretty good advice all round, aim high, you might miss, but you’ll be closer to the target with a better chance of success when you aim the second time. Most people fail first time around, it’s you learn in the process that leads to success.

    Also the famous Mary Schmich, Chicago Sun Times sunscreen piece falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut contains fabulous advice, the best being wear sunscreen. I cannot find a link to the text of the piece, but there are several nuggets there.

    Feel free to return the favor!


  3. Since it’s preceded by an elaborate explanation of the benefit of having a listener who just makes it possible for you to talk through whatever it is that you’re on about, is this a trick question?


  4. Never drink beer after a lot of wine.
    Think long and hard before saying the words “I love you”.
    Question all your beliefs and opinions.


  5. Thank you, guys, for weighing in such undefined territory.

    @ Josh: 🙂 It’s contradictory, but among the best advice I ever got was contained in that training–the advice to suspend judgment.

    @ everyone: I’m trying to understand the nature of advice. What’s the range, from picking paint chips to how to live? Why can we accept some and not others? What does timing, delivery, age, reinforcement, context, and specificity have to do with it? What are the areas we almost can’t help offering advice on, and what do we stay away from? Thank you for helping me understand it.


  6. The easiest kind of advice to take is the kind that doesn’t require changing your behavior. Or taking it. You’re right though, often it has to percolate a bit before being valued.

    Received? From a boy putting on a dress shirt just before the house opening of a musical in high school, both of us sitting in the darkened theater. “Get dressed up when you appreciate it.” I scoffed, and moments later the doors opened. People poured past us in the dark, me at the light board, him at the sound board.

    To give?

    Look up.


  7. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I got that advice from the only public school teacher I ever respected. He just sized me up and dispensed the best advice I’ve ever gotten. According to some people I knew back then, he also gave them good advice — and it seemed tailor-made to each person.

    Other good advice:

    “Enjoy being 20. Because one day, you’ll be 30, and it’s 40, 50, 60, dead. It goes by so fast.” From my father’s uncle. And looking at 33, he was right. I feel like I was 25 -yesterday-.

    “People will screw you for money. Friends, family, strangers. Expect it.” My first boss. And man…was he ever right.

    Yeesh…I’ve gotten a lot of good advice in my time. I could write pages! I’ve been very fortunate.


  8. Amen to Allan, above, who cited Frank Poynter’s advice to check out your blog. I used to read Frank randomly — don’t much anymore for no good reason — and you are a nugget that has stayed with me and, as you know, nourished my spirit.

    Best advice I ever got… Hard to choose. Here’s a few:

    1. At uni: Ask people on campus who the best teachers are. Doesn’t matter what subjects they teach: take them.

    2. When choosing jobs, all other things being equal, take the one where you stand to learn the most.

    3. Don’t go to the alter unless you’ve got *zero* doubt.

    4. Don’t force it.

    Did I take it? Yes, to numbers 1-3, but too seldom for number 4.

    Advice for you: Come to Paris. Let my wife and me buy you dinner. We owe you for the shimmer of your words.


  9. One of Freuds student / conteporaries suggested “group work” because people with similar problems sn offer each other advce.
    Moreno also suggested the term “catharsis,” And the practice of “role play,” in training exercizes.

    I found this book interesting

    I used to work in faciltation– as a food server.
    I was always amazed that full service meals, Buffets, and icy cold buckets of beer and wine all had profoundly different effects on the groups involved.
    It’a funny how much food matters in the way people interact.
    Dervala, since i know you love food and dining styles, (and have global experience) you may have greater potential to influence your clients behavior than you realize.
    Hope you realize your good intentions


  10. I think you should write more, and stop faffing about. Your writing’s ready, it’s top on the blogs far as I can see. So why the procrastination?


  11. I have been reading your weblog for some time now. I won’t actually give advice, but I will say that you are a wonderful writer.


  12. I haven’t received too much *good* advice but the best I can think of, offhand, are these tidbits:

    – Always have a plan, but be ready to change it at a moment’s notice

    – Steer clear of office politics and don’t take sides in office wars

    – Don’t take your emotional temperature every five minutes. Just let yourself be sometimes

    Also that Samaritans guy was right on. It’s not advice, but the best single thing I learned in college was in training for a peer advice line. They taught us how to just listen. Invaluable.

    Advice for you? Be careful riding that freaking motorcycle.


  13. 1a. Practice invitation. Issue invitations to others and be open to the ones that are offered to you and follow them.

    1b. Never work alone.

    2. Took that advice and it formed the basis of a seven year and counting consulting practice.

    3. How do you advise someone like you to follow their heart or anything like that? This whole blog has been an amazing story of what happens when someone trips around the globe leaving breadcrumbs of curiosity and for the rest of us to find her by. The only advice I can offer is come to Bowen Island next time you are in this part of the world and I’ll make you a curry to thank you for the beauty that you have brought into this world.


  14. I’m sure I’ve received some very good advice, but I can’t say what it might have been, because I wasn’t listening.

    Which also answers your second question.

    It seems to me, from what I think I know of you from your writing and the few times we’ve met, that you’re a much better liver of life than me or almost anyone I know, and that it would be ridiculous to offer you advice on anything. You already appear to have the tools to do whatever you might want to do, brilliantly.

    So I the only advice I can think of giving to you–and it’s not for your sake; it’s for ours–is to spread your light over more people. That means writing more, and talking with more strangers, and mentoring more young people. Because I believe that you have a salutary effect on everyone who encounters you, and eventually, if everyone around you is better off, some of that betterness will make its way back to you.

    I just wish I were closer to the source.


  15. I’ve found we’ve no trouble giving advice on the trivial – commuting shortcuts, how to find a good plumber, career decisions, etc.

    But we bail on the vital – relationships. We’ve no problem telling a friend, after a relationship has ended, that we never really thought the former-beloved was all that suited to them. So we’ve no problem being honest, just when the advice is no longer useful.

    Some bad advice I’ve received? It was in the dot-bomb days: “Baltimore Tech has fallen from $100 to $10 a share – you should really get in now. I mean, can it really fall any further?” (Unfortunately, that was not a rhetorical question).

    Some good recent advice: “Try miso soup”.


  16. Long time ago, in another life, I worked with a self-help author called Chuck Spezzano. Now normally I wouldn’t be seen decomposing in a ditch with a self-help book (not a judgement on the books, just on me), but he said something I’ve always remembered: Expectations ruin experience. And as I’ve grown older, and happier, I’ve taken that advice. Look forward to things, but don’t *expect* things. Don’t imagine something before it’s happened. Nothing ever measures up, and you’re always disappointed. Whereas without expectations – well, there’s always the lovely surprises.

    My 18-year-old self would scream in horror that I’m suggesting that the secret to happiness is lowered expectations. Expect the world! But there you have it.

    Todd. By god. I can still be reduced to hysterics by a piece of graffiti on a noticeboard in the Central Area: “Maxi Is A Twit.” I don’t know why, but it crucifies me every time.


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