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.)