On Giving Advice
And the merit of learning things the hard way.
“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.“ — Baz Lurhman
Giving advice is a very nuanced affair. And I’m not unaware of the fact that a lot of my writing may be construed as “advice-giving,” though that’s not my intent. Writing is cathartic for me and helps me identify how I feel about a particular topic on my mind. If people can relate, that’s great; but I’m writing about my experiences only, and trying not to paint everyone with the same brush.
As you can see, I’ve done my fair share of ruminating over the topic of advice and why we so willingly dispense it. I was most certainly an expert in all things when I was younger, telling people what to do in their lives while judging those who didn’t follow suit. Though in reality, I had minimal life experience that would provide me the credentials to do so.
But now as I age and partake in more meaningful moments (both good and bad) that alter the course of my life, I’m learning that I’m no expert at all. What works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else, and it’s certainly not my business to imply that it should.
In an effort not to give advice (but to simply air out my thoughts on the matter), here are some issues I have with advice-giving and why I argue that experiencing things the hard way (for ourselves) is the best way to learn.
Too many people advise things for which they have no lived experience.
I used to think that life was pretty simple once you came to understand it. If you ate well, exercised, slept, reduced your stress and gathered up some self-awareness, you should be able to get through anything. Right?
That’s far from the truth. Sure, those things will help you heal in time, but they aren’t a set of cure-all remedies. Anyone who says otherwise likely hasn’t experienced any form of excruciating trauma or grief. The kind that’s so tangible, you can run your fingers through it.
But here’s the thing: there are certain times in life we’ll get thrown a curveball, and it’s more than okay to struggle. It’s the human condition. And no amount of cardio or kale will fix it.
And unless someone has walked through the same trenches, bled from the same types of wounds, or experienced a similar shade of what I’m going through, no amount of advice of theirs will hold any real weight. I want to hear from people who’ve lived it too, not people who are experts in things they’ve read about online.
Some of us can’t give advice without tying ourselves into the outcome.
Many circumstances for giving advice are deep-set triggers in disguise. We recognize in others the red flags of our past traumas, and that discomfort makes us want to put out all the nostalgic fires.
But the reasons for which people may need or seek advice — the trials and tribulations of being human — those are experiences personal to each of us. Although we may have faced something similar, we can’t imply that our experiences are all the same. And it’s not our job to fix everyone else experiencing a similar issue, either.
It’s not “personal” if someone doesn’t choose to live the way we think they should. They are responsible for suffering the consequences of their decisions, not us. When we get too invested in the outcomes of other people’s lives, we miss out on the critical moments of our own (and completely disrespect our boundaries while we’re at it).
Relying solely on someone else’s advice robs us of our own lived experience.
It’s very easy to confuse help with enabling. Sometimes, when we ask for help, what we really want is for our problem to be solved by someone else.
The only way to get through something is to go through it, and so having someone else fix our problems for us removes our own personal sense of responsibility and set of consequences. Yet these are the two key ingredients for the recipe, the direct pathway to avoid making the same mistake twice.
If we don’t learn from our actions and decisions — if we can’t feel the discomfort we’ve caused ourselves — we’ll never find the determination and foster the resilience to find a way out of the dark. It is by genuinely living and immersing ourselves into our own experiences that we can ultimately discover what works best for us, and what happiness or success looks like in our lives.
A lot of advice-giving can be oppressive.
Sometimes advice makes us feel not good enough for being where we are. By mere virtue of someone giving us advice, it easily implies that we can and need to do something to get out of the situation.
This suggests it’s all in our control— that we’re at fault (or at least responsible) for being there in the first place, and that if we can’t fix it, it’s on us. The sense of control makes people feel safe, but it does nothing except for add insult to injury for the person who’s in over their head with grief or pain.
Some things in life happen, and it’s nobody’s fault. Sometimes we won’t be able to fix it right away, or at all. Sometimes time itself is the only salve. There’s nothing wrong with being broken or hurting. As they say, there’s a season for everything.
So the best “advice” I could give is not to give advice at all. Support people, let them know we’re there for them, listen to what they have to say and offer them empathy. Share stories, talk things out, speak our truth. Our wisdom may inspire others, or help someone figure their own things out.
But we aren’t responsible for doing anyone’s “homework” for them, or completing their final exams. We shouldn’t tell them what they should be doing, or why we think things aren’t working out.
We can also acknowledge when we’re in over our heads and suggest perhaps the assistance of an unbiased, trained professional.
Remember, there’s always merit in learning things the hard way. We can only hit the same wall so many times until we get so fed up with the pain and discomfort it causes. And since we can never quite forget the struggle we experienced, we always remember the lessons it brought, too.
Oh, and take all this with a grain of salt — it’s not actually advice, remember?