Got distracted by advice

I used to have a rotation of urls that I could type in and be pretty sure there would be some nice things to read there after I pressed enter. Now the only reliable, regularly updated content I know of are advice columns: parenting advice columns, relationship advice columns, career advice columns. I used to only read them when I’d reached the end of the internet — they scratched that itch for more content, but that’s it. They’re boring, really. 

My friend Christian hates advice columns and says they are bad for brains. “They are basically just bullshit blogs that tickle the judgement center of your brain in the same way that video games tickle the winning/success part of your brain,” he says. “They feel like, ‘I am learning to make value judgements about situations and people,’ but they’re basically just gossip blogs.” I agree with this. It feels good, or at least feels like something, to read the letter and judge the person writing the letter, and then read the response and judge the person writing the response. And to think, “I think my advice would be better.” 

I almost always think, “My advice would be better.” I’m a keen advice giver, I almost can’t help it. When you only have a few details about another person’s problem, it is very easy to solve it. Unlike one’s own problems, seeped in nuance, which are impossible and unfixable. 

I have a therapist whom I like very much. I’ve seen him most weeks since just before I turned 30. I will turn 36 in May — six years. They’ve been very good years, full of upward trajectory and growth, and correlation is not necessarily causation, but also, maybe it is. He would say, it’s all you, you’re doing the work. But also, I think he is very good at being a therapist and has helped me a lot. I will keep seeing him as long as he continues practicing and I can continue to pay his fee.

Therapists don’t really give advice. They won’t tell you what to do, frustratingly. But my therapist has given me some very good advice, and the most recent bit has been to stop spending so much energy trying to solve other people’s problems. This is a lesson that I thought I learned a long time ago — a great adage from my mother that I have helpfully dispensed to every friend in a bad relationship since high school is, “If it’s too much work, it isn’t working.” Another: “You can only save yourself.” So important to remember, so easy to tell other people as a panacea. So hard to follow.

A few months ago my therapist pointed out that I had spent a lot of the session discussing other people’s problems and not my own. This was absolutely true. He then asked me a question I’ve thought about a lot since: “Are these people asking you to take on their problems and give them advice? Or do they just want you to listen to them?” 

It had never occurred to me to ask them. Why would they be telling me their problems if they didn’t want them fixed? Or rather, why would I not fix them, if I could?

Obviously sometimes people just need to talk. But also, I felt like I could very easily dispense life-changing advice and shouldn’t keep anyone from it. Did I ever ask, “Are you asking for my advice?” I don’t think so. I might have said once or twice, “I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but … .” And then got to work dispensing it, the unconsulted advice columnist gone rogue. 

How did this end? It didn’t. I haven’t stopped using up my valuable therapy minutes talking about people who are not me, though I’ve tried, and maybe I’ve gotten better. I’ve also tried to simply listen when the people in my life tell me about their lives. I have failed in both attempts sometimes, succeeded other times. 

A few weeks ago I had a chance to evaluate my progress when I attended an hour-long training at work on how to be a better manager by asking questions. Average managers, we learned, jump right into problem solving and advice giving, while great managers ask questions that help their teams figure out the answers on their own. I felt sheepish hearing this, but also unsurprised. It made sense. Teach a man to fish. 

At the end of the session we were put in groups of three to practice: one person explained a small work problem, another practiced asking questions, a third tallied the number of questions asked. All one had to do to succeed here was ask a lot of questions — that’s it. And yet: each time I was the question-asker, I asked like, half a question — just until I had enough information to dispense advice. My advice was very good, I feel like I changed some lives that day. I’d write it up here, but I wouldn’t want to bore you. 

Watercolor by Matt Davis

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