Against Advice

Most of the time, listening is enough

Photo: wacomka/Getty Images

II have received more advice over the last six months, both solicited and un-, than I’ve ever heard before in my life. I was facing a major life decision — I hesitate to tell you what the specific decision concerned, because if I do, you, too, will immediately form your own strong and worthless opinions about it. Suffice it to say it was one of those deeply personal decisions about which, paradoxically, everyone feels entitled to give you advice: people who’d consider it tacky to tell you your shoes don’t match your suit won’t hesitate to weigh in on the most primal and intimate questions. (My female friends who’ve had children tell me that when they became mothers — as soon as they were visibly pregnant — family, friends, and strangers alike all felt free to second-guess and correct their parenting.) Friends of friends I’d just met, people whose judgment I valued not at all, spontaneously offered their two cents’ worth; total strangers succumbed to the delusion that what they thought mattered. What pushed me over the patience threshold into something more like rage was when the advisor implied that, despite what I might think, I didn’t actually know what I wanted. This is like telling adolescents it’s just a phase, you’ll grow out of it; no one at any age wants to hear that they don’t know who they are. On more than one occasion I had to give people formal notice that, if they valued my friendship, they should stop volunteering their unsolicited opinions about my private life.


— My father (I’m omitting the context, but I feel the sentiment stands on its own)

In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace writes: “advice — even wise advice — actually does nothing for the advisee, changes nothing inside, and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path.” It’s somewhere between unhelpful and infuriating when people act as if the answer to your dilemma were self-evident — as several people in my own case did, even though they disagreed as to what that self-evident answer was. One person couldn’t understand why I didn’t simply take the “obvious” course — a course that was every bit as obvious to me as it was to her, except that in her case it was uncomplicated by any emotional investment. Discounting considerations like but I love her or except I don’t want to in decision-making is like making economic calculations without factoring in the cost of destroying the Earth’s biosphere.

“Please don’t let Mow [our cat] in. She will eat the pie.”

— My mother

A couple of friends of mine used to set up a “Free Advice” table on weekends on the street in Brooklyn, like Lucy van Pelt’s 5¢ psychiatric booth. They only ever actually gave advice in response to relatively trivial questions (“should I go home and do some chores or go get drunk with my friends?”); for more serious ones (“my boyfriend has started using heroin again”), they did something more like counseling, drawing the advisee out with questions to help them think through the problem themselves. They learned that people are actually asking for a lot of different things when they ask for advice, few of which are actually advice. (I’ve noticed people unerringly seek advice from the person likeliest to give them the advice they want to hear; no one who really wants to go home ever asks me whether they should have another beer.) They’re asking for permission, reassurance, commiseration, or sympathy; they want to waive their own agency, outsource blame for their mistakes; to be told that they’re in the right, that their situation does indeed suck, to know they’re not crazy, that they’re not alone. Most of them simply needed to feel heard; a lot of people, it seems, don’t have anyone in their lives who listens to them. Meta-analyses of different therapeutic methods suggest that they all, from the hardcore Freudian silent treatment to the woo-wooiest Jungian dream analysis, have nearly identical outcomes; the part that actually helps is the client’s becoming attached to someone who pays attention and cares about them. The only thing that really comforted me when facing my own difficult decision was confirmation that it was in fact a heartbreaking and impossible situation, to which there was no solution.

“Never break more than one law at a time.”

— Kevin

There’s a huge industry in advice — called “wisdom literature” when it’s by dead people or God and “self-help” if someone’s still getting royalties off it — on everything from relationships to creativity to entrepreneurship to spirituality. Clearly, there is a bottomless hunger for books that tell us how to live (I recently bought one with that exact title — How to Live — a loose translation/updating of selected writings by Epictetus). Unfortunately, almost all such books are fraudulent horseshit. I remember once leafing through a how-to-be-creative book a friend showed me — page after page of truisms in a profound font — and I asked her, out of curiosity, “So but what’s this author’s own art like? I mean, what is the art that he actually makes?” “That is his art,” she said, gesturing at the book itself. I said: “Oh.” The only secret to success these gurus have discovered is writing self-help books for confused dupes. I hesitate to call all self-help authors charlatans, but the percentage of them who aren’t is so negligible that fuck it, let’s go ahead and say it. Acting like you know what you’re talking about has always been the most lucrative profession.

“Physical activity is for losers.”

— Zeke

Few of us, not even the savviest and most self-aware, are really privy to our own motives, so to purport to understand what other people want or tell them what they should do — especially in the most irrational realms of love, sex, and reproduction — can only ever be an exercise in projection. People advise you to do what they would do if they were brave enough (it’s easier to take risks with other people’s lives), or give advice more timid, protective, and patronizing than any they would follow. Think of the romantic advice we give our friends: we want them to have partners who are safe, who’ll never hurt them, who unconditionally adore them, even though we would never choose such boring partners for ourselves; we want someone thrilling, out of our league, someone we have to win. “I just want you to be happy,” we tell them, even though our own actions suggest that happiness is pretty low in the hierarchy of things we want. When you see a friend settle contentedly into a life that appears, from the outside, to be miserable, you can be certain that he has found something he needs far more than happiness.

“When you are alone in a room with a naked woman, you should be sure you do everything you might ever want to do with that woman, because there is no guarantee you will ever have that chance again.”

— A friend’s friend’s father

Possible outcomes of giving advice span a spectrum from having no effect at all to irreparably damaging the relationship. Years ago I had a friend who was engaged to a man whom most of her friends thought she should not marry. Her friends’ approaches to addressing this delicate issue ranged, in strategy and tact, from saying nothing at all (me) to a drunken, arm-around-the-shoulder talk at closing time (Nick), all of which had the same effect. In the end she married him. They’re still married today, 20 years later. Was it a mistake? Is she happy? Who knows? Whether we were right or wrong isn’t the issue; our opinions were simply irrelevant. Because — and this is the only real piece of wisdom I have to impart in this essay — people are going to do what they’re going to do, 100% of the time.

“You don’t have to get *everything* from your spouse or partner.”

— Lauren

“But you can’t get breasts from your friends.”

— Lucy

One of my friends who manned the Free Advice booth, who’s now a social worker, says he thinks the fallacy behind most advice is the same basic delusion underlying most Western philosophy, governance, and economics: that people are essentially rational and will act in their own self-interest. He sees most systems of thought as reducible to: “my plan would work perfectly if only people were different.” But people are not different, and never will be. They do what they want — not what they should, or what’s wise, or rational, or virtuous. My friends who are counselors, and one who’s a lawyer who works with the poor, are wearily used to watching people shrewdly screw themselves over. “It seems there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages,” writes Dostoyevsky’s subterranean man. “[which] continually shatters every system constructed by lovers of mankind for the benefit of mankind… man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated.” At several friends’ recommendations, I sat down and listed all the reasons I could think of in support of each choice in my own dilemma, in two columns, and then chose the one with almost nothing in it.

“Hang loose. You’ll find your way.”

— Steven Muller, President of my university, at our commencement

I do think other people’s words can accidentally resonate with questions that have long preoccupied us, spring latent tensions or suddenly reveal decisions already unconsciously made. One birthday I was out having drinks with a couple of friends who didn’t know each other that well, Lauren and Rick. Lauren had always been “on the fence” on the issue of having children, and she figured as long as you were a fence-sitter, it was better to err by not having them. I was giving Rick some good-natured shit about what a handful his older daughter would surely be when she hit adolescence (as indeed she was). In response he just smiled, shrugged in an expansive, whaddaya-gonna-do way, and said: “Life’s an adventure.” These words woke Lauren out of a complacent doze: Life is an adventure, she thought. I am not living my life like an adventure. It’s not as if one stray comment convinced her to have kids, but it was a catalyst that led to a reaction inside her, a cascading series of decisions that resulted in her daughter, Ursula, now a bookish 13-year-old. But this most often happens by accident, like two planets passing in the dark, warping each other’s orbits from afar.

“Even a less-than-perfect homemade [pie] crust will impress women more than storebought.”

— Kati Jo

I think people often feel as if, unless they have some concrete advice to offer in a crisis, they’re showing up “empty-hand” (as a friend’s mother in Alabama used to say). Just showing up is the hardest, and best, thing you can do for someone who’s suffering. Many years ago a friend asked me to drive with him out to a lawyer’s office in Western Maryland to sign his divorce papers — a matter of only a couple minutes’ official business, but also, obviously, an emotional ordeal and an unhappy milestone, like a badly-attended wedding with no bar. His ex-wife-to-be had brought an emotional-support friend along with her, too. They signed the papers, exchanged some polite words outside, and that was it: we all got back in our cars and his marriage was over. That evening ended with me, drunk on tequila, dancing on the bar with a barmaid. The next day I was ashamed to have lost sight of my objective and marred the somber occasion with selfish revelry, but my friend assured me that somehow it had been just the thing — a cheering reminder, he said, that life goes on.

“You should drive everywhere.”

— Harold

In the end, I decided the same thing I would’ve decided if I hadn’t taken six months to think it over. I am not at all confident that I made the right decision: I’m still second-guessing myself, and will likely regret it forever. The only thing I feel certain of is that the friend who first urged me to reconsider my initial, knee-jerk decision, launching me on six months of negotiations, summit talks, therapy, insomnia, drug abuse, and obsessive rumination, should probably, in retrospect, have kept her mouth shut. Those friends who weighed in on my decision have now either placed themselves in the position of tacitly saying toldja so or gone indelibly on the record as disapproving of my decision, neither of which is much consolation. I did collect a number of interesting insights during those six months, none of which were of any use. Mostly all that conflicting advice only made things more confusing — infecting me with brief deliriums of false clarity, jerking me back and forth between contradictory certainties. Maybe all our choices, much as we agonize over them, are foregone conclusions. Maybe that’s why advice is so unhelpful: it exacerbates the cruel illusion of free will, uses it to toy with and torture us, as if we really had any say in the matter of our actions. It’s like Chutes and Ladders, a game of random chance and predestination masquerading as a game of moral choices.

“Let it soak.”

— Margot

A book I often recommend to people facing major life decisions is Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. The conceit of this novel is that at the end of its first chapter it seems possible that the protagonist will cheat on her boyfriend; the rest of the chapters alternate between two parallel realities: the one in which she did and the one in which she didn’t. This is an unhelpful recommendation because it never becomes clear which choice was the “right” one; the main character just lives out two very different, incomparable lives, each with its own frustrations and satisfactions, and in each she feels confident she made the right decision. Life is an adventure, not a test. There are no correct answers in the back of the book; we don’t get to find out what was behind door number two; we never even know whether we won. If you want some guarantee that everything will turn out all right and you’ll have no regrets, it’s not an adventure you want; it’s a theme park.

“There are two kinds of people in the world: people who need advice, and people who give it. The ones who give it are stupid.”

— Jenny

The truth is, life is hard and confusing; if decisions were easy or self-evident they wouldn’t be decisions. And I think this irresistible urge to tell other people what they should do, to appear wise and helpful (if only to ourselves), arises out of the same source as our tendency to judge one another, to second-guess, envy or disapprove of them: our anxiety about death, the finiteness of time, and the irrevocability of our choices. And the knowledge that, ultimately, we’re on our own.

Tim Kreider is the author of two essay collections, and a frequent contributor to Medium and The New York Times. He lives in NYC and the Chesapeake Bay area.

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