by Brad Bollenbach

Unsolicited Advice

We give advice by the bucket, but take it by the grain.

– William R. Alger

Unsolicited advice is what you get when you give someone who isn’t listening, counseling they didn’t ask for, offering recommendations you probably aren’t even following yourself. It’s about 10,000 times easier to give advice than it is to take it, and the information economy reflects that. Supply so greatly exceeds demand that you can’t even pay people to take good advice. Some people actually invest significant amounts of their own time and money into various forms of self-destruction.

So why do we give unsolicited advice?

In many cases, we’re motivated by a genuine desire to help the other person. It’s tough to watch a friend or family member punish themselves by choosing to be in a bad relationship, to work at a job that drains their life force, or to follow their parents’ dreams instead of chasing their own ambitions. The problem is further compounded when it interferes with, or even damages, your relationship with that person.

When you’ve been there and done that and have the battle scars to prove it, the temptation to offer unsolicited advice can be almost overwhelming. Avoiding doing so feels almost like watching someone go into cardiac arrest and not calling an ambulance. But there’s a big difference between the analogy and the reality: The ambulance will actually help that person; unsolicited advice will not.

Unsolicited advice is almost useless for one simple reason: Many lessons must be learned, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Taking action to change your life requires not only thought, but intent, and intent is driven by our internal pain and pleasure associations.

Even though a person understands intellectually that smoking is suicidal, they’ll do it anyway. The immediate pleasure they associate to puffing on a little plant stick is greater than the abstract pain of dying an agonizing death from lung cancer in 20 or 30 years. Many people in relationships put up with mind-boggling amounts of disrespect in exchange for not being alone, possibly even being granted sex occasionally, if they’re lucky. When it’s your words of advice–”Dude, you have got to dump that b$@%$!”–versus the feeling of curling up beside a naked woman in bed at night, the winner is obvious.

When there’s a conflict between our intellect and our emotions, we usually side with our emotions. Until the person’s pain and pleasure associations are properly calibrated, there’s little hope for change. The best thing to do in these situations, as harsh as it sounds, is to let the other person hit rock bottom. At the very least, wait until they ask for advice before you start giving it. It’s remarkable how much self-created misery some people will endure, but some of life’s most valuable lessons are found in the darkest corners of human experience.

Unsolicited Advice and the Ego

The other major reason we give unsolicited advice has to do with the ego. The ego needs external validation to survive. While some people give unsolicited advice out of a genuine desire to help, others do so to validate their own point of view.

This kind of advice is often given to people you don’t know really well, or given about a subject you’ve just started learning and are looking to feel smarter about by giving other newbies advice. In both cases, you are motivated not so much by helping the other person as by needing to be right. This type of unsolicited advice is particularly common on internet discussion forums, where keyboard jockeys, armed with borrowed wisdom, engage in lengthy flame wars about the One True Way to do something.

The way to deal with this ego-driven need for validation is to observe it. I learned this technique from Eckhart Tolle, among others. By becoming aware of your ego’s need to be right, you create a space around the problem, and begin to separate yourself from it. You become an impartial observer of your thoughts, and start using your mind, instead of having it use you.

Rather than relying on other people’s input to validate your position, let reality be your benchmark. Where’s the best place to meet girls? Do you need to use “canned material” when you talk to them? Is $100/hour a reasonable consulting rate? What’s the best database/web browser/text editor/anything? Find out for yourself. The more you worship results, the less you’ll feel the need to tell other people what to think.

Ego-driven advice is always a bad thing. But when you’re genuinely motivated to help a friend or family member, unsolicited advice can be okay in microscopic doses. If you begin to feel resentful towards the other person though, because they keep complaining, never take your advice, and only sink further into spiritual debt, that’s a hint that you’ve gone too far.

I find writing to be a great outlet for giving advice. It allows me to say anything I want, and is consumed only with reader consent. If you don’t want my advice, you don’t have to read it. In day-to-day life though, I am still sometimes guilty of this sin, particularly with friends and family when they complain about self-created problems. For that reason, I’ve set up a 30-day challenge to kick this bad habit, starting now.

In my experience, giving unsolicited advice merely draws me into the negativity I’m trying to persuade someone out of. Even when the person’s situation is so bad that it seemingly can’t get any worse, fighting hard to help someone who isn’t willing to help themselves is–like all wars–a struggle lost by both sides.

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  1. Jason says:

    That is the best unsolicited advice I have ever received.

  2. T says:

    Hey Jason, if you voluntarily came to the site, then it actually was solicited advice. Kind of. ;-)

    Great stuff as always.

  3. Excellent — particularly the importance of learning to observe the ego. Thanks!

  4. [...] I found the blog below to be more enlightening on the same subject: [...]

  5. Keith Jemison-Mills says:

    Couldn’t agree more. If I give unsolicited advice I am only feeding my ego and “if you can spot it, you’ve got it”. If I am busy telling you about how angry you are, it’s ‘cos I am too. This always works and I have found great value in keeping my trap shut. I know it’s tempting to get in there and tell someone what they ought to be doing but who am i to judge what they are doing anyway. No, I stay out of giving advice and if I do, it’s in minute amounts. That way they wont be able to blame you if it goes wrong, which is why most people ask for advice in my experience. Great blog. Cheers.

  6. Coco says:

    I don’t know. I came to this site looking for an answer. I suggested that my friend should perhaps try a more natural laundry detergent, as it is healthier for herself and the environment, and that dryer sheets cause cancer, and she blew up at me and called me pretentious. I am not pretentious, I am just trying to help the environment.

    How should we properly help save the planet which is undergoing ecological crisis and not give unsolicited advice? What is right? Should I say nothing and just let it continue? That doesn’t seem better to me. That would mean we should have just not fought for abolishment of slavery or any other human right because we shouldn’t give unsolicited advice. I don’t think that idea works in every case.

  7. [...] Here’s a pretty good article from 30 Sleeps on dealing with unsolicited advice. [...]

  8. I know best! says:

    Thank you for the article.

    I a bit put off by the man-centric lenses, though.

    (”Dude, you have got to dump that b$@%$!”

    “Where’s the best place to meet girls?”)

    I attract a lot of unsolicited advice!

  9. I’m glad they were helpful to me. Thank you for your work. Ill be in touch

  10. bobby says:

    Outstanding article, one of the best that I have read, regardless of subject matter.

    I have this bad habit of giving unsolicited advice; hence, that is why I was searching the net to find opinions on this topic. (I ~wanted~ advice!)

    So thank you for the insight. I learned a lot and hope to refrain from “helping” others when they did not request help.

  11. baidu123 says:

    Of course, what a magnificent website and illuminating posts, I definitely will bookmark your blog.Have an awsome day!

  12. renren876 says:

    I visited a lot of website but I believe this one has something extra in it. Ignorance is the mother of fear. by Harry Homes.

  13. a1338458 says:

    I’ve said that least 1338458 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

  14. Kassi Hartman says:

    You make a lot of wonderful points and I’m glad to read the illustrations of the two different motivations for giving advice. In my experience as a young widow I have found that no matter what the motivation, unsolicited advice is not necessarily correct and often accompanies an assumption on a part of the giver that they know everything about the receiver’s experience of what they are going through. Sometimes the receiver doesn’t take the advice, not because they are obstinate or have to hit rock bottom, but because everyone is different and what helps for one person may not help for another. A lot of advice I do not find universally applicable, no matter how beneficial it may have been to the giver. There are a thousand ways to cope with difficulty, and what may be comfortable for one may not apply to another.

  15. Mila says:

    What I just love is a person who is full of advice and likes nothing better than to rub your nose in what they think would have been a better way. As in grown people who have never had children and have never offered much help with their own elderly relatives. As in people who run to church, but have no need to do a good deed if there is no audience present to witness their good works. What most people need is real physical, get in there, elbow grease help when the pressure is on and the responsibility is as much that advice-giving person’s as it is yours. My telephone will sit it its cradle from now on when advice rings me up.

  16. [...] Here’s a pretty good article from 30 Sleeps on dealing with unsolicited advice. [...]

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