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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