People give a lot of well-meaning advice. Their aim is to help us successfully navigate our way through a challenging situation. Parents who felt they were always held back by the fact that they didn’t finish school will strongly advise their kids to not only finish, but to go on to post-secondary as well. Friends who got ripped off at a store will strongly recommend that you not shop there. Your boy/girlfriend will recommend you taking the job, or class, or vacation that they feel is best. Your friends will even advise you on whether you should continue to date who you’re dating.
But of course all of this advice is from someone else’s perspective. It quietly incorporates their personal skill set. It takes into account their fears, their knowledge, and their abilities. So an extrovert will give an introvert an extrovert’s solution. A strong logical thinker will present a solution that cannot be comprehended by someone who operates purely on instinct. They might mean well giving the advice, but it’s not actually very useful.
If we want to be useful to someone we can listen carefully and ask them some questions or explain how we see things, but we cannot pretend that we could possibly know what the right decision is because there is no such thing. Right and wrong are temporary opinions. You might think leaving this job for that job is a great idea until you find out the secret, ugly dark sides of your new boss. Of maybe you thought at one time that your spouse deciding to end your relationship was the worst thing that ever happened to you, but now you’ve met someone who you’ve come to love and now you’re grateful for that very same breakup.
As Shakespeare said, “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” So if no one can give good or bad advice, why give any at all? To listen and inform is one thing. To discuss the philosophical perspectives from which to make a decision can be worthwhile. But to parachute advice into someone else’s life is to ignore the reality of separate identities. Everyone sees the world and everyone in it in a unique way. Everyone has developed subtly different human skill sets, and each version will offer opportunities and challenges that others do not. This must be respected.
Care about people. Love them. Send positive vibes and good thoughts their way. But don’t tell them what to do unless they ask you—and even then, be careful. When we’re young we spend a lot of time pursuing other people’s ideas of what would be good and right for us and yet most of those are misguided suggestions. It is when we feel we can go in any direction, and when we finally feel comfortable failing, that we can boldly make the choices that are ours and ours alone. When we’re not afraid to be wrong is when we become free to be ourselves.
You don’t have to solve anyone else’s issues. Sometimes you have to just be with someone while they go through something alone. Create a supportive environment for their choices. Let them give themselves their own advice. Because while that may lead them astray as well, at least they will have exercised their right to choose. And at least their own advice takes into account who they are, what they know, and what their resources and values are.
Being successful isn’t about money or power or fame or prestige. Being successful is about enjoying your life and being fulfilled. Because the person who wants for nothing is the richest person of all.
And yes. That was just some advice about not giving advice. 😉
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.