Bad advice

“A word to the wise ain’t necessary – it’s the stupid ones that need the advice.”

Bill Cosby

For someone who talks, moves and thinks fairly quickly, I have what is apparently either an annoying or trust-inspiring (depending on who you ask) habit of pausing, sometimes for what is clearly an uncomfortable period of time, before answering when I’m asked a question. (A real question. I can come back to queries like “how are you?” and “what did you have for lunch?” in record time.)

When the pause occurs, if the person asking the question is under 30, they usually repeat or reword their inquiry, thinking that at my age, either I didn’t hear them or I’m too senile to comprehend. Let’s put that aside. Those who are mature enough to realize that at 52, I’m neither of those things, tend to wait, expectantly, thinking that I’m coming up with a real doozy of a response. But clearly the look of sage wisdom that draws over my countenance during these pauses (which are in truth to stop me from blurting out something I may regret later) have given me a much unwanted reputation—that I am a deep thinker and should be consulted for advice.

I hate giving advice. Mainly because I don’t want to be on the hook for someone else’s bad decisions. I’m ok—grudgingly—with the easy stuff. Do these shoes go with this skirt? Have you tried the chili here? Should I take an umbrella? Nothing there to get me in trouble. But ask me a question about what you should do about your finances, your health, your relationships, your career or anything that might have a lasting impact on your life and trust me, that studied pause is going to go on for a very long time. Until I wear you down.

My aversion to giving advice no doubt has its roots in the fact that I detest being given advice. The unwanted kind in particular and since I seldom go looking for it, that’s the kind I usually get. I figure unless you can get inside my head and look around, unless know my ultimate intentions, you simply don’t have enough information to offer direction.

Take yesterday in the grocery store. I was struggling to dump a cart near the closest row of same and had some trouble lining things up. The very helpful woman ahead of me grabbed my cart away from the row I was aiming at and steered it to the side. I guess she thought I was stuck as opposed to merely clumsy. But her help and advice meant I had to wheel up to the next row of carts at the other side of the store, while balancing three heavy bags in my other hand. Thanks. For nothing. The thing is, she thought she knew what I wanted. She assumed she and I were on the same page, wanted the same result. But she wasn’t inside my head. She didn’t know my goal, so how could she really be of any help.

Granted, that’s a tiny thing. I survived the extra walk and so did my groceries. But it’s a compact example of how we’re often the recipients of help and advice we don’t need. (Although if she’d been around and willing to down hold the guy who hit me three times with his carry-out bins—hip recycler that he was—while I gave him what for, she’d have had a friend for life.)

Have you ever noticed too, that when you announce a plan that might go beyond the status quo, there’s always someone there to advise you of the evils waiting to snare you? Theirs is a litany of both the most obvious pitfalls and totally unlikely outcomes. I think it’s their way of warning you not to reach beyond their comfort zone. Happens all the time and it’s damaging if you take heed. It’s a subtle way of killing greatness.

But I think the nth degree of unwanted, unnecessary advice comes via the media. When I sit down to watch the news, I want to see the news. I want to know what my city hall is doing, where my taxes are being spent, I even want to know about a horrible accident on the highway or a big fire or what the bank robber caught in the security camera looks. But lately—and I have been taking notice—the news has been less about the news and more about what I should and shouldn’t do. I shouldn’t drink soda because it will make me fat. I shouldn’t spend more than what I make because debt is bad. I should remember to take my prescriptions with me if I go on a trip. If a African prince in hiding sends me an email requesting my bank account number, I shouldn’t give it to him.

Seriously media people, how stupid do you think we really are? If I don’t already know these things, then I’m probably not bright enough to turn on the TV, so any further advice would be lost on me.

What occurs to me is that advice is, at its root, about control. Do this, don’t do that. I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Do you really think that’s a good idea? In the face of this constant instruction, my inner 13-year-old is screams, “Don’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me.” In fact, I’ve decided that the only advice worth taking is from British writer Gilbert K. Chesterton, who said.

“I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”



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