How to be a really nice personAt the church I attend, it is not uncommon to hear the ministers–either from the pulpit or in counsel–talk about how they don’t believe in giving advice. I remember feeling confused the first time I heard that. Isn’t that part of the pastoral ticket, to point your flock to the promised land? To sit amongst suffering people and provide words of wisdom to help them move on? To indicate the blind spots along the “road of life”? To say you’re against giving advice–even unsolicited advice–is like saying you don’t know how to do your job, or that you don’t care.

There are certainly no shortages of advice-givers in our lives, anyway. From friends and mothers and the media, we all find ourselves getting tips on the things we ought to check out, on outcomes that could be different, on forks in that same life-road we may not have even known existed.

As much as we receive unsolicited advice, we also love to give it. And we love to give it because it provides us with something to offer in the times of “sighs greater than words.” When our loved ones suffer or feel lost, our words of wisdom allow us an “out” from sharing in their plight. We shine our light from the shore. It helps us feel we’re helping.

I remember thinking my ministers were wrong, or a little extreme, but I don’t anymore. Experience has told me, on both sides of the advice interchange, that it rarely changes minds. More often than not, when we want advice, we want acquittal. We want permission to say “yes” to the wrong fit, to continue along the way we’ve already decided to go. We want the green light. And, as Joe Queenan writes in the Wall Street Journal, even when we take advice that works, we’re much too wired for self-congratulation to remember who got us there. Our addiction to advice, and our aversion to it, is our strongest indicator that we are insufficiently self-made.

A few weeks ago, a neighbor I like very much came over for coffee. While inspecting the vast record and compact disc collection that takes up a large part of my living room, he suggested that I load all my CDs onto a server to clear away the clutter. He also said that I should convert my LPs to MP3 files and get wireless speakers installed in every room. I said thanks, those are really great suggestions. But I am never going to do any of this stuff.

My wife is always telling me that yoga will help relieve the pain in my lower back. She is almost certainly right. Yoga would probably be an immense help to my aching lower back. But I am never going to a yoga class.

201301-orig-self-help-3-284x426People say that a man my age should be looking into annuities. Down the road, I won’t want to deal with the stock market’s volatility. They’re probably on to something there. A steady stream of income would make a lot more sense than a portfolio filled with volatile equities. But I am never going to purchase an annuity.

Prompted by the unsolicited comments about my record collection, I got to thinking about the last time I had taken anyone’s advice about anything. I couldn’t remember. It was certainly far in the past. Maybe when I was a kid hitchhiking at night and a trucker told me to stop accepting rides. At night. From truckers.

Mostly, I could only remember advice I had ignored. Don’t give up a great job. Don’t give up another great job. Stop giving up great jobs, period. And don’t write for right-wing publications; you’ll be slitting your own throat. I did not take any of this advice. The very nature of advice makes me avoid it.

Alan Goldberg, a Philadelphia-based psychologist who plays guitar in the rock ‘n’ roll band we recently disinterred after 43 years of well-advised inactivity, puts it this way: “When somebody says, ‘You should do something,’ the subtext is: ‘You’re an idiot for not already doing it.’ Nobody takes advice under those conditions.” Many people would rather be thought of as an idiot than do something they don’t want to do. If someone suggests getting a high-paying job with Morgan Stanley when what you really want to do is to organize a peasant’s revolt in the Yucatán, their advice, though judicious, is useless. Success on anyone’s terms other than your own is failure.

The U.S. is addicted to advice. Americans honestly believe that someone out there knows how to fix all our problems. Maybe Oprah. Maybe Dr. Phil. Maybe Barack Obama. Maybe Ayn Rand. Newspapers, magazines and television are filled with advice about health, finances, raising children, dieting. Don’t smoke. Don’t text on I-95. Don’t allow your teenage son Vlad to disappear into his bedroom for the next decade. Exercise 30 minutes a day. Never buy stocks from men wearing ostrich-skin shoes. Why, then, are so many of us miserable, bankrupt, overweight chain smokers with horrible, illiterate kids? The advice was out there.

A major part of the Internet’s appeal is the immediate availability of useful advice on virtually any topic. (Well, that and the free porn.) If people have the right information in their hands, the Web’s early evangelists proclaimed, they will make the right decisions. Things haven’t worked out the way they hoped. People still smoke. People still text while driving. People still vote Republican.

…Confirmation bias rules here: I will ask for your advice and continue to ask for it until you finally tell me that the stupid, counterproductive thing I have already decided to do shows that I possess the wisdom of Solomon. Please tell me that drinking even more tequila will make be a better poet. Please tell me that frequenting a bar where gangsters hang out is a good idea. Please tell me that, on balance, retiring to Bogota will probably give me the best bang for my buck. Asking for advice is a form of thinking out loud, except that it involves no thought.

Learned-OptimismAdvice comes in many sizes and shapes. Typical is nonexistent third-party advice, where one pretends that one is seeking advice for an unidentified friend. “I have a friend who gets drunk and wrecks speedboats every summer,” the person says. “But he’s too shy to ask for advice about changing his behavior. Got any ideas?”

There is also Polonius-style advice (“A word to the wise”; “Take it from one in the know”; “Mark my words, young lady”), vicarious advice (“Now, if I were in your shoes”), retroactive advice (“If you’d only asked me, I could have told you that pit bulls and Shih Tzus don’t mix”) and morally ambivalent advice (“Go ahead and take your kids swimming with sharks in the Maldives—see if I care”). Schadenfreudic advice overlaps with cracker-barrel medical advice in statements such as, “Have you thought about a rhinoplasty?” and “If I were you, I’d try liposuction—but then again, I’m not 200 pounds overweight.”

How many of us take advice? I polled my friends, asking if they took advice, solicited advice, gave advice. I also asked when was the last time they’d followed anybody’s advice. No one had the answers at their fingertips. Most said that they hated being asked for advice because if the decision to take that job or marry that sociopath went south, they would get the blame. As for when they last took advice, just about everyone said, “I’ll have to think about that one.” Most of them are still thinking.

Seeking advice you have no intention of following is a time-honored American tradition. It’s a compulsory exercise before getting to the main event: doing something unbelievably stupid. It’s a way of putting a patina of intelligence on a foolish, impulsive decision, making it seem like one iota of thought actually went into the decision to marry a woman named Galactica or invade Russia.

A similar dynamic is at work when one decides to make a sudden, life-altering and potentially disastrous career choice. You have already decided to do something self-destructive, but you want to feel good about it. So you get your conscience off your back by soliciting opinions from those in the know: well-traveled solons, revered village elders, sage guidance counselors. One of them suggests going to law school. Another says to open a trendy bistro in Brooklyn. Still another says to switch jobs and retrain as a speech therapist.

But you have already decided to take a job as the night manager in a Transvaal bordello, so the advice these people give you was never under serious consideration. It’s the equivalent of sealed municipal construction bids: You already know that you’re going to give the contract to the mafia, but you solicit a bunch of other bids just to make it look good.

…Good advice, once taken, is not eternally treasured. Sooner or later, if you give a person a piece of breathtakingly good advice that changes their lives—say, by persuading them to stop dating Iraqi tank commanders—they will come back to punish you for it. If you tell someone to quit a job, sell a condo, write a book, make a movie, ditch a girlfriend or buy Apple at $7, and the decision turns out to be the right one, the day will come when your friend will not only deny that you ever gave them that advice but will spread rumors that you actually gave them exactly the opposite advice because you are an envious, brain-dead schmuck. Sooner or later, everyone wants to be a self-made man or woman.