I don't think I've ever done this before.... reprint someone else's column. But this is just sooooo "rich" and does relate to the plethora of incredible unsolicited
advice routinely dispensed on this website. This appeared in the Feb 7 WSJ (Albert, that means Wall Street Journal!).
It is long (2,300 words) but many of you, like me, are stuck at home today looking out the window yelling "MELT DAMNIT MELT". So it's not like you have much else to do. Enjoy: A Word of Advice... on Advice
A Word of Advice … on Advice
Americans are addicted to advice. Joe Queenan
asks: So why are we still so screwed up?
February 7, 2014 Joe Queenan--- WSJ-
---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.
People 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 or a McClatchy newspaper or WRAL
; 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. Maybe BobLee and AgentPierce !!.
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 ....or worship Bill Barber and Obama
"If diet books worked, why are there eight new dieting books each year?" asks a veteran of the magazine world. He was once told that 50% of the people who read fitness magazines never actually exercise. Buying a fitness magazine is like buying new workout clothing: It's a step in the right direction. This is what most advice-seeking is: a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it just happens to be the opposite direction from the one in which the advice-seeker is headed.
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.
Advice 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.
Because I have grown children who aren't doing time and a car that runs, I am often asked for advice. I am constantly being approached by people who say, "You seem to know the ropes around here." I do. Or: "Now, you're a man of the world." I am. As such, I ceaselessly give advice to those who aren't men of the world, those who don't know the ropes. Rarely do they take the advice offered.
This is unfortunate, because the kernels of wisdom I have imparted over the years are boundless in their prescience, inexhaustible in their utility, unparalleled in their obviousness. I tell parents to only take their kids on one or two college visits, not 15, because a wider range of choices simply confuses neurotics. They say that's a great idea. Then they go out and visit 15 colleges.
I tell people to immediately report vexatious neighbors to the police so that when they finally shoot their dog or key their Hummer, an extensive paper trail will document the neighbor's previous transgressions. They never call the cops. I tell people to not let their daughters move into that building on that street in that neighborhood. They sign the lease the very next day. I tell morose retirees to avoid seeing a French movie about an octogenarian who ends up suffocating his dementia-ridden wife. A week later, they tell me, "Wow! Was that French film ever depressing!"
I tell my Rubenesque friends that if they want to look more like svelte Giacometti figures, they should stop eating ice cream. A mad stampede to the fridge ensues. I tell people that if they want to stop being angry all the time, they should stop listening to sports talk radio. "You know, you're right," they say. "Those guys are morons." And then they go back to listening to…sports talk radio.
Obviously, not all advice is equally useful. Advice untethered from a strategy for implementing it is feckless, merely annoying. It doesn't do any good to tell people with back problems to lose weight. They know that. They read that somewhere. Telling fat people that they should stop patronizing Mrs. Fields is like telling poor people to stop being poor. This is not really a lifestyle decision. This is the way things are.
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.
The human mind has the remarkable ability to suppress painful memories; otherwise none of us could go on. Think of Chernobyl. The Carter administration. John Tesh at Red Rocks.
As I delved deeper into the layers of my psyche, I finally unearthed a piece of advice I had actually taken: to hold back both my kids one year in kindergarten, to "give them the gift of time." The kids never forgave us. I still bolt the bedroom door at night when they visit, waiting for them to slit our throats. Why shouldn't they? Holding them back, separating them from their peer groups at a pivotal age, was the kind of cretinous advice that gives cretins a bad name. No wonder I have so much time remembering the last time I listened to anybody.
At some level people know that, unless the good word comes from McKinsey or Warren Buffett, most off-the-cuff advice is useless. Consider, for example, people who poke you in the chest and say, "A word to the wise." This expression makes no sense. If you are already wise, why would you need a word from anybody? It should be: a word from the wise. This is the whole problem. The word never comes from the wise. It always comes from an idiot.
One friend, a sociologist, suggested that a lot of people ask for advice because "It's the only way of remaining in your social circle, getting you to take their calls." In this sense, advice-seeking is a futile but emotionally rewarding social activity, like belonging to a Scottish Country Dancing club.
"You have to think of advice-seeking in a wider social context," says my daughter Bridget, who is getting her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Georgetown. "Asking for advice is a way of engaging with other people, interacting with other people, while simultaneously putting off a difficult decision. But it's also a way of spreading responsibility so that if things go south you have other people to blame."
This is the conclusion reached in a paper called "Taking Advice: Accepting Help, Improving Judgment and Sharing Responsibility" by Nigel Harvey and Ilan Fischer that appeared in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 1997. The more important a decision, they found, the more likely advice-seekers were to seek advice, thereby distributing the responsibility. For example, if you were going to arbitrarily close several lanes of the world's busiest bridge for a few days just to get back at a political rival, you might want to sound out a few colleagues before doing so. If only so they could take most of the heat. Or tell you, "No, I don't think that's such a good idea."
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.
I am not a self-made man. Thirty-three years ago, when I was going broke writing lighthearted satirical fiction, an editor at the Kansas Quarterly told to stop sending my stuff to literary magazines like the Kansas Quarterly—because it was slick and commercial and they hated it—and to try getting published by the mainstream press. I did. I might have done that anyway, but I still think of that note as the advice that changed my life. The editor didn't sign his or her name, and I never bothered to find out who he or she was. In other words, I took a piece of unsolicited and not particularly flattering advice from a complete and utter stranger, and it totally changed my life, and I never even bothered to thank them.
In my defense, the note was a rejection slip.
writes the Moving Targets column in the Journal. His most recent book, "One for The Books," was published in paperback by Penguin in October.
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PS: To those of you absolutely convinced "Last night's UNC v Duke postponement was a Krzyzewskian Conspiracy...." get a Post-It note and write "I Am An Idiot" and stick it on your forehead. Granted, most people who know you probably already know that.
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