Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Advice Is Futile

After editing an advice column for two years, I’ve decided that there is no such thing as advice. There are only problems and the ways people handle them. Advice, on the other hand, is when you hear a description of someone else's problem and then tell the person something about yourself. Hopefully whatever you say is funny or interesting, but it has little to do with actually helping anyone. It may seem or feel like it does, but there are always more variables than we'll ever be able to see or understand, and best case scenario you’re pressing on the problem a little bit in a way that engages the problem-haver.

But even though there is no such thing as advice, advice is still a word that means something, so I guess it’s less that advice doesn’t exist and more that it’s a flawed or impossible concept.

Because either the asker doesn't take the advice, since everyone just does what they want or are otherwise going to do anyway, especially if it's cheat on their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, or wives (oh my god, you should see the inbox; at first it was sad but now it's actually kind of comforting that everyone’s the same), which can create a rift between the advice-giver and the advice not-taker. Or they take the advice, except that's not particularly helpful, either, since it strips them of the opportunity to learn the lesson first-hand (presuming there is one), which you already have (again, presumably). And telling someone to trust you blindly can come off as condescending. Or like wrapping a finish-line ribbon around someone’s chest instead of encouraging them to run the race. Kind of. Maybe? I don’t know. More on how little I know in a moment.

And advice columns are like one person handing another an oversized check while giving a thumbs-up for the cameras, but then walking away after the flashbulbs stop, and then it turns out the check is just another piece of unredeemable cardboard. But those photo-op pictures! Everyone loves those pictures. And I don't think I set this up quite right, but those pictures are like advice columns, because people like to hear about other people's problems (appreciate a good photo-op), and then hear what a stranger has to say about them, and then either say something about the problems themselves (i.e. say something about themselves) or move on to the next thing. So ultimately it's a lot of swarming around other people's problems that's been dressed up as well meaning, but is really driven by voyeuristic hunger for reassurance that other people's lives suck, too. Usually, at least. At first I wanted The Hairpin's "Ask a ___" column to be a place for anonymously asking one another answerable questions—why do you sit so weird on the subway, etc.—sort of like passing notes through a wall, but then it became more traditionally advice-oriented, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, although maybe things will shift in the coming year, and I should finish this sentence inside my own head.

I could also just be reeling from the advice I took a few months ago to do this somewhat dramatic thing over text, which I did, and which did not work out so hot, to put it mildly, and which I now think about almost every day. A friend encouraged me to tell someone exactly what I felt about a situation, which seems like maybe the only piece of incontrovertibly useful advice, except texting isn’t really my thing, and what I felt about the situation wasn’t totally nice, and it came to the recipient out of the blue, so it turned into this insane, raw back-and-forth in which all pretenses were dropped and it unexpectedly felt like I was communicating the most nakedly with someone than I maybe have in my entire life. So maybe that’s its own lesson and the advice worked sideways, and in any case I’m grateful for it. Although who knows. Who knows anything? How can anyone even think they know anything? How can anyone think they know enough about anything to tell anyone else what to do? We’re all idiots who know nothing, especially whether other people might actually know something and that it might just be us (me) who’s an idiot, because there doesn’t seem to be a meaningful way to tell, or such a thing as truly right or truly wrong, or good or evil, or objective truth, maybe, probably, I actually have no idea, but maybe if I keep freaking out I’ll levitate upward on this funnel of flustered apology! Also please submit questions to!

Also by this author: Letters to the Editors of Women's Magazines (the very first one!)

Edith Zimmerman edits The Hairpin.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

Paul B@twitter (#13,135)

Thanks for that! It's always seemed to me that there are only two answers to advice queries anyway: 1) That sucks but it'd probably best to talk to the people involved instead of sending a letter to a stranger. Or 2) That sucks but you should probably never talk to those people again because they're bad for your health and it's time to move on. Followed by the rest you said about people just doing what they're gonna do anyway.

fried mars bar (#3,055)

@Paul B@twitter There's also "Maybe you should talk to a therapist about this stuff" and "No, *you're* the one being an asshole in this situation" (only in advice columns).

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@fried mars bar Also, "This person is almost certainly an alcoholic."

finguns (#16,217)

@Paul B@twitter Which is funny, because I think there are probably only two responses to the advice by the querier: 1) That's exactly the course of action I was thinking about taking, so glad you agree; or 2) You didn't counsel me to take the course of action I wanted to take, which means you obviously didn't understand all the facts about my situation and how wronged/passionate/happy/sad/betrayed/whatever I am, therefore I will disregard your advice.

"[M]aybe if I keep freaking out"… something good will happen. Eventually, something good will happen.

Jane Donuts (#2,857)

As a classic overthinker (I assume 99% of Awl readers are too), I sometimes agonize so intensely over a decision that I become completely out of touch with my gut, and with what I want to do in general for reasons that go beyond reason and mostly have to do with intuition and desire. And it can take someone telling me what I should do to remind me of where I stand. Like I need to have advice so that I can feel my own reaction to it, because that's the only way for me to really know what I truly want. And that's why I like to read advice columns. They help me understand what I think.

Edith Zimmerman (#5,210)

@Jane Donuts I hear that! My problem — although I'm still not convinced it's a problem, although it's bitten me in the ass so many times — is that I try to imagine what the other person is thinking, and then try to imagine what they think I'm thinking, and then what they think that I'm thinking that they're thinking, all without ever asking them, and act accordingly … and it's all in the name of theoretical thoughtfulness, except after the first degree of imagination, it usually becomes nonsense that exists only in my head, and builds on itself further and further away from reality.

This is like getting a peek into John "A Beautiful Mind" Nash's thought process.

bananalise (#13,738)

@Jane Donuts So true. That is exactly why I like flipping a coin. Seeing a choice made for me–even if I don't go with it in the end– recalibrates my gut reaction to RELIEF! or AAH! NO! rather than sifting through the endless nuances of potential outcomes. Aaaand after typing this out I'm going to take my own advice and apply it to my current existential crisis. ["something about myself"]

Leon (#6,596)

@Jane Donuts – I remember once when I was a little kid, my parents asked me if I wanted to go spend a week with my dad's "Aunt and Uncle" (relatives nobody even remembered exactly how we were related to, because we were that kind of hillbilly).

I wanted to say "No thanks, I'd rather ride bikes in the Mennonite Church parking lot with my friends and hunt crayfish in the crick," because I was that kind of hillbilly. But something in me knew that I was going to be say yes. I don't know why. I just kind of…knew it.

And so I thought it over in my head, trying to weigh pros and cons, you know, they did let me eat fried food whenever I wanted, and I did enjoy playing backgammon and learning about how to fix old cuckoo clocks and tend to cornstalks too. And I thought, and I thought, and I thought. And I went.

And I realized, you know, why did I waste all that time thinking? That was an afternoon I could have been down in the crick flipping over rocks and getting my fingers bit by ornery crayfish.

Now, every time one of my overthinker friends starts to ask me for advice on a situation, I let them start. I ask them a couple pro & con questions. As they start to answer them, before they get far at all I cut them off.

"Hold up – before you answer me, what do you think you're going to do?" They answer. "Well," I say, "how about you just do that? I mean, look, you know you. You've been you for a long time now. You might as well just do it, you know you're going to."

I mean, life isn't a math problem, ya know? You're not going to keep working it over and get to a right answer. I can't think of a single time in my life I thought for a really long time and then figured out the right thing to do. Meanwhile, the crayfish are just swimming around, completely uncaptured.

But that overthink tendency never really goes away, so what I've done is devote all of that time to thinking about how things went after the fact. Hindsight being 20/20 and all (I thought for a really long time that that phrase meant that people were really awesome at looking at butts and seeing them clearly, but missing all of the other details, cuz who can think when a cute butt of a gender they like to look at is around?) the post-game breakdowns have helped to prep my mind for future "non-thinking" – I can't change who I am at the time of decision, so I just use that weird "Hmmm. I wonder if that was right," moment of reflection at the end for making a new me. Plus, it gives me something to mull over when I roll up my jeans and root around in the crick.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Jane Donuts I've dealt with my share of intelligent, educated people with permanently screwed up "gut". They say things like "I'm smart when it comes to help others, but for some reason I just can never help myself". The fact is, they are smart in both cases, and can help in neither. I think that smart people can be sub-divided into good and bad decision makers, and the bad ones can be lumped with the dummies for all intents and purposes, except for when you are in the mood for analysis for the sake of analysis (which I'm in the mood for less often than I'm for just letting my brain rest while monkeying around like a dummie).

Jane Donuts (#2,857)

@Leon So you're able to just make a decision and go with it now? That's actually impressive. I can do that with some things, but for the big ones, I'm sort of trapped in that pattern. I attribute this to massive insecurity and a deep level of distrust in my own gut, so…maybe I should work on that. :)

Jane Donuts (#2,857)

@Niko Bellic Yeah, it's the gut. One of my favorite lines from High Fidelity (the movie, I actually haven't read the book), was when the John Cusack character recaps his romantic history and then is like, "I'm beginning to think my guts are full of shit." That's basically how I feel, so maybe I fall into the category of bad decision makers? Can that be cured? That's what the agonizing is all about.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Jane Donuts I think it can be cured, provided that you go through the type of experiences that would have such an effect on you (and provided that you are the type of a person on whom experiences have effects, because many people are not). But yeah, mere advice certainly will not help.


Leon, you wonderful person, it's time for you to write a column. Your entire comment notwithstanding.

charlsiekate (#231,720)

In the past few years, I've noticed that my my friends who seek my advice are looking for two things. They want ressurance (other people have been there too, it wasn't all your fault, it's going to be okay, you are a fantastic person and this are all the reasons I love you and you are loveable) and then they want the bottom line.
They want the situation boiled down to as few questions as possible.

And the questions depend on the situation, but are always fairly generic.

Is it worth it to you? Can you live with these consequences? Is this decision going to matter a year from now? In light of x,y,and z, can you accept a, b, and c? Can you let go of the past and move forward? Can you accept this other person as they are and not as you wish they were? What are your motivations? Are you ready to do the work to see this through?

Maybe I need a flow chart.

Vicki Brown@twitter (#240,511)

@charlsiekate that sounds like an awesome flow-chart.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"at first it was sad but now it's actually kind of comforting that everyone’s the same"

As are you and I, apparently, since I said (pretty much) the same thing the other week in "On The Year In Cheating" comments: "If I can't make my sob story be non-sob, I'll take it being non-mine!"

Many of us grow up being told (and/or thinking) that we are special and unique, but that's a horrible way to prepare for life's inevitable hardships. Almost none of us are special (maybe a handful in a billion are), and realizing that actually makes it a lot easier to deal with shit.

british petroleum (#214,899)

I actually had a very similar situation this year, although maybe the reverse? I was convinced that I absolutely had to tell a friend what I felt about something important in her life. Thankfully, another friend (not mutual) sat me down and told me there was no way I could insert my pretty insignificant opinion into someone's important life decision completely unprompted. No good could possibly come from it. And she was right. Because honestly, as Edith said, what the hell do I know? It's not my life. I was afraid, though, that keeping my secret opinion would somehow rot the friendship, and we'd just grow apart.

But it turned out there was a third way, which was an honest conversation with her about stuff that I do have a stake in, namely our friendship, and things that were eating at me about it. I don't know. I often question other people's motivations, when it's my own need the most interrogation. In other words, to bring it back to another great essay from today, why are you doing this?

queensissy (#1,783)

Bring back Ask A Pigeon, please!

brad (#1,678)

"…and I should finish this sentence inside my own head."

i find myself flowing towards this seemingly inevitable silence. i don't know anything, and my clumsy attempts at communication- something i once thought myself good at- are pathetic. realizing now that the only reason i found myself so fascinating and my words so compelling is that i have a profoundly immense depth of trivial knowledge. and no one needs/wants to hear that. so i'm quiet. and my wife thinks i've suffered a stroke, or am harboring a horrible secret. so i can't really stay quiet because home life will become more awkward and i don't want to talk because i'm a moron. it's kind of funny.

City_Dater (#2,500)

The answer to anything that is bothering anyone is probably never going to be "send a text about it."

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@City_Dater This goes along with my rule: Besides meetup time/place texts, only text in a playful/happy/funny tone. And sarcasm cannot be dry, must be obvious. It's not that easy to follow, but helps me stop myself from getting into misunderstandings and text fights that are mostly a thing of the past.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

I'm going to compile a list of unanswerable questions now because I like the idea of reverting to a less serious advice column. I don't care whether anything comes of it, but Inconsequential Advice sounds nice and carefree. Question 1: Why do I feel obligated to slice an apple if I'm going to eat it inside but just chomp right into a whole apple, no prob, when I'm walking down the city street? I've always been bad at real etiquette that people actually notice, and I don't think I have OCD, but partial-OCD? Can you have a mild case of OCD? (Uh oh, I'm coming up with a legit question.) Is something wrong with me?!?!

theharpoon (#10,705)

@whizz_dumb Or, why does my mom cut kitchen sponges in half to make tiny kitchen sponges for dish-washing, and why do I do this too??

boozinsusan (#231,899)

@theharpoon Oh, well your mom's habit actually sounds super reasonable. Kitchen sponges get gross within a few weeks and become great habitats for bacteria, so why not double the life of a sponge (and avoid one of the horrors of earthly existence, having your hands smell like old decayed food after dishwashing)? Unless you'd rather, you know, just buy two sponges instead of one.

@boozinsusan Half-size sponges are for cleaning inside drinking glasses? I don't know; they're useful.

revengeofpompom (#240,509)

If it's some consolation, last year The Hairpin published a question of mine in one of the advice columns and I got really helpful, practical advice. Perhaps it's because my question concerned techniques for communicating with my mother, so I got a lot of concrete, "hey, here's what worked for me in a similar situation" type responses, many of which seem to have ultimately derived from techniques those commenters had learned from their therapists. So, it was kind of a crowdsourcing experiment, I guess, and it worked for the problem I was trying to address.

revengeofpompom (#240,509)

@revengeofpompom Which also reminds me, why don't you all do a follow-up with some of the advice-requesters? I was thinking about this just this morning because I was searching past Hairpin advice columns about the decision to get married and came across one that was really a propos to me, wherein the advice-requester's boyfriend had promised they'd get married in the future but he wasn't ready to commit to it yet ("The Promise Ring" column). And in the comments, a lot of people responded with "oh he just doesn't want to marry you," which was sad, but then I tracked down the advice-requester's comment history and lo and behold she and her BF have indeed gotten married recently. So, that was a nice post script, as well as validated her own observations, in her advice-seeking letter and in the comments to it, that the situation was kind of nuanced and her BF was just struggling. Annnnyway, how about some follow-ups?

finguns (#16,217)

@revengeofpompom This is what I was logging on to say. I feel like a lot of times when someone asks for advice, they really just want a chance to justify their choice to an audience. Even though you're going to tell them 100 times your advice would be not to cheat on their significant other, they are going to counter with 101 reasons why they should or at least why it's ok if they already did. Which leaves you either 1) the asshole who didn't believe all their reasons so they did it anyway or 2) the asshole who kept them from a once in a life opportunity with your bad advice that went against their gut instinct.

But, the older I get, the more I realize the benefits of crowdsourcing the kind of advice that is more information-seeking about life experiences. The sort of "I've never been cheated on/cheated on anyone/wanted to get married/ gotten married/gotten divorced/ had a baby/bought a house/etc. and I was wondering . . ." questions that draw out other people's experiences and give you perspectives and information you didn't have before.

Also, I'm not sure but I have a feeling I remember your question because I think your issues with your mom were very similar to my sister-in-law's, and I forwarded her the whole comment thread and she found it very helpful. I hope you've had some success in your relationship with your mom!

british petroleum (#214,899)

@finguns All hail Quora. I could spend hours on that site without realizing it.

revengeofpompom (#240,509)

@finguns I have — thanks!

boozinsusan (#231,899)

@revengeofpompom Hey, thanks for being a sleuth and tracking down what happened with that couple! I'm actually surprised they got married (because I'd been swayed by many of the comments).

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I need some advice. Should I fruitlessly beg Edith to write more "Letters to the Editors of Women's Magazines" or just let them be this awesome thing that exists and enjoy them as that?

kittennnnns (#240,512)

@stuffisthings Letters to the Editors of Women's Magazines is what originally made me a daily Hairpin reader. I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe. I NEVER LAUGH OUT LOUD AT STUFF ON THE INTERNET. I would give up cheese for a month if these became a semi-regular thing again. PLEASE EDITH PLEASE

theharpoon (#10,705)

@kittennnnns Will you send your extra cheese to Edith though?

Vicki Brown@twitter (#240,511)

Often when I have a dilemma, I find I think around and around in the same circles so much, it's hard to get off that path. Sometimes the value in the advice isn't even so much what it says, but just the ability to look at it a little more objectively; I'll be going backwards and forwards between options A and B, feeling totally trapped in between, and I won't have even considered option C or D. Or even option E which is just making it up as you go along. And sometimes, perhaps tragic as it is, you just need someone to say "your feelings/opinions matter too". I'm worrying about what everyone else will think/say/do so much, I give no value to what I *want* to do.

I think this is why good advice columns feel universal – the situations aren't, but the decision-making patterns and problems are.

spuntino (#240,522)

Can we all just agree that advice-reading is way more about audience than advice-seeker? I read Hairpin/Billfold/Dear Abby/Savage Love columns just to convince myself that "yes, i am human"/"yes, your habits are normal"/"no you're not alone" etc etc etc?

ennaenirehtac (#11,592)

I unabashedly love advice columns. They're like the barest bones of narrative arcs: setting ("My boyfriend is perfect…"), conflict ("..except for one thing…"), a fun little cliffhanger ("…what should I do?"), and then a resolution created and guided by the mores of the time ("open relationship!" "dump him!" etc.). And then the commenters weigh in with choose-your-own-adventure alternate endings.

As in traditional narrative, some advice givers (Sugar, Polly), transcend the plot to bring it to the level of poetry. Others act as more satisfying on a working-the-kinks-out level. What's not to love?

Steve Errey@twitter (#240,542)

Left to their own devices, people will always do what's easiest, which is normally the thing they've been doing.

In that respect, yep, advise is about as useful as a tit on a fish.

But what if that advice was framed in a way that gave rise to a new thought in the brain of the recipient?

What if that "advice" triggered an individual to create a new thought that they owned, that perhaps even lead to new new behaviour?

*That's* useful.

You could have written "Don't ever give advice", which would, of course, have been a piece of advice. Instead, what you've done is to give some background, reached something of a personal conclusion and challenged the reader with a heap of questions that's got us all thinking.

New thinking is never futile.

Thanks so much for this…and thanks to Andrew Sullivan for posting about it. This has been a real gut check for me. I've always thought of myself as someone good at giving advice. Now I realize I might just be humoring myself and blowing a lot of smoke. So, I've blogged about it because I want to know. Perhaps I need to, as my grandmother used to tell me, spend twice as much time listening as talking. Hmm…

Maud Newton (#600)

So true!: "Advice columns are like one person handing another an oversized check while giving a thumbs-up for the cameras, but then walking away after the flashbulbs stop, and then it turns out the check is just another piece of unredeemable cardboard." (Though I did actually draft a question to Polly — a first. Prolly won't sent it, but it's sitting there in case of emergency.)

JT@twitter (#243,727)

I'm late to the party here, but I think the point you are making here is that we're all "wearing the juice" (if you haven't read the paper [], it's truly fascinating). It's a terrible realization at first, but once you get used to the idea that we're all complete morons (a fact that is made even more apparent when we foist our idiocy upon others), it removes a tremendous weight from our shoulders…or it did for me, anyway.

As proof of me still being completely covered in the juice, I still give unsolicited advice to anybody who is foolish enough to tell me about their problems.

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