Advice and Advisors

last year


It’s always tricky writing about giving advice; maybe because much of what is said is a writer’s opinion; and anything he recommends is in its way ‘advice’.

So I’ll try to keep a distance from recommendations and stay as strictly and impartially analytical as I am able to be.

Now everyone knows people who give them advice. In ‘Sesame Street’ there’s a guy who groans whenever he meets another couple of guys and whines: ‘Oh no, not you two, you always tell me too much!’

There is a class of person of whom the people I come from described as ‘loving the sound of their own voice’. These are often people who would be likely to offer you unsolicited advice on this that and the other all day long had you the time or patience to stick beside them.

The first rule of giving advice is perhaps never offer it; but advise only when invited to advise. The second rule perhaps is that one should never advise anything which one oneself would not entertain as an option for one’s own life. If we all kept these two basic rules there would be a lot less advice flying about than there is presently.

And the fact that there are many persons who are not keeping these two rules is explanatory of a lot of misconceptions which those same persons espouse about themselves.

When called onto give advice we often like to talk in an ‘advice mode’ whereby we straightaway take the ‘high-ground’ of the situation and set ourselves at the summit as if we are and are able to survey the prospect in its entirety and so are able to sum up what is happening and what the best course might be to lead things to an acceptable resolution. It’s a summit in a land that never was and never will be; it’s an imaginary standing which we have of ourselves in our heads; and we ‘tap into’ it like a trout swoops for an angler’s fly; as if automatically and without realising.

What we are doing in fact is disengaging rather than engaging with the person we are talking with; we lose sight of them as being like we are, a fallible human being, and instead we switch to a tutorial and authoritative approach which opens us up later-on to further reflections and to a chastened repentance further down the road.

People who seek advice are themselves too often looking for receiving more than just advice from an advisor. Too often they are seeking a way out; a means to abjure some responsibility for themselves, and for which it is improper and futile that another should offer to bear, or even believe that they might take such a load upon themselves and for the sake of a friendship or in a misplaced sense of gung-ho or obligation.

Sometimes the person being advised merely wants to air their issues which are causing them anxiety and so the rather is seeking sympathy than any help with a course of action which might help resolve those issues. There are persons indeed who tend to fit like jigsaw pieces together; seekers of advice who fit very nicely into the configuration of many givers of advice; by them being happy to bear a receipt of heaps of advice poured over themselves as from a slurry tipper; and all for the sake of obtaining that few minutes or longer of attention and notice, if not real sympathy, from their advisor.

The temptation is very real; that we as advisors might want to ‘play god’ and so fall into the snare of treating the person we advise as ‘a victim’. And what are the commonplace results of all this?

The advisor offers advice which not even a person who is emotionally secure and not in a quandary, one who is seeing normally, as it were, would see fit to take up were they in such a situation. It can seem so easy to us, for us to believe we are doing ‘the right thing’ and advising ‘the right thing’; it may indeed be ‘the right thing’ when looked at from our own standpoint, which lies outside of and disconnected from, and so unconcerned with, the standpoint of the person in the murky middle of the situation in question and who is being offered advice by us.

‘Ah wad some god the giftie gie us

      To see ourselves as others see us’

The person whom we are advising in such a case most likely is wholly unable to take the advice we might be offering to them; because for them to actually act upon it most likely would either take a superhuman effort which is beyond them in their present state, or else it would presume a certain amount of mental derangement in their state of mind. Perhaps many of us know at bottom, regardless of whether we are advisors or receivers of advice, that the true state of affairs is often the case that the person with the predicament ultimately is the person whom life calls upon to resolve that predicament; and that consequently for another to be the agency of resolution will not and does not and never will work out.

 ‘Heigh ho, this life is most jolly

 Most friendship is feigning most loving mere folly’

In some ways, and as a man of his time, Ludwig Wittgenstein the philosopher could be pretentious in his expression of ideas; although this one of his has such a nice turn of phrase that I am going to indulge myself and use it here:

        ‘Whereof one cannot speak; thereof one should be silent’

The frequent result of this sort of game-play between advisors and advised persons is a build-up of frustrations on either side. The advisor gets frayed because the advised person seems to fail to listen or even to have made the least little attempt to grasp the advice being offered to them; the advised person gets wearied because the advisor keeps on repeatedly saying over and over the same advice; which the advised person doesn’t think is good advice anyway or else in truth just didn’t want advice at all from the outset.

There are some mitigations to be added now and then to this, my quasi-comic and sardonic look at advice and advisors. Exceptions occur whevever an advisor is genuinely expert in the field in which advice is either being sought, or else in a situation where the expert’s advice is sorely needed. When say a technician competent in say electronics is asked by his client to advise on electronics to his client’s benefit; all can be well and, given that the expert does his job well, then no-one gets frustrated and things work out for the general good.

Alas, where a client of an expert does not seek advice at a time and place when it is sorely needed; or else seeks the expert advice but in fact fails to take it, because at bottom he does not want to; in such an event the frustration is all the expert’s burden – until of course the inevitable sh** hits the fan later down the road. But even then in these cases the expert is very often made the scapegoat for the abject failure which follows.

Clients like this are often hopeless dreamers with highflying plans; they are usually clients who want the moon, on a stick, gold-plated; and who harbour no practical ballast in their extensive hopes able to sober their aspirations.

Such clients are likely often and ostensibly to solicit advice but in secret they are hankering after something other than what the best advice can offer; and these are perhaps the worst clients in the world to have to deal with.

        “All lies and jest; still a man hears what he wants

             To hear and disregards the rest la la la…’

Or, as I believe, Margot Asquith once said:

        ‘You can lead a whore to culture

         But you can’t make her think’

I have written elsewhere about The Delphic Oracle and about its message to Socrates the Ancient Athenian philosopher; which nominated him ;’the wisest man in the world’. I have laid out how Socrates set about in modesty to disprove this appellation; only to find that it was in fact the truth.

But as is often the case with Socrates, there is a cute ironic twist to the truth of that nomination.

Socrates had gone all around Athens interviewing men from all walks of life, of high standing and of none; and he came to the conclusion that other men thought that they knew things but it was soon revealed to him that they did not whenever he delved deeper in conversation with them.

Thus Socrates was deemed wisest by The Oracle because he was the one person perfectly aware that he knew nothing.

The exception to this conclusion, and it is one which Socrates makes, is for the tradesmen and skilled workers of Athens; whom he confessed duly and truly did know their various arts; how to make shoes or how to build furniture etc; but he saw clearly that their expert practical knowledge nonetheless was marred by their high assumption that because they knew how to make shoes and build chairs; they believed also that they knew about items of knowledge for which they had in fact no clear and cogent basis. Items such as justice, truth, knowledge.

So, I end now with another quotation, this one from Sir Walter Scott, who when asked to assist a colleague with what we would call today ‘marketing and publicity’ for a book this colleague was publishing, he replied:

          ‘Every herring should hang by its own head’

This, in general, I believe to be good practice.

The original article is located at our anomalist design blog: http://blog.anomalistdesign.com/advice-and-advisors/

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