Columns, Opinion

That’s Right, Sir: I need advice, not an answer

Advice is an art. It’s a sport, a talent, a gift. But there’s a fine line between giving someone advice and giving someone an answer. In theory, advice is tailored to the individual and intended to help them get through a problem in a unique, personalized way.

For instance, if someone was up for a new promotion against their best friend, you would structure advice to accommodate for the specific situation and the specific person. It would, therefore, be more complex than simple encouragement, as you have to account for the potential awkwardness of the situation, giving them solutions to prevent any further pain in the encounter.

Answers, on the other hand, are prescribed formulas for how you should treat a situation. For instance, I might tell someone they should talk to a friend about the reasons they desperately want a specific job.

However, this might prove to be an ineffective approach for someone else. Most likely, someone would attempt to give an answer when they have previously been in a similar situation and assume the exact same actions will be successful in another case.

However, instructional, answer-heavy advice can be too specific. This advice is frequently based on isolated accomplishments and one-time anecdotes of triumph. When we give advice, we tend to get caught up in our own experiences and assume that what worked for us will work for another.

Of course, having experience in a situation is very helpful when advising someone, as you can better predict how the situation might play out or help prevent them from making mistakes you might have made. It only becomes a problem when we treat our own successes as a rigid template to follow and prevent another from seeing alternative solutions.

My pregnant hairdresser once wisely told me that she never takes advice from anyone who only has one child, as they often think they know the answers to everything. But when the second kid comes around, everything is completely different. In the same way, no situation will be the same as the last, and we must be wary of phrasing advice as a definite answer.

In college, we have to deal with this a lot. In all the uncertainty of the future, we constantly receive advice, whether we’re seeking it or not. It could be involuntary, as others casually tell us their career paths and the challenges they faced along the way. Or it could be a purposeful, pointed assertion of what works, and what doesn’t. And most of the time, this is helpful.

We are relieved to hear that others were in the same position we are — unsure of what they wanted to do post-graduation, unsure of how to get there and unsure of what they should be prioritizing. It gives us hope that things will eventually work out.

On the other hand, however, it is dangerous to follow in the shadow of someone else. What worked for your parents 30 years ago might not work the exact same way for you. Even what worked for your friend last semester might prove to be inadequate in your current position. It can be stressful to feel like you have to do what someone else did — especially if it worked out for them.

One person might tell you that breaking up with their long-distance boyfriend was the best decision they ever made, but someone else might say that maintaining that kind of relationship was a great decision.

The English-major-turned-doctors might say they were happy with their choice to study literature — despite its irrelevance to their career path — because it gave them some unique experience they would not have gotten otherwise.

But on the other hand, the biology major might tell you the skills they learned in undergrad were invaluable and irreplaceable. You don’t have to follow anyone’s path to a T. It’s helpful guidance and a nice way to put things in perspective, but it doesn’t have to determine the choices you make on your own.

Take the classes you find helpful and engaging, experiment with different passions and maintain appropriate perspective and distance when you take instructional advice. Absorb it, take it in, use it as a reference, but don’t feel discouraged if your own experiences are different. No one has the exact answer, so don’t treat their advice like one.

Comments are closed.