Good Advice: Never Give Any To Anybody

ALICE STEINBACH

January 12, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

So here we are, well into the second week of 1992, and here's my question to you: Is it too late for me to make a New Year's resolution?

No? Well, then, here it is: I resolve to never, ever give advice to anyone again for as long as I live. I further resolve to never break this rule no matter how pathetically someone begs or pleads for my advice.

There. I feel better already. In fact, I feel so good that my advice to you -- oops, I mean, my suggestion to you -- is to consider making the same resolution.

It's been building for a long time, this idea of removing myself from the advice business. But over the holidays it became clear that I could no longer put it off. Everyone I knew, it seemed, was in need of some bit of advice or another.

The problem with giving advice, of course, is that no one really wants to hear it, much less take it:

Son: "Mom, should I get my hair cut really short or leave it the way it is?"

Me, cautiously: "Well, I think really short hair would look great on you."

Son: "I knew it. I knew my hair looked awful this way."

Next case.

Friend who is thinking about changing careers: "So what do you think? Is it a mistake for me to make the move?"

Me, cautiously: "I think you'd really enjoy the work and do it well."

Friend: "In other words, you think I've been in the wrong field all along."

And so it went during the holidays. A small but steady stream of people asking for and then rejecting my advice. Which led me to this conclusion: When people ask for your advice, it's a trap. Avoid it. That's my advice -- suggestion -- to you.

And don't bother to write and tell me the fault lies in the way I dispense my advice. Over the years, I have paid my dues. Advice-wise, that is. As a parent I left no avenue unexplored in seeking productive ways to dispense advice to my children.

When they were young, for example, I came up with the idea of disguising the advice in a parable or allegory.

Son: "Mom, why do all the other kids in fourth grade have good ideas for their science class diorama but I don't? What should I do?"

Me: "Son, I want to tell you a little story about Albert Einstein. Someone once asked this man -- who was responsible for so many great discoveries -- where he got all his ideas. 'The truth is,' he replied, 'I've only had one or two good ideas in my lifetime.' "

Son: "So you're saying that Einstein is smarter than me."

Not long after this exchange I switched to the "fortune cookie" approach to advice-giving.

"Turn your stumbling blocks into stepping stones," I said when asked for advice on how to make the baseball team.

"Strong people are made by opposition -- like kites that go up against the wind," I advised in the face of an algebra catastrophe.

As the kids moved into adolescence, I gave advice through the use of famous-people quotes.

When, for instance, advice was solicited on how to correct a slumping social life, I quoted Yogi Berra, who advised his slumping batters: "Swing at the strikes."

This method worked well until the kids reached high school and discovered "Bartlett's Book of Quotations." There followed a pretty bad spell as they decided to fight fire with fire.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work," I advised, quoting Thomas Edison.

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes," they countered, quoting Oscar Wilde.

Maybe it's my imagination, but when I was growing up, kids seemed to listen to what adults told them. My Aunt Claire's advice, for instance, to "always wear clean underwear in case you're hit by a car and have to go to the hospital" has never left me.

But that was then and this is now. And, as I said, I've given up the advice thing. There will be lapses, I'm sure. Why, just a few minutes ago, a colleague asked my advice on finding a street in the city that is unfamiliar to him. Forgetting that I don't give advice anymore, I quoted Yogi Berra: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there."

By the way, since I'm no longer in the advice business, I'd like to make a gift of a piece of advice I'd been saving up to use but didn't. It's from Ronald Reagan, who in 1976 advised environmentalists on the folly of their ways by saying, "Once you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all."

Feel free to use this advice in any way you see fit.

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