Take a class on “finding your life purpose and maximizing your impact.” Drink seltzer until scientists decide if wine is healthy. Eat hot arugula. These are a few of the tips professional advice-givers, sales people, and hacks are rolling out to help you be a better you in 2020. In recent years the American “self-improvement” industry has been valued at $9.9 billion, and at this time of year especially advice is everywhere. When is it truly helpful versus just an empty promise?
To prepare for next year’s resolution making (and breaking), The Inquirer turned to a parenting advice columnist and a reporter to answer: Should you take advice seriously?
The old saying “those who can’t, teach” has always bothered me. For starters, teaching requires a whole lot of “can.” Furthermore, that’s a cruel way to look at the people responsible for preparing everyone else who we more readily recognize for their work. But when it comes to the idea of advice, I find the adage somewhat resonant.
I’ve lived a unique life. I won’t
bore titillate you with details; I’ll just share that a longtime friend recently described me as “the first reality show” she’d ever “watched.”
There have been times when the ups and downs and weirdness have been bolstered by, if not born of, my own choices — for better or for worse. Yet I’ve long had a knack for looking at other people’s circumstances with a balance of empathy, logic, and cultural competency to suggest ways they can find a sense of peace that I couldn’t quite access myself. Alas, here I “can’t" — so I “teach.”
Sometimes you need to look at a situation from eyes unlike your own. When writing my weekly parenting column, for example, I am always eager to respond to letters from white parents raising nonwhite children because I understand what their kids are facing in ways that most of these moms and dads could not fathom, no matter how progressive or antiracist they may think themselves to be. The same goes for inquiries from folks who are new to dating with kids, or learning to deal with shared custody for the first time — two areas where I have a lot of experience that has, if nothing else, proven that not everything in my life operates like a circus (though some of my Tinder stories may challenge that).
However, I have also taken on questions about families who could not be more different from my own, providing what I thought to be sound, responsible, and thoughtful ideas that I hope help the letter writers find what works best for them, even if it turns out to be the opposite of my suggestions.
One of the biggest problems with advice — specifically the professional kind — is that some folks take it too seriously. Dr. Phil is not your doctor, and Iyanla Vanzant isn’t looking right into your soul, beloveds. Discernment is key. You cannot expect someone with only a limited view of your life to be the definitive voice on how to live it.
When you write to an advice columnist, sit down with a trusted friend, or purchase a book on relationships, you shouldn’t expect any of them to give a perfect script for addressing your troubles. Rather, you should be seeking perspective from a trusted, or simply interesting, voice that is not your own — perspective that gets you outside your head, helps you reexamine what you’re facing, and plan the best approach.
In most circumstances, advice should be a relatively low-stakes game: Take what feels right and leave the rest. If you prefer to make your way without considering the word of others, good for you. Personally, some of my worst decisions have been made in isolation, and my best ones after seeking council from someone I respect. But don’t take it from me. I’m just a “teacher.”
Jamilah Lemieux is a Los Angeles-based writer, cultural critic, and Slate contributor, where she pens a parenting advice column and cohosts the podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting. Her work has appeared in publications including Essence, the Columbia Journalism Review, Playboy, and the Washington Post. @JamilahLemieux
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I settled down in a theater in Old City with my wife to watch a play structured around advice columns.
I tapped my feet from scene one. Crossed my arms. One piece of dialogue mentioned the columnist’s “huge heart” and I groaned, loudly. The folks next to me were crying. People love this stuff.
I’m done with advice. I’m not sure how I evolved to this take or why it seems so radical to me. I think Instagram had something to do with it. Getting older, too. Unsolicited advice, I think most would agree, is the worst type. We’re bombarded with it daily, out of the mouths of smarmy elders or on social media, even shelves of the Christmas Tree Shop and Five Below.
Mugs and T-shirts tells me to Live, Laugh, Love. You want me to just laugh out loud for no reason, like the Joker? No.
Unsolicited advice, translated, means “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” Why does that rankle me so much? I value individuality, a person’s personality and distinct perspective on life. It’s why I probably couldn’t be an editor or an English teacher. I can read something and whether it’s well written or not, or the grammar’s a mess, my overwhelming response is: “This is what that person wanted to say.”
Seeking advice is a different animal. Maybe. I certainly support therapy. I’ve gone myself for many years and sometimes, at low points, I’ve often wished someone would just tell me exactly how to feel better. Sometimes our perspectives are skewed, off-base, and therapists act as useful interpreters, defragmenting the mess in our heads. But they’ve been trained to do that.
What I don’t like is the advice business: the gurus, entrepreneurs, influencers, and authors recycling ancient stoicism beneath a clever book cover promising to change your life in impossible ways. One guy likes to yell and curse at you. Another guy will curse at you in person, for thousands of dollars. I’ve laughed at Suze Orman’s impossibly thrifty financial tips so many times. I can’t live, laugh, and love with my kids, Suze, unless I put that ill-advised trip to Vegas on a credit card every now and then.
Even worse, I think people tend to seek out advice and feel-good quotes that reinforce something they want to believe is true. Then they post these quotes on Facebook. If you hurt people’s feelings, there’s “No regrets” or “Don’t apologize for who you are.” Do you know how many people are raising their Michelob Ultras in Nashville right now singing “yeah, she's crazy but her crazy's beautiful to me”?
All that being said, people ask me for advice sometimes, about kids and relationships, journalism, maybe just where to go hiking. I usually default to the same line: “You sort of know what the right thing to do is, right?” And they do … they just don’t do it. Oh well, we’re human.
The best hiking trail, by the way, is the one you’re on.
Jason Nark covers the outdoors for the Philadelphia Inquirer.