Tread Lightly: Advice Is a Double Edged Sword


It’s ironic really. Advice is often most poignant after we no longer need it. Instead of benefiting from the borrowed insight, more often than not, advice acts like a mirror to our past experiences.

Perhaps a cruel cosmic joke, it tends to be that we must learn our lessons by going through the difficulties that well-intentioned advice is trying to help us avoid. Once we’re out the other side, the truth of these statements comes clear.

Growth doesn’t happen vicariously. And neither does life.

It was a new job in a new country. As a first time teacher, I was overwhelmed by the many hats I had to wear throughout the day. Seeking comfort, I stepped into the school psychologists’ office and asked for help.

My colleague looked at me and said, “You care too much. Stop taking things so seriously.”

Having only been out of teachers college for a few months, I was incensed by this statement and wrote her off as insensitive and stupid. It wasn’t until years later that I finally understood what she meant. An understanding that I could have only come to after having more experience under my belt.

She wasn’t suggesting that I cared for my job or my students more than I should. She was trying to tell me that I needed to lighten up and trust that things would work out.

It wasn’t until I had come to this conclusion on my own, that I understood what she meant all those years ago. And by that time, I’d already left the classroom to pursue other things. The lessons has stuck with me and resurfaces every time I’m feeling overwhelmed.

We can look to experts to gain insight and build a foundation of understanding. There’s little harm in this, so long as we do it with discretion and balance it with tangible experience. The true teacher in life is experience, which cannot be replaced by schooling or advice.

At the baby shower for my first born, a “tip jar” was passed around to each guest. They each added some money, and share a parenting tip with the group. I sat at the edge of my seat, eager to hear words of wisdom (and take a peek at how full the jar was getting).

Of all the advice I heard that day, only one statement remains with me 13 years later. At the time I had no idea how often I would rely on it’s wisdom. But in hindsight, it was the best parenting advice I ever got. To this day I repeat it like a mantra and share it with any new mom seeking my counsel.

You’re going to get a lot of advice. Only take the advice you want.

In the world of parenting, it feels like there’s about a gabazillion things that you can do wrong, and a handful of things you can get right. Everyone has their opinions and the resounding assumption is that you’re doing it wrong.

As a new mom I sought out advice left and right. Some of it felt cruel. Some was useless, and a few tidbits were worthy of bringing home to test out. By the time my first born was one, our baby books became doorstops.

It seemed to make so much more sense to get to know this child in front of me and let him teach us how to parent. It’s not the right choice for everyone, but that’s kind of my point.

People can tell us what worked for them. They can even charge us money to hear their advice. And while there’s a time and a place for those voices, there’s a great deal of learning that has to happen “on the ground.” We can’t skirt our own struggles in hopes of learning vicariously through the mistakes and lessons of others.

At some point, all the research and education stops being fruitful and we need to simply trust the process and give it a go.

When we rely on the advice of others, we lose sight of what it means to live our own lives. We choose short cuts on our way to an imaginary land where a better life is waiting for us. We decided we must get the degree, have the family, or earn the prestige before we can begin enjoying life or appreciating what we have.

When we allow the advice of others to dictate our contentment, we’re not taking a shortcut towards a better life. We’re building an overpass, skipping the very thing we’re looking for.

It’s not so much that we’re in an existential crisis, seeking guidance and wisdom from those who came before. Rather, we’re suffering the impacts of impatience. We’ve lost our tolerance for the process, for each other, and for ourselves. In truth, happiness and contentment are already here, waiting for us to slow down long enough to notice that we’ve already arrived.

It’s ironic really. Advice is often most poignant after we no longer need it. Instead of trying to benefit from borrowed insight, let’s ease up on the gas and allow ourselves to learn from the journey. There’s no first place in life, so there’s no need to take shortcuts. After all, you’re the only one who can live your life the way it was meant to be lived.

Remember, growth doesn’t happen vicariously. And neither does life.

Previously Published on medium


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