When it comes to advice, it’s wise to both give and receive sincerely
Here’s a solid gold piece of advice: be wary of anyone offering you solid gold pieces of advice. The friend who advises you to, say, stay in your relationship or leave your job may well be looking out for you; but she’s inescapably looking out for herself, too, whether she realises it or not. Maybe she believes her own marriage was a case of settling, and wants you to join the club. Maybe she adores your company so much she could never recommend a career step that might involve you leaving town.
Moreover, research suggests that, in the absence of incentives to the contrary, people will generally advise you to act more cautiously than they would act themselves in a similar situation.
There’s a happy flipside to this, though, for parents, teachers, managers and anyone else who finds themselves in the position of needing to motivate others: far better than giving them advice is to give them the opportunity to give advice. That’s the conclusion of a new study by psychologists at the universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, who found that American middle-school pupils were much more enthusiastic about doing their homework after dispensing advice on the topic to younger children, as compared with after receiving advice from teachers. This motivational effect lasted weeks, and was also observed among adults who were attempting to lose weight, save money, control their temper or find a job. Teach a man to fish and he’ll know how to fish – but get him to teach others how to fish, and he might actually get on with some damned fishing.
This result isn’t all that surprising, I suppose, when you consider how flattering it feels to be invited to give advice. Faced with a challenge, we tend to assume we need to seek advice in order to obtain more knowledge about how to proceed; yet the truth, very often, is that we know what we need to do – we just lack the confidence to do it. The act of giving advice reacquaints us with the knowledge we already possess, which instils confidence, which motivates action.
This, by the way, is another good reason to keep a journal: you can use it to advise yourself. Your friends may have limited patience with your habit of lecturing them on their lives in order to feel better about your own, but a leather-effect notebook never complains.
Finally, this is a reminder that there are few bigger compliments you can pay another person than to ask, preferably sincerely, for their advice. And I should add that if you have any insights on this matter yourself – what with you being such a wise and thoughtful person, with such rich life experience – I’m definitely all ears.