May 26, 2022

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between offering support and offering advice.

Many conversations I’ve had with people in my life have felt like a set-up. They ask me how I’m doing, what I’ve been up to, how my life is. I assume they’re interested, that they truly want to know me. So, I answer their question, and I answer it honestly. “I’m doing well, but I’m working a ton,” or, “I’m generally happy, but I’m having an issue with someone I know,” or whatever.

But not everyone who asks is content with an answer. Some feel compelled, without pause or permission, to tell me what to do.

“Don’t work so hard,” they might blurt out. “You need to get out more, have more fun, make more friends. Why don’t you try X and Y? You should totally come do Z with me!”

Or, they’d say, “F*** that person [you’re having an issue with]. You put up with too much from them, and you need to stop. You can’t let other people bring you down. I would never put up with that.”

I don’t ask for advice. I don’t need help devising a social life or role model, and I’m not hoping for an invitation to a party. I am simply answering a question, and only because they ask it. So, you can see why I feel set up.

It’s interesting to me, the urge some have to tell others what to do. Perhaps they’re sensitive to uncertainty, and don’t feel comfortable with the fact that something touching their life seems unsettled. Maybe they need to feel that they can control a seemingly negative situation that, though not about them, is close enough to count.

The thing about advice is that it’s rarely good, even when it sounds good, and even when you really want it.

Advice is generally not great for a few reasons. First, it’s based on limited information. No one has all the necessary facts about your situation to offer you sound advice about what decisions you should make. You don’t even have all the necessary facts, and even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to tell someone else every detail you know. One conversation won’t adequately fill them in.

Advice also rarely good because it’s made by someone with less skin in the game. Research shows that we evaluate risk differently when we are deciding on behalf of someone else versus deciding for ourselves. Maybe people are more impulsive with our advice than they would be with their own. Maybe they’re willing to push us into a risky situation when we rationally shouldn’t go there.

Advice is also not good because the people who give it are… well… human. Humans jump to conclusions, assuming they already know all they need to know. Humans fail to realize that they’re more likely to make decisions based on information they can easily remember rather than on well-researched facts. They project when they draw their conclusions, using information about themselves (which is readily available) to fill in gaps where they don’t know enough about you.

Humans don’t seem naturally designed to be the best kind of friend.

And most of us have no clue. Many people who offer you abrupt and unwelcome advice assume they’re less biased than you are (and in a better position to know what to do) because they’ve got a neutral perspective. Meanwhile their lack of information (and your relative abundance of it) could make their decision much more biased than yours would be. Yet their overconfidence keeps them from seeing it.

The advice I get can be terrible. For example, when people tell me I shouldn’t work so hard, they don’t first ask why I’m doing it. They assume it’s a bad thing. Truth is, I work a ton because I care deeply about reaching my goals. I’m driven and happy about it. Like… you know… athletes who want to make it to the Olympics. Or entrepreneurs who are trying to build an empire. Can you imagine telling Simone Biles or Steve Jobs mid-way through their careers, “You work too hard. You need to have fun. Come to the bar with me!”

Or… when people tell me to swiftly dump a friend or acquaintance because they frustrate me, they don’t think to ask more about the context. Truth is, I have issues with certain people in my life because everyone has issues with people in their lives. Some of us have it harder than others, but we all have it. We are social creatures. We crave relationships with other people, and in case you haven’t noticed, people can be frustrating. Some are just not frustrating enough to drop, and others (like family or the other parent of your kids) are too hard to drop no matter how frustrating they are.

Why give advice when it’s bound to be sub-par? Why set people up?

Maybe good friendship – and solid support – involves having fewer answers and having more questions. What would really help those you care about is making sure they’re not succumbing to decision-making biases. The advice they need to hear involves research findings in behavioral economics. They need to be reminded of sociological insights on how decisions are made within constraints.

The best way to be a friend is to guide those you care about toward making their own best decisions, rather than making those decisions for them. This feels supportive specifically because it’s not advice - and support is where it’s at. We should own our own choices because we have to deal with the consequences. We should each lead our own way. And though bad advice doesn’t stop us, it sure doesn’t help our momentum.

Here’s my small bit of advice. Or maybe it’s more of a suggestion. Let’s refrain from snatching other peoples' choice-making power from them. Let’s instead help others make their own decisions, with our support and guidance. Maybe then we’ll all feel better about our choices. And hopefully we’ll stop annoying each other along the way.

That is all.

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