Unsolicited advice on unsolicited advice

“No unsolicited advice!” I felt confident and sure as the words came out of my mouth. The conference facilitator had asked us what ground rules we wanted for our time together, and this was my contribution. I’m sure it sounded odd to many of my peers, because what do we come to a conference for if not advice? But I was thinking about all the times I have shared my challenges with groups of strangers and been bombarded with well-meaning but useless advice from people who know little or nothing about my situation. There have been times when I have wanted to yell at a group of people, all huddled around me offering rapid-fire suggestions, “Get out of my face!” Surely, we would all have a better conference experience if we shared our stories rather than thinking up ideas for other people to do.

But not even an hour after I offered my ground rule, I watched myself raise my hand and offer the assembled group of more than 50 people some extremely unsolicited advice about media relations. As soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth, I realized my hypocrisy. Later that night, I caught myself breaking into another person’s conversation to offer a helpful (and surely unwanted) tip. I thought back to the two-hour bus ride to the conference center, during which I had insisted that a woman I barely know should learn Spanish. I even told her who she should practice with and that it would be “easy.” No matter that I have tried and failed for years to fit learning Spanish into my busy schedule. But it always seems easy when it’s someone else’s life you’re thinking about. Is the old adage true? The things that annoy you about others are your own faults.

I still believe that, in the vast majority of situations, especially those that involve colleagues or strangers, we should bite our tongues when we feel the desire to give advice. For me, advice from strangers (and even sometimes from friends and family) brings up memories of all the things I’ve tried that didn’t work. It treads over ground that I have gone over too many times before. And it is even worse if it’s given by a group of people. Then, it overwhelms me, makes me feel like a failure, like the only one who doesn’t have things figured out.

When I face challenges in life, what I want to hear most is, “I’ve been there,” or “I understand.” I want to hear the stories of other people’s problems, successes and failures. I want to know that I’m not alone. What I don’t want to hear is, “You should…” When I get bombarded with shoulds, I’m often left wishing I had kept my issues to myself. And when I think of all the times I’ve heard other people respond to advice by shooting down every suggestion offered, I realize I may not be alone in this feeling.

But I observed myself over four days at this conference, again and again, unable to restrain myself from offering others the exciting ideas I had for them. Surely, these ideas were too good to withhold. “Maybe I should revise my position on unsolicited advice,” I found myself thinking. But in the end, I decided the better lesson was to simply be more tolerant of foibles and weaknesses. To hold my own mistakes and egotism with kindness, and to forgive others their flaws as well. Never again can I label someone a know-it-all without seeing that, really, they are just like me.

The conference was held at a state park in the Georgia mountains, in a lodge set beside a spectacular waterfall. Even the most non-outdoorsy types could amble a short distance down a trail and stand on a bridge that straddled the top of the falls. Water roared over slick rock, but the wide bridge and sturdy railing meant it was hardly a high-risk activity. On my last morning there, I saw a middle aged woman cowering on the back side of the bridge, calling pitifully to her husband and grandson on the other side, who were enjoying the view. Her fear was palpable, even before her husband snapped at her and she said, “I thought I could do it but I can’t.” I thought how sad and pathetic it was not to be able to accept even this tiny bit of risk, to be denied such beauty because of an irrational fear. As I headed into the woods for a hike, I couldn’t see how we were alike in any way.

Later that night, having arrived safely home, I found myself facing what has recently become a rather intense anxiety about going to bed. My insomnia has been at fever pitch, and just the thought of my bed is enough to raise my heart rate and stoke my fear of what the night holds. All of a sudden, I thought of that woman — and realized she is just like me. She is afraid of a waterfall. I am afraid of my comfortable bed. We are both afraid of getting it wrong, of losing control, of not knowing it all, of being exposed and unprotected in a world where anything can happen.

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