‘We give advice by the bucket, but take it by the grain.’ — Tom Stoppard
We all do it. It’s a hilarious human quirk that we all dabble in from time to time.
You give out not just some decent guidelines to your friends, but the very best advice that the world has ever seen on any topic you can think of.
You feel words effortlessly flowing out, it doesn’t even feel like you are formulating them. It feels like the advice is being channelled from some higher place. Then afterwards you realise just how sound your advice was. You are an infinite bucket of wisdom. There is no doubt about it.
Yet, when you are faced with similar problems, you hesitate. You just gave out some incredible advice to your friend on the exact same issue. But now it’s you. You tell yourself this is different though. That advice would never work.
Maybe the topic is relationships. Maybe you gave your friend some expert tips about dealing with a breakup, being the peaceful partner or keeping in touch with friends. However, you might soon realise that you still aren’t over one of your exes, you always argue with your spouse and you have been meaning to text that old school-friend for a couple of years now.
Maybe your friend had an important interview. You instruct her about how important it is to arrive promptly, doing her research about the company and how it is better to ask the uncomfortable questions early rather than further down the line. This is fantastic advice to be sure, but why is that you still find yourself getting stuck in traffic and nodding your head and agreeing to every word that comes out of the interviewer’s mouth?
The most hilarious though, in my opinion, is the great advice given about mindset, personal development and how to be a better human.
I should know, I have a whole website dedicated to it. I have written before about how difficult it can be to navigate this sphere.
A friend is facing burnout? ‘Have a day off’ I tell them. You can’t be of service when you are sick yourself. Somebody really pissed you off on your way to work? ‘Let it go’ I say, that’s for them to worry about, not you. Struggling to get things to do? ‘Just do the work’ I say, ‘ motivation follows action’. Yet, more often than I care to admit, I won’t give myself a much needed day off when I feel burnt out. I won’t let go of some trivial remark that someone said to me on April 4th, 2007. I will wait just a little longer to see if there is some divine intervention of motivation, rather than just getting started.
There you have it. I’m a hypocrite. You’re a hypocrite. We’re all hypocrites.
But fear not. There has to be something to this advice hypocrisy that we so freely engage with, right? Some underlying reasons as to why this happens.
What gives? Why is it so damn hard to take your own advice?
It is no secret that the best advice is given when you are detached from a subject. That is why it is so easy to see your friend’s situation from a bird’s eye view, weigh up all of the pros and cons, see all of the possible routes and advise them in a rational manner.
On the other hand, it is difficult to follow your own advice, or anyone’s advice for that matter, when you are attached to your situation. Maybe you are emotionally attached to the issue, or the issue is attached to your identity in some way like a job might be. You tell yourself a story about who you are and what ‘people like me do’. Attachment is a force not to be underestimated and it is why many people cling on to toxic people, habits and jobs despite all of the advice they get from others and themselves. Detaching your identity from whatever it clings on to is usually a good place to start.
Attachment is the reason why football teams have managers. When you are in the middle of the storm, opponents flying at you, blood racing 100mph, in the zone looking for the next move, you aren’t seeing the bigger picture. The manager sees a weakness or opportunity on the other end of the field to you, they are away from the action and detached, which allows them to make wise decisions.
When we have ‘skin the game’, when we are attached to people, events and scenarios, powerful forces like emotions take precedence over any reasonable advice that comes our way.
It is an extremely difficult thing to be able to detach from your own situations and take advice, especially when you have already spent time and effort on what is seeming to be like the wrong decision. Some might even consider it a superpower because it is so rare. If you can manage your attachment and start turning it into detachment, you can begin taking all of the great advice on board.
Here’s the thing. I reckon I have given out some pretty good advice in my time but also some pretty useless, stupid advice too.
When I give out poor advice, it’s probably because I know I won’t have to face the consequences. It is a bit like the detachment point, except with a slightly sinister twist.
If you are not the one acting, then you are not the one that has to face the consequences of the action, good or bad. This is probably why advice is freely given. It is easier to say to your best friend ‘Just do the 360-degree backflip twist into the sea, it’ll be cool’ than to actually do 360-degree backflip twist into the sea yourself.
So now we are left at a bit of a crossroads. Maybe you don’t take your own advice because your advice is terrible. You give out awful advice because you don’t have to face the consequences of your own advice, your friend does. You would never follow such crazy advice yourself because you know that backflips are dangerous. If this is the case, it is probably good that you don’t take your own advice and you should probably start giving out more of the constructive type to your friends. Just maybe.
On the other hand, you might give out good advice to your friends but again, the consequences aren’t yours, so it’s easy. Maybe the good advice you give is that she should stop putting up with shit at work from her boss that takes advantage of her hardworking attitude by piling on the work and responsibility without compensation through a raise. You tell her she deserves more. You tell her she should ask for a pay rise. The consequences for her might be an argument, a fractured relationship, almost definitely tension, but ultimately more freedom from the shackles of her workplace.
Then the time comes when you realise that work is really getting on top of you too and you are taking on responsibility for everyone else’s work but you aren’t prepared to face the consequences of actually doing something about it. You would much rather drown in work than have an uncomfortable conversation that might free you. That’s when it’s hard, really hard, to take your own advice; when you are the one who has to face the consequences of whatever comes next.
Consequences are one of the biggest sticking points as to why we find it hard to follow our own advice. We usually know what we need to do, but struggle to manage the consequences that come after. If we are aware of the consequences and have the courage to face them, then we are definitely putting one big step forward.
We underestimate ourselves
It’s human nature to underestimate ourselves. To want to lift up our best friends, closest family members and celebrity idols whilst putting our own selves down.
You might call it humility, but that isn’t what humility is. Humility is understanding your importance, your role to play in your life and the lives of others. It is understanding that you are not the most important part of the system, but neither are you are an insignificant piece.
We underestimate ourselves because we are us. We live inside of our own heads, we know our own weaknesses, our own insecurities, our fears, our shortcomings. We tell ourselves stories about who we are that orchestrate our lives. We are almost always caught up in the theatre of our own experience, our own show where we are the star every single day.
We think that we are special. Not in the existential sense, but in the ‘I’m pretty sure that I am the only person in the world who worries like this’ sense. We forget that everyone else has their own dreams, responsibilities and desires as well as their own quirks, hang-ups and nausea-inspiring fears.
Knowing this, or more likely remembering this, does this change the fact they deserve good advice? Because your best friend is hopeless at calling back and sometimes picks their nose and eats it, does that mean that they don’t deserve good advice and shouldn’t go and act on it?
Of course not. And just because you have your flaws, just like them, does it mean that you shouldn’t take your own smart and useful advice?
If they’re still worthy of good advice despite their flawed beings, then it’s time for you to start taking your own advice too.