Examined Life Advice

life advice

We live in a glorious era of podcasting, public conversation and boundary-crossing interest in niche academic areas. I have come to realize that it’s a great time to be a public intellectual, except for one thing: the part known as “advice.” When someone is found to have specialized knowledge that provokes public engagement and interest, you can bet they will be asked to offer suggestions as to how others might follow in their footsteps. And I bet you, that life advice will be useless.

I have imagined someone come to my office to ask for tips and strategies for becoming a great writer. My life advice isn’t bad in the sense that it will not lead them astray, but it is bad nonetheless, in that it won’t lead them anywhere. It’s as though right before I give the advice, something sucks all the informational content out of what I’m about to say, and I end up saying basically nothing at all.

This problem does not afflict every form of verbal assistance equally. Let me make a three-way terminological distinction between “advice,” “instructions” and “coaching.” You give someone instructions as to how to achieve a goal that is itself instrumental to some further goal – directions to get to the library, etc. Coaching, by contrast, effects in someone a transformative orientation towards something of intrinsic value – an athletic or intellectual or even social triumph.

We can thus comfortably say that instructions make you better at doing what you valued, whereas coaching makes you better at valuing – it gears you in to what’s important, at an intellectual or physical or emotional level. Coaching takes many forms—teaching how to write intellectual content is coaching. Coaching is personal.

As I’m using the word ‘advice,’ it aims to combine the impersonal and the transformative. You could think of it as ‘instructions for self-transformation.’ The problem here is a mismatch between form and content. It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions.

In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact, and so it is not surprising that one finds so much life advice exchanged on social media.

When people are not fighting on Twitter, they are cheerfully and helpfully telling one another how to live. In that context, life advice functions as a kind of small talk or social glue: it helps people feel they are getting along in a space not bound together by any kind of shared weather or anything.

There is probably nothing wrong with this, as long as we do not let it bleed into those contexts in which real assistance is possible. I do not have tips or tricks for becoming a good writer, I am not the best anyways. My wisdom is contained in the slog of opinion arguments – the daily grind of finding out what people are thinking, picking out the premises, tearing them apart.

I can make you better at that, by showing you how to do more of this and less of that. I can’t help you become a great writer without being your composition teacher. Someone who wiggles her fingers and pretends she has magical powers isn’t actually getting you anywhere. Real assistance requires contact. Learning as we go along.

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