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December 12th, 2019
Is there any experience so ripe for inflating the ego than when someone asks for your advice about what they should do with their life?
It’s flattering. Someone views what you are doing and sees something in the process so admirable that they’d like to steer their own life with some of that influence.
So how does a person approach the difficult answer to this request? Perhaps some don’t find it difficult at all, but are all too willing to rattle off their own brand of wisdom. However, doing such is often accomplished by editing the narrative of one’s own life.
We are all plagued by the “mistakes” that we have made over the years and far too much time is spent wondering what could have been if only we’d had the wisdom we have now to make a better choice. This, unfortunately, is terrible logic. As clear as the past might look, hindsight has about as much resolution as our plans for the future. That is, we can sure imagine it clearly, but how much they accord to reality is an entirely different story. A different decision in the past would have lead to a completely different future, and just like the future ahead of us at every point, it too would be full of uncertainty and invisible variables that would throw our plans.
And yet when asked for advice from another, we instruct in a way so as to avoid the mistakes we’ve made. This is a selfishness. It’s as though we’ve taken the balloon of our own ego from the person who started inflating it with an ask for advice and continued the work of pumping that ego up.
Certainly there is some standard practical advice that is good to hand out, particularly the advice that is not taught in schools, like finances, the importance of exercise, and perhaps even a word or two about meditation.
But otherwise what is a person to do? There can’t be a standard formula for a good life because they are categorically different.
If anything, what a person is looking for is information about how to hone their own tools for navigation.
Do we make decisions out of fear and security, or do we make them out of curiosity and adventure?
The gulf between these two possibilities is based solely on how a person’s internal compass is calibrated. And bizarrely, both perspectives can have the same fuel – that is: how precious life is. We can fear losing it and the fact that it ends and seek to protect it. But in recognizing such preciousness, we can also honor it by living to the fullest. It’s as though both perspectives are looking from the same place, but it’s an optical illusion, and upon first glance some people see the later, and some the other.
Helping a person confront this duality in their own values may be the most useful thing we can do when asked for general advice. But this is not necessarily something that we can simply tell someone. It’s something we must try to evoke, with questions, in order to create a thoughtful space where options can be explored and rearranged.
We may find that the best advice is to simply lead by example, and in this case, we can only grow more effective by being curious about the person asking. In so doing, we might just pass on some of that curiosity.