I stopped calling my parents in the middle of sophomore year. Not because I was angry or withdrawn but because I knew that every conversation would lead to me asking the same question: am I doing this right? It started with shopping period, where I would call my parents sometimes three times a day. Then I was asking them which club should I try out for, what play should I audition for, or should I start thinking about the summer? Post-grad? With the number of opportunities that Yale threw at me, I was desperate to spread the burden of decision-making. But now, I know that advice has its limits. Our personal experiences almost inevitably color the advice we give, and that should give us pause the next time we want to share.
There comes a point when many of us stop listening to our parents. Some of us might even veer to the other end of the spectrum and start questioning every piece of advice our parents have given to us. After getting drawn into too many classes that my parents said “sounded good” over the phone, or opportunities that “looked good on paper,” I came to the conclusion that my parents just gave bad advice.
Perhaps “bad” is too strong a word: it was unrealistic that they could know the nuances of the questions I was asking, living thousands of miles away in London with decades since their education. Their experiences were too far removed.
Now as a junior, people — random people — have started asking me for advice. At first, I was eager to offer it: protecting first years from a horror class that I had experienced or warning others against overloading themselves in the first weeks of the semester, convinced that I sounded more genuine and personable than their dean or academic advisors ever could.
But very quickly, I realized the danger of heaping too much advice on others. In the same way that I began to see my parents as bad advisors, I questioned how much advice I could really give somebody that I barely knew, with interests and experiences very different from mine.
Advice is our crutch, a lifeline to alleviate the pressure of making our own decisions, especially if those decisions are weighty or frightening. Knowing that somebody else is sharing the responsibility for the decision makes the process so much easier. But sometimes that can prevent us from getting the advice we actually need.
Giving advice is almost second nature. We do it without even realizing it, even over such simple matters, as “should I do this assignment tonight?” or “should I respond to this text?” Late night conversations with friends morph into pseudo-counselling — what qualifies us for this, nobody knows. Without a background of proper training, we resort to what we do know: our experiences.
When we give advice, we often extrapolate into the future. We harness our best predictive powers and count backwards to today — but those predictions are based on our own personal viewpoints. The crux of the problem is not only that we cannot predict the future, but also that the thought process behind this exercise is essentially grounded in our own subjective experience.
We can’t live each other’s lives, however much we may wish to. There are a hundred ways to “do Yale” but we should be wary of using advice as a way to re-live another path. Sometimes people ask a question to confirm something they feel but are hesitant to admit. By suspending judgement, pushing back on the temptation to project ourselves into the lives of others, we can be a constructive sounding board and provide real emotional support.
It may be unrealistic to ask that we remove ourselves and our own experiences entirely from the process of giving advice. Rather, we should strive to be more aware of how the purpose of advice is to help the other person, and avoid venting about our own regrets as best we can.
Yes, it’s ironic — giving advice about giving advice. Certainly, there is no single or best way to do it. Just remember that whatever advice you give, somebody might very well take it.
Alexa Stanger is a junior in Franklin College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .