In my life, I've received enough bad advice to print out and gift wrap Mount Everest. Everyone is quick to offer it, regardless of whether you asked or not ... and with so much coming in, it's hard to separate genuine wisdom from verbal toilet paper. The problem is that you won't ever know the answer to that until your problem is over, when you can say, "OK, Chad was right. Punching a bull in the nuts isn't a good idea." Or, "Greg is full of shit. Punching them more only made him angrier."
I've, admittedly, never been an authority on advice, but what I can do is warn you who to be wary of. I have plenty of experience dealing with ...
#5. Zealots and Advocates
They Say Things Like:
"I totally understand about having a child who just won't behave. The only way out of this is to pray. Why don't you come down to my church this Sunday, and we'll pray him back to normal?"
"Man, getting laid off right before the holiday? That's harsh. Remember that when you're at the voting booth. The sooner we get Ron Paul into office, the sooner we can get rid of corporate bullshit like that."
"Mom, can we please just get inside the restaurant? Just this once, without incident?"
Why It's a Bad Source:
I have friends who are full-on 420 advocates, and I quite frankly don't have a problem with it. As long as they're not annoying with it or touch me with their filthy dreadlocks, that's their thing. But I don't come to them for advice on matters of stress because their answer is always, "Hit this. It'll relax you." Now, I'm not going to lie -- in the past, I did hit that. And it did relax me. And after that buzz wore off, I was just as stressed as when I first asked for advice.
Obviously theirs was a "here and now" solution, a temporary, Fix-A-Flat means of alleviating the symptoms that does nothing to repair the tire.
"Oh, man, you're totally right. I can totally feel my job coming back. Thanks for the advice!"
I'm not just picking on people who smoke pot -- every group has these zealots who base every conversation around their pet cause. They're always waiting in the wings for any opportunity to insert their agenda into the conversation. Like hardcore, door-to-door Christians who won't take "Fuck off" for an answer, people who are so annoying that they actually make other normal Christians angry. Flip down to the comments section real quick. See those people starting a religious debate on both the atheist and creationist sides? Or the stoner, defending the validity of his smoking, completely ignoring the core point of the article? Those are the people I'm talking about.
Those people not only offer unsolicited advice, but they go out of their way to aggressively force it onto you. Wait, let me guess -- the solution to my financial problem is to adopt your belief system and join a group of like-minded people? Hmmmm ... it's almost like you've got an agenda there.
What did you say the name of your group was again?
Zealots and advocates are salesmen, and every conversation is a pitch. And that means that any advice coming from them is automatically predisposed to bias, based on that agenda. They're not doing it to be malicious. They're just so used to turning their entire life into a perpetual battle for their cause that it gets attached to everything else, like stepping in a pile of dog shit and later trying to figure out how it also got onto your jacket.
Whether they intend to or not, your personal problem is just one more battleground in their never-ending culture war. The ones who aren't close friends just see you as another strategic plot of land to occupy. Another soldier to train for their frontline.
"Welcome aboard. Now, let's go protest something. What really pisses you off?"
But even worse is the opposite of that ...
#4. Ass Kissers
They Say Things Like:
"It shouldn't matter that you wore your old Def Leppard concert T-shirt to the interview. Holes or not, those guys just don't know a good thing when they see it."
"She gave you a D on that report? Don't listen to that bitch, she just doesn't like you. That report was perfect. Just keep doing things your way because you know more about writing than she ever will."
"Now, just to show her, let's put on your report-writing outfit and do another one."
Why It's a Bad Source:
My house used to be extremely popular because, even though I was in my mid-20s, most of my friends weren't quiet old enough to buy booze yet. I was their guy, but my rule was that they had to spend the night so I knew that they weren't out running over families or puking in some poor kid's wading pool. They treated me like a rock star. Every joke I made was funny. Every drunken philosophical observation was deep and groundbreaking, even when I was just talking out of my ass, which was most of the time.
Any time I asked for advice from one of them, they would tell me that I was doing fine as is. In fact, I can't remember a single one of those people saying something to upset me. That is, until I stopped buying them alcohol.
"Thanks, John. You know, you're a really cool guy."
It turns out that my willingness to get them things, easily, that they couldn't get on their own was a powerful bonding agent. In those types of situations, people will go out of their way to make sure they never offend you, because once that bond is broken, they've lost their supplier. And it doesn't have to be just a dude buying booze for minors. The merchandise could be emotional, sexual, financial, an esteem boost, free pony rides ...
You find it all over the place. The pretty girl who surrounds herself with nerdy guys because they shower her with praise. The corporate executive surrounding himself with lower level yes men because they never do or say anything to get on his bad side. That's all fine and dandy, but when it comes to advice, none of those people are going to be straight up with you. Honest, to-the-point advice is usually something you don't want to hear because the solution to many problems involves you changing something about yourself, and that's hard for most people to accept. "The reason you have such a high turnover in employees is because you're kind of a dick to them. You should try not being a dick and see if your numbers improve. Dick."
It doesn't help that you start out every morning with the speech from Glengarry Glen Ross.
Getting that advice from someone you don't fully respect often ends on bad terms. As long as you have something that these people want, they are not going to put themselves in that situation. "No, you don't have a cocaine problem. You just need a little pick-me-up in the afternoon. There's nothing wrong with that."
Back when my life was a total train wreck, this was the type of advice I'd get from everyone I knew, and they would have continued giving me that sort of feedback right up until my funeral after an overdose. That's why this kind of advice is so dangerous -- you want to hang out with those people because it feels good. Everyone loves praise, and if you had the choice of being around people who pat you on the back versus people who criticize you for your failures, that ain't no choice at all, brotha. But without those criticisms and honest feedback, you will never grow, because you've planted yourself in soil that's warm and firm but has no nutrients.
"I've never heard such brilliance in my life! Now, about that promotion you mentioned last week ..."
Their advice and your reception of it is self-serving on each of your parts. Make no mistake, your benefit is the furthest thing from their minds. And the same can be said for ...
#3. Faceless Crowds
They Say Things Like:
"You mentioned in your poverty article that you had a clothes dryer. How can you say you're poor if you owned a dryer? What you should do instead is use a clothes rack." (That's actual advice I received, by the way.)
"Thanks for adding me to your Facebook! Looking over your posts, it looks like you're going through some ass-kicking depression. What's your name and address, and I'll send you a few of my Paxil. They really help!"
"Well, normally, I'd run this by a doctor, but you sound really nice."
Why It's a Bad Source:
Many of you will recognize this in the form of comments sections, but it comes in other flavors, like a person with tons of Facebook contacts or whose social interactions are primarily on a message board. I'm going to specifically talk about comments sections because it's something I get asked a lot.
No, I don't read them, and neither do many other successful writers I know. The reason is probably simpler than you think. Obviously, if someone liked the article, they're going to tell you that you did a great job and to keep it up. Then maybe show you their boobs in appreciation. So if you look past those comments (and nipples), any actual technical feedback comes in a negative fashion, and those are just wasted words.
"YOU TYPE WORDS! MAKE FACE ANGRY!"
I'm a weekly, paid, contracted writer for the site, which is why I have the title "columnist" instead of "contributor." That means that just like any job, I have a boss to report to -- a team of editors who greenlight my article or send it back for revisions or a total rewrite. Their feedback means something because 1) they pay me and 2) I know their accomplishments in this industry. They've proven to me that they know how to describe testicles in a way that pulls in readers, and because of that, their feedback has value to me as a writer and an employee. I or anyone else can see the immediate benefits of following that advice by simply watching the hit counter at the top of the page.
The same can't be said of MeatSlap187. If you whittle out the commenters who are just flat out bitching for the sake of making noise, the leftover people who are offering genuine advice are doing so in a manner that (as David Wong once described it) makes it sound like they're giving a job evaluation. And the only people who are qualified to do that in any meaningful manner are the people who actually control my employment, the people who have experience in writing on a professional level.
"Dude, just post the article and go away. We're sure it'll be fine."
It's a matter of considering the source of the advice. If I had two identical emails telling me I'm a lazy, douchebag hack -- one from the editor-in-chief, and the other from a random reader -- the email from the editor would be the only one that would mean something to me. It's not that I'm being a dick to the random reader. It's that it's physically impossible to respect and value the opinion of someone you've never met. You don't know if they have an agenda. Or if they were in a bad mood. Or if they have experience in the subject or in the actual field of writing. Or if they simply misunderstood something you wrote. Or, for that matter, if they even read something you wrote.
A reader messaged me a short while ago, absolutely livid over an article I wrote on the Occupy Wall Street generation. Just this enormous wall of text, ranting about how I didn't know what the hell I was talking about and (the old go-to insult for anyone who likes to bitch) how I should "do my research." The only reason I didn't close and delete it is because I noticed that every point he was making was the exact point I made in the article. When I told him that, he actually apologized, explaining that he had only read the intro and then immediately skipped down to the comments section instead of reading the actual article. Everything he knew about the piece was taken from people who didn't understand the article in the first place. People who, just like him, were complaining about things that they actually agreed with.
"You son of a bitch! How dare you write something that I also believe!"
Sadly, that's more common than I'd care to admit.