Why Advice Doesn’t Work and What to Rely on Instead

Lotus Position on the Edge of a Cliff - courtesy of Feyser Travel


So you find yourself sitting on a park bench, weighing the pros and cons of what has grown in your mind, to be the mother of all decisions. What started as a simple left or right on life’s I-95 has branched into a complex network of stop-lights and intersections, each holding over you, the power to determine your entire future; so it often seems. You know that choosing one path necessarily entails forgoing all others, and at no other time then in that moment, is it more crucial to keep your hands on the wheel. But you’re afraid of taking a wrong turn. Suddenly, you throw your arms in the air and cry out: “I just wish someone would tell me what to do?”

The struggle to answer this question, what should I do, for any one of life’s decisions however big or small, is not a sign of weakness but a human right of passage. The practice of going beyond one’s self to seek advice from others is as old as our existence. From oracles to wise men, mentors to teachers, sages and saints; it is part of our nature to turn to others during times of self-doubt. But why must doubt be so troubling to us as it seems? Not only is it a phenomenon common to every person, it is also a prerequisite for personal growth. Every protagonist in literature and in life is forged in the fires of doubt. Only in it’s transcendence does one emerge a hero.

Furthermore, there is a common thread among those who are successful — none of them knew how they were going to overcome their challenges before they actually did. – Doubt is not the enemy. It is the catalyst required for change. And acknowledging its presence is the first step forward.

Now where to go from here?

In our present day we are both blessed and cursed with a fire-hose of information. Self-help books abound, How To guides, Top Ten lists, Tony Robbins, blog-posts, twitter feeds, face-book friends, crowd-sourcing, career-services, therapists, hypnotists, the guy on the NE side of Washington Square Park peddling “free” advice ($2.00), and we might as well throw in the Magic 8 ball (selling strong since the 1940’s).

There is no shortage of places to turn. And purchasing habits reflect our willingness to flock to these products in droves. But how readily do most of us actually implement the advice we consume? The mere fact that there’s the demand for so many iterations of advising material related to one specific topic, be it weight-loss, business, relationships, or any other, is a strong indicator that we seldom take the advice we so eagerly devour.

So here we stand: eager to be told what to do, yet utterly unmoved to do what we’re told.

Furthermore, the bigger, more important, more life-altering our quandaries, the more willing we are to hand our fate over to someone else. But ironically, the further we remove ourselves from coming up with the answer, the less likely we are to trust its relevance. The very worry that the received advice will not lead to the right action, usually leads to no action at all, yet our lust for searching continues.

At a certain point you’ve got to wonder, what’s the deal with that?

And the deal is this, simply put: You already know what to do. – “Advice” as said by Erica Jong “is what you ask for when you already know the answer but wish you didn’t.” – In less scary terms, the answer for any decision pertaining to the tormenting question, what should I do, exists within you. It must. If you truly had no clue what to do, then what would enable you to cast advice aside? What basis would you have for discerning which piece of advice to take and which to ignore?

Let’s think about that…

There must exist within us, some internal guide by which we navigate. Call it our instinct, intuition, or our gut – this sense of direction, like that which guides the birds to fly south, is our true source of trust. The urge to turn our attention outward for advice is a mere compulsion. It arises naturally from the discomfort of uncertainty. But it is in times like this, when facing an important decision, that the most important thing to do is simply quiet the mind, and listen…  Nothing else is really required.

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