Archive for August, 2011


By Ruth Minshull

Advice is least heeded when most needed.

                                  –English proverb

“Listen,” I said.  “I know you want that condo, and it really is nice.  But, please, please, don’t buy it until you sell your house.”

“But, I’m afraid I’ll lose it if I wait.  The real estate agent said she has another buyer who’s interested in it.”

I know, George, but there are about a hundred other condos in that complex—and at least a dozen of them are for sale at any given time.  Everything I’ve been seeing tells me that the bottom is about to fall out of the real estate market, and you don’t want to get stuck paying for two places until you can get a buyer for your house.”

My friend murmured something vague and I was left with the feeling that he would ignore my warning.

And he did.  The following week he called me, proudly announcing that he had bought the condo.  After he had packed up and moved, he listed his house for sale

For the next eighteen months his home languished on the stagnant market, and I listened to his complaints about having to pay insurance, taxes and maintenance expenses on both places.

Somehow I managed to refrain from saying “I told you so,” but I’ll admit it took monumental willpower.  (Surely I’ll get some kind of brownie points in heaven for such righteous behavior.)

I gave a similar admonition to my cousin when she was planning to move into an assisted-living apartment.  She, too, failed to accept the benefits of my wisdom.  She bought the apartment and carried the double expenses for over a year before the house sold—at a greatly reduced price.

Jack Nicholson obviously learned the same lesson I did:  “I’ll tell you one thing.  Don’t ever give anybody your best advice, because they’re not going to follow it.

I guess I’m a slow learner because I tried yet again with another friend.  She had acquired a sum of much-needed money which she turned over to a stockbroker to invest.  When I saw signs of the coming debacle in the market, I warned her:  “You’d better get out of the market.  You don’t need to be in stock all the time.  Cash is a position.  Buy treasury bills if you want your money in something.”

She called me a short time later and said she had gone over her portfolio with the broker.  “And I do have ten percent of my money in treasury bills,” she crowed triumphantly.  “See?  Great minds think alike.”

Well, these “great minds” were not exactly thinking alike.  Within weeks her net worth took a nose dive and she was suffering greatly (and still is).  Again, I kept my mouth shut.

It began to dawn on me that most people do not welcome unsolicited advice.  Reluctantly, I reached the same conclusion as that of Desiderius Erasmus:  “Don’t give your advice before you are called upon.

That’s probably the smartest thing to do.  Nothing.  But, for most of us, it’s like sitting on your hands while you watch a little tot trying to tie his shoes—agonizing but necessary.

On the receiving end, most of us don’t always welcome someone else putting in his two-cents worth.  It’s too cheap.  I know a man who once paid $50,000 to have lunch with Warren Buffet.  (Why?  Because he could, I guess.)  Anyway, I’ve since wondered if he got any valuable advice from the billionaire.  If so, did he follow it or did he ignore it?.  He never said.  In any case, whatever he learned from Mr. Buffett was not cheap.

We may feel that we can manage our lives better than anyone else can, and so we seldom welcome some nosey butinsky trying to interfere.  I know I don’t always heed knee-jerk recommendations—especially from someone who doesn’t even understand the problem.

My father was big on giving me unwanted recommendations.  When I graduated from high school, he thought I should go on to college.  Since I couldn’t afford it, I ignored his suggestion and found a job.  A couple years later, when I had saved some money, I decided to continue my education.  He thought I should hang on to my job.  I went to college.  When I left and found work in a big city, he warned, “You should never leave this job.  You won’t make that kind of money anywhere else.”

At each step along the way, I refused his suggestions—and it turned out that he was wrong each time.  Of course, being a typical know-it-all kid, I would have sloughed off his words even if they had been profoundly wise.

A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.  –E. W. Howe

Probably Howe was right.  We must each bungle along, making mistakes, falling on our faces as we grope our way blindly through life’s labyrinth.  We seem to learn more that way—and it helps us build up confidence in our own judgment.

Occasionally people really do want advice—or they seem to. We hear some whiney woman call in to an “expert” on the radio or write to a Dear-Abby columnist:  “I dearly love my husband of eight years, but he is so strict with my twelve-year-old daughter he sometimes has her in tears.  He’s rather critical of me too if I don’t cook his favorite foods or if he doesn’t think the house is clean enough.  That may be my fault because when I get home from work (on my feet all day at a checkout counter) I’m too tired to do much cleaning.  Don’t tell me to leave him.  I love him, and he has only hit me a few times and my daughter only once.  How can I make him understand that my daughter and I want better treatment from him?  Perplexed in Paducah”

Perplexed appears to be asking for guidance, but does she mean it?  Anyone stupid enough to stay in such a marriage obviously has some kind of sick need for abuse and will probably ignore any well-meant suggestions.  She may need some near-death experience at the hands of her brutal mate before she takes any action.

There are a number of reasons a person won’t take our advice:

1)  He knows better than we do,

2)  He thinks he knows better than we do,

3)  He knows better than anybody

4)  He didn’t want to solve the problem in the first place.

Of course, there are times we seek an opinion when we merely want our own judgment confirmed.  I once asked my son for advice when I was thinking of buying a new car.  Getting right to the heart of the matter, he asked:  “Well, do you think there is a practical need for a new car or do you just want it for the fun of it?”

“Well,” I sheepishly confessed, “I just want it.”

“OK,” he said.  “In that case, I say go ahead and buy it.  If you were going to try to justify it, I wouldn’t go along with that, but as long as you know it’s frivolous, then why not?”

Of course, I bought the car.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.  –Henri Nouwen

Most of us have listened to a friend mewling over some deplorable situation they are facing.  The resolution may seem obvious to us.  “Well,” we offer, “why don’t you….”

Quickly, we are told, “Oh, I can’t do that because….”

“Then maybe you should….”

“No, no, that wouldn’t work….”

At some point we may realize that the person may need this problem.  He does not want any of our (wise, sensible, workable, profound) solutions.  He merely wants us to commiserate:  “Oh, my, that’s terrible.  I don’t know how you can stand it.

In such a case, I say:  forget about trying to help the person solve his problem.

Just admire it.

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© 2011 by Ruth Minshull

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