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If You’re So Smart, Why Can’t You Take Your Own Advice?

Advice is a process, not a proposition.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
7 min read
If You’re So Smart, Why Can’t You Take Your Own Advice?

It just happened (again) - I majorly failed to do something that I definitely would have suggested, had I been my own client.

Unexpectedly buying and moving my family into a new house took me mostly away from work for over two full months. But instead of cleanly declaring a work pause, I kept telling myself it was “just one more week” spent not blogging or selling my stuff, letting everything hang over my head. Ughhhhhhhh.

So I figured this would be a perfectly appropriate place to pick back up:

Why is it so hard to “take your own advice?”

If you’re soooo smart, with so many tips and tricks and #lifehacks and strategies… why are you still struggling? Can’t you, like, use some of them… on yourself?

Just between us, I have even had the punchline-worthy experience of showing up to my own philosophical counselor and receiving tidbits of advice and perspective that other people have previously paid me to dispense to them. Seriously, wtf.

Let’s consider a few possibilities:

Explanation #1: It’s Inherently Bad Advice

Some advice might be inherently bad, by which I mean:

  • Factually untrue
  • Clearly immoral
  • Prohibitively complicated / difficult to follow

By analogy, consider some features that may make a scientific theory bad, on its face:

  • Does not match facts
  • Does not make accurate predictions/retrodictions
  • Too particular/ad hoc
  • Not parsimonious (Occam’s razor violator)

Indeed, advice is kind of like a theory of what you should do.

You’re a person with some degree of experience and judgment, not a blank slate. So, you might reasonably sense that some advice-theory is inherently defective, and so you don’t take it.

(Why do people pass around inherently defective advice in the first place, though?

Times change, they’re posturing/virtue signaling, they’re delusional, they’re lying, they’re hypocritical - maybe a topic for another time).

Explanation #2: It’s Not Applicable Advice

Parsimony and specificity come with a theoretical price, though. Pared-down theories and simplified heuristics/rules of thumb are likely to have exceptions.

Plus, all advice was generated within some particular temporal, socio-cultural context. It is rarely, if ever, intended to apply for literally all people at all times.

And so even advice that’s not inherently, essentially defective might simply fail to apply to a certain circumstance - such as yours.

It’s your right and responsibility as an autonomous adult to figure out whether advice is applicable to you, rather than soaking it up indiscriminately from whatever sources present themselves to you.

Interlude: Self-Delusion

Unfortunately, people are pretty prone to self-delusion, so it can be hard to tell when advice truly doesn’t apply to you vs. when you wish it didn’t apply to you. Plus, a lot of advice is probabilistic, further complicating matters.

It may be quite possible to earn a high income without having attended college, or to get pregnant well past age 40, etc., even as the odds overall go down at the population level. Maybe you have some particular reason to think you are poised to do better than the average college dropout, or to be more fertile than the average 45 year old woman. Then, this advice “applies” less strongly than it otherwise might.

If your particular reasons to disregard sound, generalized advice are bad or in fact non-existent, then you might be wrong that the advice doesn’t really apply to you. People really do make this mistake in wishfully rejecting advice that might benefit them: joining multi-level marketing schemes and putting off children forever and botching their financial planning, etc.

But like, you’re the worst judge of your own motives… except for everyone else. An outsider may not have the same motives to ignore upsetting facts, but they also won’t have good access to the particular reasons that might set you apart from the baseline advice-receiver. Intelligent people have been told so many times that humans are self-delusional that they are at risk of uselessly overcorrecting right into a pit of irresolvable, blanket self-doubt. Consider the alternatives, try to get an “objective” read on the situation, and do the best you can.

If the advice rejection process #1 (inherently bad advice) or #2 (inapplicable advice) doesn’t happen fully explicitly, you might still accept the advice in some weak sense while still refusing to take it i.e. act upon it.

Passing inherently bad advice to others is probably bad, but passing along advice that may apply better to them (that you do not take for your own specific reasons) is probably fine.

Explanation #3: You Forgot the Advice

What about advice that you’ve heard, that seems fine in general, and that does indeed seem to apply to you… but you’re still not taking?

I have enough coaching hours under my belt to notice that clients often simply forget about advice/tips/strategies/etc. Anything short of a well-engrained habit can get forgotten - especially when a disruption of some kind has come up, i.e. when you might need it the very most :(

Is this advice-forgetting actually a species of self-delusion? Maybe sometimes. But I’m convinced that plenty of it is innocent.

Explanation #4: You Didn’t Receive the Advice Properly

Now we’re getting warmer! We can subsume the case of forgotten (but good) advice under the broader category: advice that you didn’t receive properly.

In order to work, to get taken and used, good advice must be received at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner (even if it’s not totally new to you).

We tend to fail to notice the importance of receiving advice properly when advice-giving goes well. It is easy - but mistaken - to latch onto the advice per se as having inherent value (or not).

But failed cases of advice-giving reveal that advice improperly given or received is useless, or even worse than no advice at all.

Think of a cold and detestable parent who recommends that their teenage child ought to steer clear of hard drugs and the “bad crowd.” The advice is sound, but circumstances render the child unwilling or unable to take it. Perhaps that teen even rebels for interpersonal reasons, and the advice actively backfires.

Explanation 5: Advice is Social

So is giving advice an inherently social process? Sort of yes, sort of no.

Being in conversation with another human about what you should do does help to activate advice-consideration and advice-taking mode. When someone suggests to you that you do X, and you have any baseline level of respect/admiration towards them, it becomes incumbent upon you to consider the inherent quality of advice X, whether or not it applies to you, your own personal goals/values/characteristics, and how you’d go about taking advice X in terms of concrete actions.

Though some life coaches refuse to give anything that might read like “advice,” to clients, I’m not one of them. Often in session my clients and I will spitball about their possibilities for action, and often I’ve faced a partially-similar situation either with a prior client or myself. I may toss advice lightly out there, and my client is likely to take it under consideration - we talk about their reservations about the advice, why they think it may or may not apply, what the alternatives are, etc.

It’s not strictly necessary to be in conversation with another human in order to activate advice mode, though. Instead, it’s more like a shortcut. You can indeed give advice to yourself, or re-give advice to yourself, but this doesn’t happen totally automatically. Hence, the “good advice not taken” that so many of us find familiar.

Bottom Line: Advice is a Process, Not a Proposition

Good advice is not simply a proposition. It’s not an inert knowledge fragment metaphorically sitting in your head or encoded on your brain’s hard drive.

Instead, advice is a process extended in time. This process incorporates complex epistemological, social, contextual, and deliberative/discursive elements.

To activate advice mode, you (and I!) need to find a way to conjure a deliberate, reasons-governed headspace. This headspace is oriented towards making a choice, and it has a beginning and an end. It incorporates objective information about the world as well as particular information about you. This advice-consideration headspace is basically the opposite of drifting.

How I Might Have Taken My Own Advice

Bringing this back around, how might I have successfully “taken my own advice” rather than guiltily avoiding my own business for 2+ months while I was moving my family to a new home?

The third-person perspective is a powerful tool for accessing quick clarity about what’s going on with yourself. I could have jotted even just a few sentences about what task burdens I was about to face, how much free time I really had available for absorbing them, and what the relative risks and benefits of different courses of action were.

The truth is there was little risk in temporarily closing my doors to new clients and paring back on work with existing clients. I would have foregone some income, but it would have been a wash anyways (since I didn’t finish packing our belongings in time, I ended up paying more for the professional movers anyways). There was no real risk that prospective clients would all decide I was a phony - instead, taking a pause from work or even creating a waitlist might have even raised my perceived professional status.

I might have invited myself viscerally to imagine the feeling of being “behind” for a day or two, or even weeks or a month on end. Though many of us have a near-constant, underlying sense of being behind, some “behinds” are obviously way worse than others. Moving is a task that often overwhelms even the most capable and conscientious among us. Why make it worse than it has to be?

Had I traveled these trains of thought for a minute, I would have immediately recognized that, if I were my own client, I’d suggest taking a time-limited deliberate work break. But, if that still weren’t enough, I could have leveraged the social shortcut to advice mode by having this conversation with a trusted friend or a paid source like a counselor or coach in advance.

Make It Real - Take The First Step

The icing on the advice-taking cake is to take an action commensurate with what you’re now deliberately choosing to do. Had I chosen to take a break, I could have put a little banner on top of my website or sent an email newsletter about it, and emailed current clients. (On the contrary, had I carefully and purposefully chosen not to take a break, I would have needed to book movers to pack our things as well as move them, for instance).

Taking a first, concrete action serves to ritualize the opening of that particular chosen direction for your near future. Sliding is the worst of all worlds. Sure, look before you leap, but then stride into your own future instead.

Having Trouble Taking Your Own Advice?

Clearly, you’re not alone! Book a no-strings-attached intro call with me, and we can take advantage of making this advice-considering and advice-taking a social process.


Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.