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Friday, February 23, 2018

Advice is Useless

I once thought that I could show people how I do things and that that would allow them to do what I do.  It doesn't seem to really work like that, does it?  You have to be smart and well-trained, and smart enough to train yourself when need be ... and then be in circumstances where it is possible to do the work. (A frequent commentator on this blog,  the profacero blogger, has been saying this to me for years.)  The advice only works once you are there, but isn't it superfluous then? Usually, when someone  has benefitted from any help from me, it is because they were already where they needed to be, and just needed to know it was possible for them to have an active research program with tangible results.

Of course, I can look at what you write and give you a critique, tell you how to make it better, but that is editing, not "advice."

It isn't about work ethic or time management, even. I will be the first to tell you I am lazy and disorganized.



Anonymous said...

Information helps, though. There are crucial moments when I would have benefited very greatly from information (and only got advice). Nowadays someone in my position would have had the Internet to ask.

Editing helps a lot, too, and so does opinion/perspective. "What I think is happening is....". I don't mean the "What I see happening" that is a lead-in to some standard self-help narrative, I mean actual analysis and perspective on a topic or a situation.

I have in fact told people how I worked and had it work for them, but as you say, that was because they needed information, not advice.

I am constantly telling people how to study foreign languages, how to learn them. Nobody is interested in what I have to say about it except other people who are also foreign language seekers. They are only interested for confirmation, or because they are frustrated that other people don't understand their advice -- they don't need my instructions.

Jonathan said...

You get language learners who don’t actually like language too.

Anonymous said...

The other thing is that people work in wildly different ways. Ask any writer.

What burns me is the idea that the 25 minute segment is universal, and that you should be very, very tolerant of interruptions such as alarm clocks ringing or little hourglasses you have set for yourself running out. I've just realized what it is: my mother would interrupt work constantly, when I was a child and then later in more serious ways, and the idea of having preset some limit stricter than "I'll break for lunch at noon, and then do other things until five" causes me VERY great anxiety because it reminds me of my mother's piercing cries, always right when I was about to solve the algebra problem or whatever it was: "Help! Come, now! I am hurt, badly!"

People totally misinterpret Boice. He says you are either working or not, and if you are working you must do some work almost daily, i.e. you must keep your work in mind, make it a priority, consider it part of you, allow it to be important to you, be friends with it, not be scared of it, not use it as a cudgel against yourself, be in loving contact with it, even. But people think he means everyone must work like (Thackeray? Isn't he the one who forced himself to write at a certain speed, measured in words per 15 minutes? ...I am not sure, but I just looked him up, and he had a wild life, and how I want to read a good biography of him).

Anonymous said...

*My claim is that my advice on language learning is solves matters for people who don't like language. This is what seems not to be true -- everyone must develop their own way of doing things, and people are not rational, not about economics and not about how to work. This is why there is the idea of "inspiration." It's not that you have to wait to feel inspired, it's that you have to allow yourself to find and implement your way of working

Anonymous said...

OK, more on this. The circumstances are partly material and partly not. The thing is that you have to have access to the self that does this work, and that self needs recreation and support. Personally, I find teaching and service very, very draining because there is so much low-level drudgery: e-workbooks, data entry, petty politics, and so on. There is also so much caretaking work that really needs doing and is expected, and I'm not the type of person this is easy for. So I spend a great deal of time every day outside of myself, tending to others, actively suppressing the self that can do higher-level work so that I can do my job. I find I need a lot of time to come back to myself. Only then, rested up and with some random intellectual reading done, can I then sit down like a real person and do some real work.

My friends who get more done than I do, also lead much more luxurious lives. I can hardly grasp it. I only do as they do when I am on vacation, but they do it all the time. They see all these movies, concerts and plays, they go to the beach on the weekend, they read out of field a lot, they have rich family lives, and so on. They have very little drudgery and also little activist work or civic involvement, but they have rich intellectual lives, a lot of pleasure in teaching, and high research productivity. They also don't waste all the time I do on self-doubt and recovery from self-doubt.

I, of course, would not do exactly those things. I wouldn't work for a private school (that is, a school for the rich) and I would not renounce political / civic life. But I do think the intellectual and creative self must be allowed to play. And physical environment doesn't matter to everyone, but it does to me. The idea that you can lead a life of complete self-sacrifice but write a brilliant book if you use your 15-minute breaks wisely is just cracked.

(Actually, the analogy would be the financial advice they give -- if you are out of money, look to see what superfluous things you can cut, unused gym memberships, etc. -- when you don't have any superfluous gym memberships and you need rent money, not just an extra $50.)

Jonathan said...

Let me pull one thing out of that and comment: nothing is more exhausting than self-doubt, and the effort needed to pull yourself out of it. If it is hard work just to live inside your own head, then there is not much left for anything else.

Anonymous said...


But just speaking more generally: I really think the reason the STANDARD how-to-get-it-done advice doesn't work is that makes erroneous assumptions, usually based on the idea that the advisee has no idea of discipline, no self-control, and so on, and also no research skills. I think actually people need more beauty, pleasure, and autonomy, not further exhortations on how to keep to the treadmill.

Autonomy can come from information and that is where the best advice comes in. I've often been frustrated because I can't get high-level information, but only get rote high-school style advice spouted, or advice given that assumes I am a completely different person

All of this is to say I think advice does in fact work. Information on how someone else does things is always useful even if you don't imitate them. Information on how things work in general is also useful, as are real answers to real questions (it is also important to let people ask the questions they actually have, even if these are unorthodox). So it is actually possible that I am arguing that advice is VERY USEFUL.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and also: advice might be useless but being around people who are working is not. A lot of what I know comes from the graduate students who were living in this dorm where I lived as a freshman. You could see how they were working and they would say what they were doing. "I am going up against five professors, of whom two have recent Nobel prizes, so I must work out every day and contemplate long and beautiful views, so that I will be calm. I must cover eight topics so I will review one each week. I can devote four hours to this on four weekdays, and five to six hours each weekend; I want to take one weekend day off each week so that gives me 5-6 hours Saturday or Sunday. On that workday I can also do errands and then go out in the evening." Things like this.

Clarissa said...

I don't know. I have found your advice to be not just useful but transformational. I knew I wanted to be a research scholar and I was miserable because it simply wasn't happening. I was getting really depressed because there was a gulf between who I was and who I wanted to be.

When I discovered your blog and simply started doing what you suggested, it changed everything. I finally got to where I always wanted to be. Nothing else changed besides the way I organized my work and conceptualized what I was doing. And it made all the difference in the world.

I will be forever grateful because I'm now happy in my work. And I wasn't before.

Jonathan said...

Yes, but you see you actually followed the advice! If you do that then my advice is indeed invaluable. That's the paradox, right?