Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Advice for People With Problems

For advice to be useful or constructive, it has to make sense within the point of view of the person receiving it. It does not help to suggest an action a person can’t or wouldn’t want to do.

My sophomore macroeconomics professor gave a real-world example of this. If the president of a company hires you to tell him how to overhaul his company, your recommendations cannot include firing the president. Even if that is what needs to be done, the recommendation you offer has to point toward actions the president might actually consider.

There is a branch of economics that deals with these issues, especially on a national level. In the field of economic development, the question is not whether a country would be better off adding ten universities and a thousand factories, but what it can realistically accomplish next starting from where it is.

On an individual level, there is the old cure for insomnia: “What you need is a good night’s sleep.” That’s a joke, of course, but lots of well-meaning lifestyle advice is given in the same manner. The advice is not helpful because it is based on the assumption that the problem doesn’t exist.

Running, for example, could be a way to lose weight, but this is not a strategy for people who are too heavy to run for more than a few minutes at a time. They need a form of exercise that puts less stress on their already stressed bodies, at least at first.

A friend told me another example. An expert suggested that eating flax seeds would help reduce inflammation, but cautioned that one should eat “only freshly ground flax seeds.” This might be true in some scientific sense, but to expect a person who has an inflammatory lifestyle to muster the energy to get a grinder and learn how to grind flax seeds, and then to do so every morning before going off to work, is missing the point. A person who has a general problem with inflammation — as many people do because of the inflammatory effects of the western diet — doesn’t have the energy to take on such a big initiative. A program of action that is simple enough to do is more important than having it be ideal in a theoretical sense. Better advice about flax seeds would be to buy commercial flaxseed meal and store it in the freezer. This way, you get some of the benefits of flax seeds, and it’s something you can actually do. After a few years of anti-inflammatory initiatives like flaxseed meal, you might find that you have the energy to grind flax seeds every day, but that level of energy has to come first.

Magazine articles with advice on clutter often make the same mistake. One suggestion I read recently: a designated spot to put today’s mail so that you can find it later when you have time to go through it. This might be a good strategy for someone who is already pretty well organized, but it won’t work for the people who really have a problem with clutter. The nature of clutter is that the spaces are filled. They don’t have any spare spaces that can be designated for one purpose or another. Being better organized might be the ultimate outcome, but they have to start out by having less stuff.

The traditional advice for shy people is equally useless. “Get out there and mingle,” “Go to more parties,” “Just be yourself” — the strategies that work so well for people who can’t imagine being shy may not help people who actually have a problem with shyness.

We all know people who are ready to dispense advice at the drop of a hat. They have a solution for everyone. But good advice is harder than it seems. The downfall of most advice that is supposed to solve a problem is that the problem keeps the advice from working. Anyone can argue against a problem. It takes a disciplined imagination to look inside a problem and find the way out.