Our Own Best Advice

Earlier this year, I read a Malcolm Gladwell book, Talking to Strangers. I enjoy his work and was surprised that I missed this one, which came out in 2019. I suspect it was subsumed by current events happening at the time, overshadowed by politics.

This one was different than earlier books I had read of his, less playful. More thoughtful. At the start of the book, he talks about the genesis of the book, his desire to understand Sandra Bland’s death and the events leading up to it. How did we get here? Why do we find ourselves in this place?

He explores several contributing factors, among them shifts in policing theory that somehow got detached from the science behind them as frightened communities reached for easy fixes and ended up with stop and frisk. I don’t want to talk to much about that – I can’t do it justice without retelling the whole story and it’s better if you read it yourself. After listening to someone who refused to read one of his earlier books contribute at a reading group that they thin-sliced when they drove because they often went into driving-fugue and woke up at home with no memory of the journey, I am leery of explaining Gladwell to others.

I do, however, want to talk about one area of the book that struck me at the time, and that I have been reflecting on since then. It was in the section of the book where he discussed transparency theory, which is the assumption that many of us know what emotions others are thinking based on their facial expressions, body language, and actions. We assume that people who are happy smile, and those who are sad, cry. If someone smiles when they are sad and cries when happy, we misread their emotions, sometimes with terrible consequences.

But the part of this section of the book that stayed with me, was not what was going on inside the head of someone who isn’t reacting in the stereotypical way, but the idea that we often think we know what is going on with someone better than they know themselves. That we have the ability to diagnose others and prescribe solutions for them, because of our all-knowing insight.

This is a habit many of us have: knowing what is better for people than they know themselves. Parents do it to children, children do it to parents. Bosses do it to employees. Employees know they can fix bosses, if they would just listen. The entire coaching industry has sprung up around this idea. Coaching, in and of itself, is listening and reflecting. But many coaches add to that advising – and, of course they do, no one is going to pay you for just listening and reflecting: they pay you for professional advice. Or so we think.

You see it on the internet all the time: article after article about how to parent, how to manage, how to lead, how to find a job or keep a job or leave a job, how to cook, how to clean, how to lose weight, how to shop. It feels like everyone knows how to do things so much better than you do.

And I get so tired of it.

I get tired of telling my husband or my mom or my sister how to treat their depression, because depressed people are notoriously bad at taking advice. But it is so easy, when you care deeply about someone or something, and you think you can see the solution from outside, to tell them what it is. To tell them how to lose weight or gain weight or grow stronger or make friends or find a hobby – and you know that will solve their problem. Although you may not take your own advice.

And I get tired of others doing it to me.

The truth is, I know what I need to do to solve my problems. I know it very well. I just don’t want to do it. Because I don’t enjoy doing it. Because it feels uncomfortable to do it. Because it’s hard. Because I don’t do it enough and I am unpracticed. Because I don’t like feeling unskilled at something, at anything. Because I fear what will happen if I do solve this problem, what will be the consequences, the side-effects, all the other little problems that sprout from the solution.

Take your pick.

I used to be a positivist, someone who saw the glass as half-full, able to reframe like mad to find the bright side. To believe that anything was possible if you just thought outside the box. I routinely asked, “What would make this possible?” in meetings with people who could only see the darkness. The person who always persisted and took on the impossible because that was part of who she was: the person who accomplished impossible things. The person who could take on dragons.

I’m not sure what happened to that part of me. It seems to have gone to sleep.

I love to walk. I think of myself who goes for long walks on the weekends. I’ve gone into the last two weekends, resolute to walk, then discouraged by rainy weather forecasts, I have stayed home, lain on the couch, lost in You-Tube, too out of it to even do laundry or clean the house or cook. Only to realize, in the end, that it had been sunny most of the day and I could have gotten in a long walk before it began to rain.

This is what my life feels like right now.

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