I am often on the receiving end of unsolicited advice. Could it be because I look frantic all the time? Is it because I run on “Leah time” — consistently late but for an ever-changing but legitimate reason? Or is it simply because I perpetually look like I have no idea what I’m doing, where I’m going, and for what purpose?
Even before I became a mom, I was known for — OK, more like infamous for — being one of those people who didn’t even pretend to have her act together. Even though I consistently wore makeup and always wore heels — which only added extra elements of humor and danger to my constant running around — I just couldn’t get it together. My naiveté was recognized internationally as well: I have fond memories of studying in Sweden, where I was often lost. I’d try to find my way using one of those oversized tourist maps when a friendly Swede would kindly offer me unsolicited advice. Boy, was I grateful!
So one would assume that any semblance of finesse I had pretty much disappeared when I became a mom. And that would be correct! Once my first daughter was born, being 10 minutes late became a victory; the endless laundry piles seemed to be on a conveyor belt; and homemade meals were something I think I once saw on the Food Network.
I used to be self-conscious of my disorganization and lack of grace. I desired to be more punctual, more organized and more, well, more. And although it has taken me quite some time, I am finally kinder and less apologetic of myself. I’ve learned to accept the mess and chaos — maybe it’s because I have more realistic expectations, or maybe it’s because, as a mom of a 6- and 3-year-old, I no longer have the time to care.
But I’m convinced that my recognition of my level of disorganization is precisely why I attract so much unsolicited advice. Sometimes this type of “help” is just that; constructive and appreciated. Sometimes, however, it comes with a side of judgment, which can sting. But as I get older, I find myself becoming less and less judgmental of others. I’ve come to realize that most of us are doing the best we can.
Also, I’ve learned that, even when unsolicited advice comes with judgment, I can still learn a lot. I’ve gained tremendous wisdom from people I would have been too timid to consult — like that time I was preparing to be a counselor an Israel trip. We took an emergency-readiness course, and our Israeli instructor took one look at me and shouted, “Your campers have no hope if you react like that during a bus fire! Stay alert, expect the worst and have a plan before the emergency happens!”
After I got over the shame of basically letting my tour bus go up in imaginary flames, I assumed a more prepared and useful perspective. There is not a day that goes by without me implementing at least one aspect of his advice. Thanks, Udi!
But here’s the best part about unsolicited advice: I don’t have to take it! This feels oddly freeing to my guilt-ridden Ashkenazi soul. When I call friends for advice, I feel compelled to follow their recommendations — and as a result, I think very hard before I ask for advice. But unsolicited advice feels like a cheat: I am free to follow it and I don’t feel obliged to make excuses or feel bad if I don’t.
Thanks to all this reasoning, I also give myself permission to stick my head where it doesn’t belong. I, too, am guilty of giving unsolicited advice. I can’t help myself when shopping at a baby supply store and notice someone about to buy the wrong stroller. After all, I have two kids, which makes me an expert, right? I just about lose all self-control when in a dressing room, especially at a bridal boutique, and especially when I LOVE the gown (only positive feedback, of course).
My love-hate relationship with advice provided me a Carrie Bradshaw moment: I couldn’t help but wonder, why do we give unsolicited advice when most of us hate receiving it? Are we all hypocrites and unable to control our need to advise those we think could benefit from our experience?
After thinking about this for so many years, I believe I found the answer: it is because we care! Perhaps the feeling of helping someone — especially when not asked — makes us feel important. But it also makes us feel that we are doing the right thing. Maybe we can save someone from making the same mistakes we have made. Conceivably, we could save someone money, time, anguish, or stress.
Maybe giving unsolicited advice is just part of human nature. After all, I got a dose of unsolicited advice from my 6-year-old last week: She suggested that, since we always go to the library on Wednesdays, we should put our book to return in the car the on Tuesday night. (Not only is she brilliant, she is kind!)
So, my unsolicited advice to you? (And note you have a choice here — if you don’t want my advice, you could just stop reading.) When giving advice, try not to judge. Advise without shaming. Imagine how you would want to hear what you’re about to say, and think if it is actually valuable. And, when it comes to being on the receiving end of advice, I leave you with this thought from Pirkei Avot 4:1: Who is wise? One who learns from every person.