The specific context is parenting, but if you’re not a parent, just substitute for parenting whatever category of life you’ve sought advice for recently—business, marriage, book marketing, the best brand of donut. It doesn’t really matter.
Picture a Sunday morning nearly 9 years ago. My wife and I lay in bed. Our 4-week-old baby girl lay beside us. I should have felt rested, cheerful, set for an early walk with the dog.
Instead, my shoulders hurt and my eyes bagged. Addy, our colicky newborn, had taken us through another loud and edgy night.
If you’ve never experienced a colicky newborn, just imagine a tomcat tied in a burlap bag with a ferret and a bagpipe. At one point my dear wife had actually banged her head against the wall.
My wife and I needed some advice—and quick! How were we ever going to figure out this new crazy stage of life?
My older brother and his wife had two children already, and I phoned him up, looking for an action plan to success.
“You’ll figure it out,” was all he said.
That didn’t seem like enough advice to me, so Mary and I read books, phoned parenting advice lines, and phoned up other friends with older children.
We heard some good stuff. But one problem.
The advice we received was all over the board. In fact, the advice often pointed us in different directions, and few of the recommendations matched up.
For instance, a few weeks after we’d brought our daughter home from the hospital, a neighbor and his wife visited. The man spoke of child-rearing with the voice of an expert. He had five children and reassured us right away we parents are an easily manipulated lot. With cool certainty, he painted pictures of the disasters that would strike if we didn’t organize our baby’s agenda around the clock.
“Scheduling is the only sure way!” he said. He scanned the horizon with steely eyes.
As he talked, the man’s wife stood behind him shaking her head and mouthing the word no. On the way out she hissed, “Everything he told you is completely wrong!”
Whose advice were we supposed to follow?
My approach to giving and receiving advice about parenting was solidified one day soon after Addy’s birth when I went shopping for pacifiers.
Addy had been howling nonstop for a few days. One book encouraged profuse pacifier use. Another insisted pacifiers were the root of all evil.
We decided to give a pacifier a shot, so Mary stayed home with Addy, while I went hunting. Back in 15 minutes, I thought.
At the baby super-duper store, my jaw dropped. Columns of pacifiers stretched for 30 feet. There were traditional nubby-looking plugs. Organic-composites. Dentally-certified retainers. Titanium-alloy, high-tech marvels. I stood in the pacifier aisle for half an hour, reading boxes, scratching my head.
In the end I bought three different kinds of pacifiers, and Addy hated them all.
Clearly then, I concluded, child-rearing experts don’t exist. If they did, the advice would have been clear in the first place, and at least one of the pacifiers I’d bought would have silenced the child.
In the years since, the plethora of pacifiers has put advice giving and advice receiving into perspective for me.
I know now that in most gray areas of life, such as parenting, book marketing, business, marriage, and which donut to buy, some advice works, and some doesn’t.
In the end, my older brother’s advice continues to ring true—for me, and I’m sure it will for you, too.
His straightforward words put the responsibility back on us and our intuition. That helped when the only constant about the advice we were receiving was its inconsistency.
His advice again?
You’ll figure it out.
Question: What advice have you received lately? Did it work? Or not?