on giving solicited advice

I think many people deeply want to be asked for advice. This is a way to influence the world, to put one?s own stamp on things, to express oneself, to gain standing and self-respect– all without coercing or bribing people.

Hannah Arendt argued that ?politics?–debating policies with other people–was not just necessary; it was a positive good. ?In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.? To have beliefs is to be fully human. Yet unless we argue publicly for our positions, Arendt said, we can possess only shadowy, inarticulate views. For Arendt, the paradigm of ?politics? was a competitive struggle to get one?s opinions endorsed by the community. I think that answering a request for advice is an even better way to express oneself and find oneself.

I realize that we sometimes ask people for advice for dubious reasons. For example, we might ask a potential funder in order to glean information about how to win a grant, or we might ask a professor in order to flatter him and get a better grade. These are more or less corrupted forms of dialogue. But there are also many occasions in which both the soliciting and the giving of advice is genuine.

At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I think there are ways to encourage people to ask you for advice:

  • When asked, give thoughtful advice.
  • Do not oversell what you know. Be very quick to admit ignorance.
  • Rarely give unsolicited advice. Indeed, don?t talk much at all when there?s limited time for other people to speak.
  • Show up and listen. That way, you will know what?s going on, and also you will be there to be asked.
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