Monday, May 1, 2006

Advice on advice

Advice on advice
By Narendra Luther

Advice is what you ask when you already know the answer but wished
you didn't.

Nothing is so readily given and so grudgingly taken as advice. The tendency to indulge in it is directly related to the age of the dispenser. In fact, a senile person tends to repeat the same advice to the same person. It has nothing to do with the success or failure of the free vendor of advice. On the other hand an unsuccessful person gives advice by of warning by giving his on example. Every parent has a lawful right to give advice to his children irrespective of their capacity to do so. Some children succeed in life by disregarding the parental advice. Giving advice is one way of showing superiority on one’s part. It is assumed that if you give advice you are deemed to have been a success in your life. Asking for it also often cloaks a subtle form of sycophancy. When a person asks what is the secret of your health or success, he makes you feel you are a healthy/successful man. After that the adviser is disposed to grant favour to the seeker of advice, which generally is the original objective of the seeker of advice.

Three ways

There are three ways of giving advice. First is the direct personal method. That method relates advice to one’s own experience. It gives examples from one’s own achievements or failures. Hard work, thinking big, pursuing a dream, facing risks, braving odds, standing up for truth and honesty, systematic approach to work, slow and steady pursuit of a goal, good PR with people are some of the elements of various pieces of advice to which children at home are subjected by way of rehearsal. Since they can’t but listen to it the advice-giver is emboldened to step out to a wider circle. If he does not encounter any rebuff there, he then moves further into the wide world and preys on people enjoying themselves in groups or parties. In religious gatherings and political meetings, willing victims are found in plenty. Annual functions of educational institutions and celebrations of similar kind are good occasions for worthies to impart advice to youngsters and other members of the audience on character building and achieving success in life. It may even go to the other side and exhort the listeners not to care for mundane success because there are better things in life than to hanker after for material success. It depends upon what sounds better.

The Approach

The approach can be self-centred or objective. In the former case, one relates every piece of advice to one’s own success or failure. It starts with a declaration: ‘When I was your age…’ or When you reach my age…’ or ‘what I am’, I am because…’ or ‘I believe.’ or I always practised…’ Youngsters don’t like this approach because it has a parental ring about it. Elders too don’t feel happy about it because of the ‘I’ element in it. But the recipients are victims of good manners. We all are. In this case it is better to dwell upon one’s failures. That makes for novelty which is more interesting. Also it is nearer the truth because, come to think of it, every one is a failure in a manner of speaking. That is because ambition has no limit. It grows on itself. The more you achieve, the more you want to achieve. Even if you become the president of the country, you may feel you should have achieved it earlier or secured more terms than you did. There is always a way of looking at things. Talking about one’s failures openly puts one’s audience at ease. They feel they are not so inferior after all.

The Impersonal Approach

The other approach is impersonal. You don’t bring yourself into the discussion. You talk about the philosophy of success and failure and give examples from scriptures or epics, biographies and autobiographies. Mythological and historical figures provide good raw material for this exercise. How did Arjuna become an outstanding archer? Why was Yudhishter’s dog admitted to heaven? Why did Alexander stop where he did? Why did Aurangzeb win the War of Succession? How Tagore came to establish the Shantiniketan? There is no end to anecdotes and stories that tell the secret of success and failures. Such impersonal references make one appear both non-egotistical and learned. They serve to enhance the speaker’s reputation as a widely read man.

Practice or Precept

The third method is not to give advice but to make it available by practice rather than precept. You do not advise, you do not preach but do your own job. If you make a mark, you will automatically become a role model for some people. Unbeknownst to you many youngsters – and surprisingly many oldsters too -- will try to emulate your example. After all how many of us have met men like Mahatma Gandhi or Nehru or Nelson Mandela - to mention only three from a galaxy of names of people who have made a difference in the world - in flesh and blood. But two generations of Indians and innumerable persons from abroad have tried to draw lessons from their lives. People have read their autobiographies or biographies or read about or heard about them and striven to adopt their ideals. That is the best form of advice. Such persons remain mythical figures rather than concrete persons and inspire the masses as invisible gods do – or even God does. Real-life idols sometime reveal their feet of clay and the ensuing disenchantment occasionally disorients the worshippers and followers. That is why leaders keep a distance from their fans and followers. That is how they retain their mystique. Ideas are more powerful than persons and ideas outlive persons who conceived and propagated them. If the ideology fails, it is the surviving practitioners who are blamed. It is therefore good for heroes to die early. Imagine J.F. Kennedy living to ripe old age and being found out as an expert philanderer. Those who have to give something don’t delay. They make their gifts and depart. Of course there are some exceptions and you all know about them. One good feature about any advice is that it should be brief and this discourse seems already to have violated that canon. So it is time I hung up.

I for one don’t believe in giving or taking advice. I can pick up a piece of advice depending upon the occasion from numerous sources. As for giving it, I give it only to my dog. He does not care. He does not listen. Yet he wags his tail as if in gratefulness. He lives his happy life as he is destined to. As he is content to do. To his wagging tail is attached a piece of advice – for me as well as you.
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