I got an email this morning from a very concerned woman, who I would describe as a distant acquaintance, chastising me — under the guise of “encouragement”— for decisions I’ve made about “my research” topic for my dissertation. She heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend… The details and the specifics don’t matter. She goes on to tell me things we learned together years ago and offers to bring me along with her to a meeting that I am more-than-capable of setting up myself. She ends the (long) email asking for forgiveness and to be excused for its approach because “I’m a mom!”
I get a lot of unsolicited advice. It always appears looking like kindness and generosity. Well-intentioned.
Here’s the thing: it’s not. It’s an assumption that we’re not all doing the best we can do. It’s an assumption that an outsider knows everything that’s going on inside. Inside a situation, inside a person. It’s an assumption that the outsider knows the larger context and where this moment sits on the continuum of life.
I would like to write back something snarky and aggressive, like: “Thanks for the email! After all these years, I didn’t think I’d be hearing from you again! I made a change in my dissertation research because I had to get really REAL about my LIFE and my PASSIONS. As it turns out, I’m pretty PASSIONATE about my mental health, my financial health, my personal strengths, and my hopes and dreams for my WHOLE life. Also, people. I made my decision based on people I care about — myself included — and people I don’t so much care about. It was a HARD decision. And an EASY decision. I cried. Oh man, did I cry. And then I celebrated. In fact, I’m still celebrating. Because life is so HARD but we can do hard things. So really, this decision was about LIFE. As are most decisions, I think. It took me about 1,000 tiny decisions to arrive at the big decision you’re concerned about. And I’m about 1,000 tiny decisions beyond that big one. Because that’s how this life thing is working, at least for me. Lots of tiny decisions and a couple big ones followed by many, many more tiny ones. Thanks for asking! Oh wait, you didn’t!”
Here’s what I think: unsolicited advice is not kind and is not generous.
I think questions and listening are kind and generous. Questions like: How are you REALLY doing? How does this relate to your WHOLE — as in all the context and maybe the entire continuum of —life? WHY are you making the decisions you’re making? HOW can I support you?
That’s kind and generous.
Whether it’s about a big decision — a career path, a family path — or a small decision — drinking three cups of coffee in the afternoon — questions and listening assume the person is doing the best she can. They assumes she’s the expert on her own life. They assumes she knows where she’s been and where she is at this moment and maybe even where she’d like to be in the future, whether the future be two minutes away or two decades away. It takes time to ask those questions and really listen. More importantly, it takes time to cultivate the type of relationship in which we can ask those questions and hope for an honest — real — response. That’s kind and generous.
P.S. And don’t get me started on the please-forgive-me-for-this-approach-because “I’m a mom!” sentiment. Being a mom does not give you privileges other women do not have, and it certainly doesn’t give you a free pass to be less kind and less generous. Or the ability to be more kind or more generous. But that’s a topic for another day…
P.P.S. I won't write that back in the email. I'll do my best to be kind and generous. And, really, the utter disconnect of this email leads me to believe that it wasn't really about me. I'm starting to think unsolicited advice isn't actually ever about the person receiving it.