Advice is Weak Magic

I realize that in saying this, I’m about to give you some advice about advice, and, here it is: Advice is weak magic. 

Being on the receiving end of someone else’s advice has always made me uncomfortable. One of the most powerful things that I’ve learned from years of group work is how advice often serves the advisor more than the recipient. We all like to hear ourselves talk, and the ego sure does love to hear how great our advice sounds. 

The original root of the word advice means something like “how it seems to me”—and there’s the key. It’s about me, the speaker, not whoever happens to be there to hear what I’m saying. Advice is really a way of talking to yourself, with the added benefit of having someone else tell you how smart you sound. 

If I say “If I was you, I would do X,” or “You should do Y,” and my listener does do X, then I’ve succeeded in getting them to do something that I did, that I would do, or that I might do, if I had the courage. It’s often easier to get someone else to try out our ideas about what might be good for ourselves. Less risk, right? 

In his book Inner Work, Robert A. Johnson writes clearly about the power of unconscious energy—dreams, fantasy, active imagination—and how we should not project our own unconscious energy onto other people that we know in the world. Advice is often the same thing—projecting our own unconscious work onto others. Think about that for a moment, and I think you’ll agree that sounds a lot like trying to do magic on someone. Not impossible, but very difficult, and very likely problematic. 

Good advice can be very charming, and I mean charm in the way that I heard Gavin de Becker describe it while speaking with Sam Harris — as “a directed instrument,” and that “To charm somebody is to compel or to control them…” I don’t know if you ever played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, but Charm Person is right there on page 55 of the Players’ Handbook. It’s one of the most basic spells. 

What I try to do instead is to speak not of what I would do, but only of what I have done. If someone asks for advice, I will happily share what comes to mind of my own actual past experience, which may or may not be obviously related, and then do my best to stop. right. there. 

So, am I trying to charm you into giving less advice? Only if you like how it sounds. I’m just doing this to remind myself. 

Advice is weak magic.