Easy for You to Say: Some Thoughts on Giving and Taking Advice

Today’s entry was inspired by an article I found on Twitter, which called into question the use of self-help books. The comment that most caught my eye was, “Advice is autobiographical,” which made me start to evaluate this blog and my long-overdue-to-be-finished book based on it. (I know, I know, I’ll get it finished eventually.) Read on for where this article took me.

“Easy for You to Say!”

I know people read this blog because I hear from them via the comments or direct email occasionally. What struck me as I read the article was the fact that no one, to my recollection, has come back to me and said, “Wow, that advice really worked for me, thank you!” There might be any number of reasons for that, from being too busy to forgetting where you got an idea to…well, not finding the advice particularly useful or profitable.

Side Note: One thing that elusive book of mine will not do is promise that the reader will become rich or successful by following five easy steps or whatever. I’m not nearly so arrogant. On a related note, it’s occurred to me that a lot of people writing career advice books tend to be people who are working on the lecture circuit–think Tony Robbins–as if the path to success and riches involves simply writing a book and getting invited to speak at corporate conferences. That is not my plan, nor would I advocate it.

The comment about advice being autobiographical made me consider the lack of positive responses a little more carefully. Why might people not find my advice useful?

Sometimes it comes down to that difference in autobiographies: “It’s easy for you to suggest X. You’re a single/40-something/middle-class/heterosexual/white male with no kids!” Or, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have those thoughts plus others: “It’s easy for you to suggest that I do X. You’ve worked at Disney/Department of Defense/NASA. You’ve got an extensive network. You worked in the corporate world before you became a freelancer. You grew up in a different economy from me.” Et cetera.

I’d like to think my advice is somewhat universal for technical writing students or professionals, but obviously that is not always the case. Differences in background, experience, temperament, interests, and abilities can slant my advice in a direction that doesn’t always work or make sense for you. (I recall my Business Writing 300 class at University of Alabama-Huntsville griping, “We don’t all want to be professional writers!”)

Likewise, I have an acquaintance who finds my mild-mannered, try-to-get-along-with-everyone attitude irritating. Your personality might differ from mine.

I’m also not the person to come to for advice on handling your personal affairs; I’m here to talk business. Indeed, I’m single again in part because of an argument over different perceptions of “work-life balance,” so I’m definitely not the one to come to for handling your romantic life. And really, if you have a question of a personal nature that is not work-related, you should take some advice I’ve offered previously and seek help from professionals or your personal support network. See? That was useful.

Needless to say, I don’t expect all of you to accept all of my advice on everything.

Given That, Why Should You Listen to Me?

I submit that differences in one’s personal stories should not preclude me or anyone else from offering useful advice.

Another person’s differing background or “slant” on reality can offer you insights you might not have experienced or considered before. Ever read stories (fictional or biographical) about people who have nothing in common with you? Why? Could it be because you’re curious about other people, what they do, and how they think?

Also, despite any differences in background, experience, or any of the rest, I still submit that many of the following actions and behaviors I advocate will serve you well in your technical communications career:

  • Produce the best work you can.
  • Learn what you’re writing about.
  • Try to get along with all the people you work with.
  • Maintain contact with your network to expand your range of friends and, potentially, business opportunities.
  • Find out what is required to get you the job/career you want and then do those things (or as many of them as you can), operating on the belief that you can do what you want to do.

Many of these pieces of advice were things that were told to me by authors and acquaintances with differing backgrounds, so you never know what you’ll learn where.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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