Don’t laugh, but sometimes people ask me for advice. Only desperate times, I assume, would lead someone my direction for help, but it happens more and more as I get older and as I’m more vocal about my life and struggles, online and in person. It started happening so frequently, in fact, that I scheduled an appointment with a counselor to ask for advice. About giving advice. As in:
How do you counsel someone? Like, how do you know how and when to give counsel? How do you set your opinions aside and speak truth and be a leader but also a servant and do it all with grace and humility? Especially when you have no idea what you’re doing and you fully realize how ill-equipped you are to be advising anyone?
(If I ever try to schedule an appointment with you for anything at all, don’t take it. I probably have a list of impossible questions and I will definitely cry.)
I also asked my brother Robert all of these questions, because he is a pastor and also one of my best friends and I go to him for all of my own advice needs. He said something interesting, a thought that echoed what my counselor said:
People don’t need your advice.
Even when they ask for advice, they’re not really asking for advice.
They need your imagination.
People do not need a prescription for their problems: They need a new story to tell. And when the story is stuck, we help each other build a way out.
From the moment we first breathe our mother’s scent, as we learn what love will mean in our lives, for good or for bad; through childhood; as adults; in memory keeping and future dreaming- more than anything else, we are story-tellers. Whether you know it or not, you are constructing a narrative around every relationship, situation, and dilemma you face. It’s how we rationalize bad behavior (and my, how early we learn to spin the facts), it’s how we justify the secrets we keep, it’s how we choose the face we present to the world, it’s in the information we guard or share too freely- our story is all we have to tell, so we learn to adjust the story according to our own comfort and other people’s reaction. We learn to tell it not like it is, but rather, how we’d like it to be perceived. How it makes the most sense to us.
And then when we’re lost, or blinded by our limitations, or afraid to make the wrong move, we ask for advice. We are standing at a crossroads and although we think we’re asking for help making a decision, what we actually need is help understanding our story. We need a new map. We need an architect with a plan, not a wizard with a magic solution.
The difference between giving advice and being an architect lies in the art of curiosity. As Brene Brown puts it, “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty.” What makes me so uncomfortable about giving advice is the absoluteness of it: They ask, you answer, and there’s no room for imagining all the possibilities. There’s no room for growth. When I ask my brother for advice he doesn’t give a five-point answer to success- he almost always just asks me his own questions. The maturity of the architect is to say, “I don’t know if I know the answer. But I’d love to puzzle it out with you.” There is a vulnerability that comes with allowing yourself to not be right or definitive, but rather, sitting with someone in their pain or uncertainty, refusing the inclination to shoo it away with cliches or by spouting off your own experiences. An architect does not serve up platitudes or prideful examples of their wisdom; they listen, they ask questions, and they imagine what could come next for the story at hand.
An architect also understands this fundamental truth: We cannot force anyone to do anything. We can cajole, guilt, manipulate, influence, guide, direct- but we cannot write the script for each other. This is the problem with free will, if you believe in such a thing. As a parent, this shocked me most of all about raising young children- there are so many things I cannot force them to do.
-I can’t make them eat.
-I can’t make them sleep.
-I can’t make them learn.
-I can’t make them into different people.
This might sound crazy to you, and maybe I was crazy to think any of that was possible, but it’s a surprising reality check the first time your baby will. Not. Sleep. Short of drugging them, sleep is their choice. So is eating. So is learning. And in the end, while I get the great pleasure of teaching them about the world and being human, they decide who they will be.
Well, not horrible. It’s just terrifying. What little control we pretend to have disappears with each step they take towards independence. Which is the whole point, right? I want them to be independent, brave, beautiful people. I can’t make them do any of these things, but I can be their architect. I build a way for them to eat good food, by making good food and eating it with them. I design a way for them get enough sleep by taking them outside every day to play, and putting them to bed early enough each night. I offer a scaffold up to learning by reading aloud to them, exploring with them, by telling them what I’m learning and praying it informs the story they’re telling themselves about education. I can’t write their script, but I can be intentional about mine.
We cannot make each other different people through parenting, advice-giving, guilt-heaping or manipulating. It’s impossible and it’s not our job. We are the architects. As friends, as parents, as spouses and human beings, we stay curious about each other. We explore together. And when someone asks for advice, we don’t lecture or press; we ask our own questions. We invent and dream. We draw blueprints, maps, stories or models, and then we watch each other build and grow.
When I look in the proverbial mirror, it seems outrageous that anyone would want my opinion or advice. The long trail of failures and lost initiatives behind me are a dramatic indicator of my lack of credentials. But when I consider my story, and the power of a vulnerable interaction with a person who trusts me, I reconsider my strengths. Can I listen? Can I humbly ask questions? Can I invest time and energy in someone without demanding a certain loyalty to my way of thinking?
Can I be an architect instead of a sage? I pray it becomes true of me. Along with wisdom and humility, I pray for imagination and curiosity, a heart bent towards better stories and deeper connections instead of the pride of being right.