“I wonder sometimes if seeing behind the curtain makes you respect me or my writing less,” I say to a friend. “You get to see what it actually looks like in practice. You get to see how I apply — or don’t — what I put out there into the wider world. How it sometimes matches exactly and other times might have to look a little different. Because there are days when there’s too much going on to handle your business perfectly. There are days when you’re so stressed out that it’s almost a logic puzzle figuring out how to address issues without making each other instantly defensive. That’s real life. How real people work.”
I pause for a second and then add, “So yeah, I don’t know if knowing me well makes you respect me or my writing less.”
My friend quotes this last sentence and replies, “More. You walk what you can of the walk.”
Sitting in my office, I beam. I thank her.
The Right Path Is Situational & Dependent on a Number of Factors
The hardest thing about giving advice — and about following it — is that the right advice is always very situational. It depends on context. As I said in an earlier post, the key to effective self-help is knowing where you are, relative to the advice.
In another way, it’s like this. There are two important pillars of self-help:
- Tools. Advice usually falls into this category, things to try, methods, reframes, etc.
- Self-awareness. Understanding yourself and how you’re coming off to others socially, being able to take an honesty inventory of your strengths and weaknesses — not shopping for problems you would like to have because you consider them flattering or easy to solve (or that the solutions would be enjoyable).
Stepping away from the realm of self-help, if we’re looking at relationship advice, there are another two pillars:
- Other-awareness. Your knowledge of the other person (or people if it’s a more complex social situation or a network of relationships).
- Relationship dynamic-awareness. Your understanding of the ins and outs of the combination of you and others (which usually isn’t as straightforward as the sum of those elements).
It’s Important to Know When To Change Your Walk & When to Change the Path
I’m sorry. I wish it were easier, more straightforward. But there is no magic advice that works for everyone in every situation.
Things that sound useful are often not very useful when you try to go apply them and discover that the person who came up with the advice didn’t actually explain anything (“just communicate” is a good example; communication is a very broad range of behaviors and can be rather complicated depending on the situation and people involved). Or you may very well find that advice that sounded good absolutely makes your particular situation worse.
And there’s a reason for this. Think of it as analogy for going for a walk/hike: You have your own strengths and weaknesses and are subject to fluctuations in moods and health. And so do the people you are walking with. Not only that, but not all the paths are the same. Nor are the conditions you find yourself in. The weather can change from day to day — and even moment to moment.
One rule isn’t going to cut it. You not only need a complete toolkit — you need awareness and flexibility and all of those other factors I talked about earlier in this essay.
And maybe sometimes the tools aren’t going to cut it. Maybe you should be taking a different route to get where you want to go.
In order to get home safely, you have to know when to change your walk and when to change the path.
Some of that you can learn from reading as much as you can, talking to other people with experience, engaging in self-reflection, and having conversations with those you will be walking the path with.
And sometimes you learn those lessons from the times when you set out on a journey, and in spite of your best efforts, things went horribly wrong and you almost didn’t make it home.