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How Should You Be? Try Taking Suggestions

Hadley’s intro:  Do you prefer advice from an

expert or from someone you (barely) know?

Or do you resist all suggestions because only you

know best?  Discover whether your views on advice

may help you improve your results ,or not, in a guest

post courtesy of the New York Times

More than offering prescriptions, suggestions —
good or bad — about how we should live broaden
our worldview and put us in touch with our
desires.

By Shayla Love
Jan. 1, 2023
Some chapters of life attract advice. After a
breakup, friends who are typically silent about
your romances might urge you to get back on dating
apps and block your ex on social media. Starting a
family gives rise to opinions about prenatal
vitamins and stroller brands; interviewing for a
new job might prompt advice about salary
negotiations and work-life balance.

Recently, I entered a suggestion-heavy era. A long
relationship had ended, and I pondered leaving my
job and moving to a different neighborhood.
Suddenly, I was in need of input from others on
how to find a new laundromat, enroll in health
insurance as a freelancer, live alone and navigate
online dating.

I wanted practical guidance that I could quickly
put into effect in my life. But the immediate
value of suggestions, I learned, wasn’t simply
doing what others said. They can be a tool for
self-discovery, a mirror to reflect on our beliefs
and blind spots. Input from others elicits the
opportunity to think something over. By
determining if it is something we want, and if it
matches our desires or values, we’re forced to
name what our desires and values are in the first
place.

As I became more receptive to advice, I stumbled
on another person seeking suggestions in a
surprising way.

In the fall, the University of Chicago philosopher
Agnes Callard, who specializes in ancient
philosophy and ethics and is known for her popular
essays on philosophy, created a virtual suggestion
box. Dr. Callard often receives suggestions on
Twitter and wanted a centralized place to collect
them. A link in her bio takes users to a Google
form, prompting them to answer the question:
“How should I improve?”

So far, Dr. Callard has received plenty of
suggestions for what to read and write. Recently,
she followed a suggestion to read a sermon by
Herbert McCabe, the theologian, and said she liked
its exploration of the relationship between prayer
and self-knowledge.

“I view a suggestion as an occasion to consider
something,” Dr. Callard said. “From the fact
that somebody suggests something — that’s not
a very strong reason to do anything. It’s at
most a reason to think about something or it draws
that issue to my attention.”

Her somewhat unconventional practice of seeking
advice dates back hundreds of years. One of the
first suggestion boxes was employed by Tokugawa
Yoshimune, the Japanese shogun who ruled in the
16th century during a period of military
dictatorship. Set up near the entrance of Edo
Castle in 1721, the meyasubako, or petition box,
would open three days a month for “advice that
is beneficial to the shogun’s governance or
reveals wrongful doings of civil servants,”
according to a 2003 academic paper.

Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar, a 19th-century king in
Persia, had a suggestion box-like system called,
“sanduq-i ’adalat,” or “the box of
justice,” in response to public criticism of the
court’s ministers. In 1890, Daniel W. Voorhees,
a U.S. Senator from Indiana, proposed starting a
publication called “The Petition Box,” which
would give any American a chance to make a
suggestion.

Implicit in this practice is the idea that our
actions might be improved by others and that their
comments (and complaints) are worth listening to.
Yet research shows that most of us ignore the
guidance we get on how to make a decision or
conduct ourselves, suggesting that advice may be
more about the large thoughts it leads us to
rather than the advice itself.

Studies on “advice utilization,” show that we
have a stubborn relationship with accepting
nudges. Even when we know little about a subject
we are likely to ignore advice from experts, said
Lyn Van Swol, a professor in communication science
at the University of Madison Wisconsin.

In lab experiments, participants tend to privilege
their own perspectives. This is called
“egocentric advice discounting,” said Silvia
Bonaccio, a professor of workplace psychology, who
studies how advice is given, or ignored, in the
workplace. Our own initial decisions or ideas act
as an anchor and stop us from following advice.

This could be to our detriment. Finding a
compromise between our own perspective and what an
adviser is telling us generally improves accuracy,
Dr. Van Swol said. In studies focusing on tasks
with a right or wrong answer, like answering a
trivia question or predicting the outcome of a
football game, input from someone with expertise
on the subject usually improves performance. Even
conflicting advice — while a potential source of
frustration — can be a good thing, Dr. Van Swol
said, because it can lower our confidence and push
someone to weigh decisions carefully. “People
tend to be overconfident in their decisions, and
overconfidence leads you to under-think things,”
she said.

According to Thomas Schultze-Gerlach, an
experimental social psychologist at Queen’s
University Belfast, we should ignore advice only
if it comes from people who are intentionally
trying to lead us astray. In all other situations,
suggestions can be valuable, he said.

But in life, advice doesn’t always come from
people who know better, and there are rarely
clear-cut answers. Outside of the lab, suggestions
come to us much the same way they might land in a
suggestion box: They can be original or
repetitive, sympathetic or bossy, insightful or
completely irrelevant.

ImageA white shoe box with a cutout in the center,
into which four slips of paper are falling. In
cursive handwriting, they read: “Join a book
club,” “become a vegetarian,” “get a
bidet,” and “reach out to an old friend.”
The box sits on a confetti-covered table against a
blue curtain backdrop.
Credit…Photo Illustration by Yasara Gunawardena
for The New York Times

Dr. Callard has her own complicated feelings about
welcoming advice from others. Before she made her
suggestion box, she wrote an article for the
online magazine The Point called “Against
Advice,” in which she argued that most advice is
hollow and meaningless.

“You might say, ‘If you don’t believe in
advice, why do you believe in suggestions?’
Which is a fair question,” she said.

Dr. Callard believes there’s a difference
between suggestions, advice and instructions.
Instructions tell you how to get something that
you already know you want and is concrete: how to
find a bus stop, how to assemble a piece of
furniture, how to un-jam the copy machine. And
mentorship, or coaching, she said, is less about
advice-giving and more about building a
relationship based on interpersonal knowledge. If
Dr. Callard is mentoring a student, she can guide
them toward their goals because of how much she
knows about them.

“I view it as something more intimate and robust
than advice,” she said.

The suggestion box process is about receiving
random guesses about what we might enjoy, she
says. Advice, on the other hand, Dr. Callard views
as coming from someone who purports to be in a
position to know what you should do.

In Gawker’s advice column, which takes its name
from the idea that an advice-giver might be just
as flawed as the advice-seeker, the writer Brandy
Jensen wanted to challenge the notion that
guidance on life matters must come from a higher
authority. (When answering a question from a
millennial worried about growing old, Ms. Jensen
was the first to admit she was not an expert in
this area: “I have been aging disgracefully.”)

“A lot of times, we assume that what we want is
for somebody who knows better to tell us something
we don’t already know ourselves,” Ms. Jensen
said. “That’s not what’s always happening
with advice.” It could be that we want counsel
from people who are familiar with who we are, even
if they’re not experts, she said — or from
someone who has been in a similar situation, even
if they blundered as much as we did.

When I made my own suggestion box, inspired by Dr.
Callard’s, I wanted to see how it would feel to
be bombarded with random suggestions and the
impact they could have on my choices.

Most of the 28 that I received were reading
recommendations, like “The Warden” by Anthony
Trollope, or the archives of the sci-fi Twitter
bot account @botfic. Others were projects people
wanted me to undertake, like a podcast or a vlog
about my interest in aquaponics. There were some
suggestions I probably won’t follow, like
“Bitcoin,” or ones I can’t immediately
implement for logistical reasons, like “Get a
bidet,” “try Brazilian jiu-jitsu” or “go
on a date with me.”

But the suggestions that meant the most to me
weren’t things I didn’t know, but reminders of
activities I already valued and ones that prompted
me to think about how I’m using my time, like a
suggestion to “get in touch with an old friend
from a long time ago” or to “take a break and
drink a comforting beverage of your choice.”
Both made me meditate on the pace of life I want
to cultivate — one that prioritizes connection
and the appreciation of small moments.

One person endorsed having a long-lasting book
club, not just a group to discuss books with, but
a community to share whatever you are feeling
during the period you read the book. I already
belong to a book club, and that is exactly how it
functions in my life. The suggestion reminded me
how glad I was for its presence in my life.

Dr. Callard said her suggestion box functioned
somewhat similarly in her life; she doesn’t
accept every suggestion outright. She often uses
them instead as a prompt to explore a topic
further, sometimes seeking more input on how
worthwhile a recommendation might be. She didn’t
take suggestions to become a vegetarian or spend
more time with her children, for example — but
she did consider her diet and asked others how
much time their parents spent with them growing
up.

The magic of the suggestion box, or any soliciting
of advice, might lie not in the suggestion itself
but in discovering which suggestions resonate,
said Stephen Browne, a professor of rhetoric at
Penn State University who wrote a book chapter on
the ethics of advice. It’s what we choose to act
on that reveals what we truly want. This is when a
suggestion stops becoming abstract and leads to
real action — which makes picking what advice to
go through with a matter of ethics, according to
Dr. Browne.

“One must ask: Is this counsel productive of the
optimal good, or does it have the potential for
producing harm?” he said. “One’s answer will
determine how much or whether to follow it.”

Sometimes we just need a push in any direction at
all when we’re confronted with a major life
change, or the prospect of one. In her novel
“Motherhood,” which follows a woman in her
late 30s trying to decide whether to become a
parent and if it is ethical to do so, Sheila Heti
describes a mystical form of suggestion seeking,
tossing coins for the answers to yes or no
questions, a practice from the ancient Chinese
book “The I Ching.” The narrator says she is
aware of endowing the coins with too much wisdom,
but the practice is a way to interrupt her
ambivalence.

Seeking suggestions can be an attempt to get
closer to the version of ourselves we want to be.
Even if we discard most of the guidance we get
from others, it can be hard to imagine life
without it.

“The idea that you would never seek advice from
anybody is arrogant to the point of alien to
me,” Ms. Jensen, Gawker’s advice columnist,
said. “I don’t even know how you would
navigate your own life just completely on your
own, only ever regarding your own instincts about
it.”

Dr. Callard has received around 300 suggestions,
but her suggestion box took a turn at the end of
October, when she posted on Twitter that she
throws away her children’s candy the day after
Halloween, and was inundated with suggestions,
sometimes hurtful, about the practice. She started
a new suggestion box after the “candy period”
so that she wouldn’t have to sift through the
hundreds of candy-related suggestions to get to
the new ones.

Despite this hitch, Dr. Callard said she planned
to leave her suggestion box open. Her ideal
suggestion from others is something she may have
never thought of — like the suggestion to read
the particular sermon by Mr. McCabe — but is
relevant to her interests. And the box removes the
feeling that others are trying to impose their
will, which Dr. Callard thinks is a reason people
are generally resistant to following suggestions.

“With the suggestion box, I feel all of that is
subtracted because nobody knows whether I take
their suggestion or not,” she said. “I don’t
have to do it to be nice. I’ll just do it if I
think it’s a good suggestion.”

*****************************************

Which suggestions speak to you?  Will you take

actions to improve your interactions in

relationships?

Hadley Finch

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