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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

Y’Know What You Should Do? You Ought To…

Posted December 21, 2012

I’ve spent most of my working life directing a torrent of advice at unsuspecting Sailors, Marines and civilian workers. I’m not just a know-it-all—I work for an organization that is essentially in the advice business. As you can well imagine, I’d be sensitive about something that American journalist Ambrose Bierce once wrote. He defined “advice” as “The smallest current coin.”

I didn’t exactly find this definition reassuring. It comes from Bierce’s The Devil's Dictionary, probably his best-known work (at least among English majors, language buffs and fans of sarcasm). Bierce was known for his sardonic view of human nature and biting wit. Writing in the late 1800s, he tended to be irreverent and uninhibited. Just my cup of tea.

Bierce included the following bit of doggerel:

"The man was in such deep distress,"
Said Tom, "that I could do no less
Than give him good advice."
Said Jim: "If less could have been done for him
I know you well enough, my son,
To know that's what you would have done."

This made me laugh. I could picture someone, for example, whose yard was cluttered with a mass of storm debris, and a neighbor saying, “You ought to get rid of that stuff before your grass gets too long to mow.” And what the first guy really needs is for you to come over with a rake and some trash bags.

What was Bierce’s beef with advice? I don’t know. Maybe he knew someone who provided too much of it, and the advice was unsolicited to begin with. Or maybe it wasn’t personal at all. Maybe Bierce didn’t want to downplay the value of advice, he just wanted to raise awareness that advice can be problematic. By no means is it “the more, the merrier.”

Advice can easily be unwelcome, especially if what it is recommending is easier said than done. If you’re talking to someone who hates breaking a sweat, is allergic to gyms, and takes an elevator up to the second floor, telling them, “You should work out every day” is only a small part of the solution to their lack of fitness.

I heard a great adage a long time ago and filed it away in my truer-words-were-never-spoke collection: “Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.” Granted, this bit of wisdom is most readily applied to tasking. For example, I was once dragged in on the production of a service-wide safety strategic plan. A sister service had just completed a very nice one, thanks to a team of four personnel who had worked full time for a year. We had three people part-time and a hard deadline of several weeks. You can imagine the quality of our results.

For tasking, of course, you rarely have the option of just ignoring it. You have to do the best you can. But the concept applies to giving someone advice, as well. Even when people ask for guidance or suggestions, they may not follow them. The same goes for reminding yourself what you ought to do (refer to the song “I Give Myself Very Good Advice,” from the old Disney animated version of “Alice in Wonderland”). If something was readily doable and halfway important, you probably would have already done it and wouldn’t be procrastinating and worrying about it.

I sometimes joke that the ideal safety product is something you hand to someone else. You feel good about providing something useful and important. And they get stuck with having to read it and comply, something that may well take hundreds of hours and cost thousands of dollars.

At this point, I find myself wondering how I got myself in the bizarre position of giving advice about how to give advice. For starters, it would help if the advice is realistic (or even possible). As Ben Hogan said when a golfer complained about missing long putts, “Just hit your approach shot closer to the hole.”

In terms of safety, if the advice you give is unrealistic, the recipient is probably going to ignore it, and then, if nothing bad happens, may figure that what you said wasn’t necessary to begin with. It helps to know how hard something is to do before you recommend it. If you haven’t walked a mile in those shoes, do a little research into the cost, time and energy required to accomplish the task. If someone’s plate is full, piling more onto the plate may not solve the problem. Best case, your portion stays on and something else falls off, but does that mean what falls off was unimportant?

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