When Less Advice is the Best Advice

Less Advice is the Best Advice

The subject of her email reads “CRISIS.”  I could tell she hastily wrote it in a state of desperation, since it’s filled with misspellings, flighty run-on sentences, and profanity.  A premise of self-doubt bleeds from every single line.  All of which caught me off-guard, because it isn’t like her to be so pessimistic.

Lost at 25

Like most college freshman, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.  But during our sophomore year, she developed a love for mathematics and chose her major accordingly.  She scored so well in her undergraduate math classes that the university offered her a full scholarship to their master’s degree program.  She gladly accepted.  And just last year, while working as an assistant math professor, she decided to pursue her Ph.D.

She told me she loved her work.  She actually used the phrase “life is good” last time I saw her.  I remember this because it made me smile.  But that was 4 months ago… and apparently things have changed since then.

Now she says she wasted 6 years of her life.  Because she doesn’t want to be a mathematician anymore.  But she doesn’t know what she wants.  She just says she feels alone, confused, and lost at 25.

I Stay Silent

I meet her at a local pub.  There’s already an empty cocktail glass on the bar in front of her.  And she has dark bags under her glassy eyes.  She looks like she hasn’t slept in days.  But when she sees me, she smirks and gives me a hug.

Without delay, she spills her heart, and some tears, about everything.  Emotions pour out of her for nearly 30 minutes.  And I listen.  She says she’s lonely and unhappy.  She says her and her boyfriend just broke up.  And she’s sure she ruined it, because she didn’t spend enough time with him.  Because she was busy with mathematics… teaching it, grading it, and studying for more of it.  She pleads for some advice.

I tell her to slow down, to breathe, and to listen to herself and find herself.  Not the self that’s in a panic, or emotionally absorbed in a failed relationship.  But the self that loves mathematics, and her students, and is proud to be an independent woman… free to seek new directions.  She asks me how.  “How do I find that self again?  How do I reestablish my direction?”

And there’s so much I want to say.  Because I want to give her real, logical advice that will enable her to find what she so desperately seeks.  But I stay silent.  And she stares into my eyes, patiently waiting and anticipating the advice I’m about to dispense.

Instead, I reach for her hand and maintain my silence.  As I’ve lived long enough to know that, other than telling her to slow down and breathe, there’s no logical advice to give.  Because sometimes life defies logic, especially in delicate personal situations like the one she’s dealing with now.

Uniquely Ours

I’ve seen young, rocky relationships develop into wonderful marriages, and fleeting inspirations ignite a lifetime of passion and happiness.  Our life stories, like the answers we give to long essay questions, are uniquely ours.  What she wants to know is already somewhere inside of her.  She just needs time to think, and be, and breathe…  And continue to explore the undirected journeys that will eventually help her find her direction.

Photo by: Light Knight


  1. says

    I could relate to this post very much. I have a friend in almost the same situation.

    I agree with you that sometimes, it’s just best to listen and say just a bit or just shut up. Some situations just need what your title says, “Less Advice is the Best Advice.”

    Thanks for the post. Looking forward to more :-)

  2. says

    Great story Marc. I thought you were going to end it by saying that’s how you ended up meeting your wife?

    Ah well, yes I completely agree. “Sometimes less is more”


  3. says

    @Me and Craig: No doubt… Being a true friend means being there when a friend needs you.

    @All: Thanks for keeping the conversation going. 😉 We love reading your comments.

  4. Nina says

    Your blog is great. Really, really great. Not only because you write in such an interesting way that makes me search through your archive again and again when I feel that I need some kind of advice, but also because the things you write about are somehow always relevant. Reading here is like talking to a friend who knows everything about me and always has a story I can relate to. Thank you so much!

  5. says

    When we’re distressed, we feel alone. It’s as if nobody understands what we’re really going through.

    That’s why the greatest gift we can give someone who is in turmoil is our full presence. When we listen with the heart, we join with them.

    Like all of us, I often feel the need to give advice in those moments. I think that’s because I’m trying to ward off distress and confusion. But if I do, I break the bond of empathy – and then I’ve let my friend down.

    Thanks for a lovely article!

  6. says

    But aren’t there also situations when saying or doing less is not so appropriate? What if someone has struggled to figure things out for a couple of years and is heading into a depressed (almost suicidal) state instead of finding their way? My son’s girlfriend is in that state and it breaks my heart. She talks to me about it but feels she is completely worthless and doesn’t deserve happiness. Surely keeping quiet in this situation isn’t the right thing to do?

  7. says

    This is really sound advice. Sometimes it is so difficult just to listen and be there for a friend and sometimes that’s really all they need.

  8. says

    @Kiwi Chick: Yeah, there are absolutely dire circumstances where people need further assistance. But often, just giving them advice won’t heal their mind.

    It’s always wiser to sit with them, let them speak, listen openly, talk things out with them, etc. In other words, let them have the floor. Let them get it all out of their mind. Give them the time and space to think. Quite often, this is enough.

    But if time passes and they can’t climb out of the hole on their own, you reach in and give them further assistance… slowly and steadily.

  9. says

    Mary said:

    “the greatest gift we can give someone who is in turmoil is our full presence. When we listen with the heart, we join with them.

    I like the way you put that Mary.

    Empathy is like a gateway to the inner world of another. It is an experience of another person rather than an opinion. We can see so much more if walk with them first, and as Marc suggests, we may find that their most pressing need is to be understood and to know that they are valued and loved. That simple realization can become a mirror for their relationship to themselves.

    Good one Marc.

  10. says


    This is an excellent post, as usual. It takes more wisdom and control to be quiet than to give advice. I’ve been on both ends of this situation and certainly appreciate a friend’s presence more than any advice they give. When we remember who our true friends are, we seldom remember exactly what we said, but we remember that they were there.

  11. says

    Definitely thumbs up to this advice. Words are sometimes not necessary. Just being totally present for our friend in need can be more helpful!

  12. says

    Hi Marc,

    Sometimes we need a listening ear to pour out out our feelings and thoughts. We also hope to hear others advice but the answer that we want is always in our ourselves. We already knew the answer and it is only waiting for us to accept it and move on. Thanks for the great article.


  13. says

    My best friend has a tendancy to give this type of advice.

    There is no logical advice for her in this situation.
    All throughout college, my best friend (also my mentor at the time), would talk to me about all sorts of things. He was only a year older but had seen more life than most do in a lifetime. Over time, I started to see his points on this subject.

    But it didn’t really hit me until after he graduated and I started my senior year. I had started a relationship and was basically living with my current girlfriend my entire senior year of college. Not to mention having completed 1/3 of my degree in 2 semesters that year.

    More or less, mentally I was swamped. I had a million questions going through my mind.

    What do I want to do?

    How do I find a position that is near where my girlfriend is going?

    And a ton more…

    There really is a time and place for advice. After my best friend moved, I realized how much I missed his advice. I then realized that true growth comes from finding your own way. Only necessity breeds that self-reliance.

    Today (only 2 years after he moved away), I am a budding entrepreneur, work for Disney in Florida, and I live with my girlfriend.

    The point is…everything worked out for me and then some.

    By learning self-reliance, pausing on advice, and just having to figure it out, I learned all the things I spent years wanting to find in just a year of self-reliance.

    This article resonates because of it’s simplicity and our natural desire to seek advice. However, the best advice is just being aware of people’s feelings, situations, etc, and listening. The venting is what we need more than any specific course of action.

    The course of action presents itself ALWAYS!

    Great article,

    Brad Spencer

  14. says

    “Sometimes life defies logic” is one of the best and most profound quotes I have read on a blog. Great post… Your advice is spot on too. People need to come to their own decisions and conclusions on issues… Time heals and brings clarity to stormy situations.

    Enjoyed your post immensly!!!


  15. says

    This is such a beautiful post and story, and a great example of how to be a friend: just be there. Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes there’s simply nothing you can say. But knowing that someone is listening, someone is caring…maybe there are times when that’s enough.

    And knowing the difference makes all the difference.

    A great, great post.

  16. says

    I agree with Susan, this is an absolutely beautiful post. I actually just wrote a post about how to be there for someone when you don’t know what to say. One of the things I tried to stress is that you don’t have to say anything, just let them do the talking and be there for them. That’s exactly what you did, and I think that’s the best thing you could have done. Thank you for sharing this story!

  17. says

    @John: I agree. Mary has a way with words… and so do you. Well stated. 😉

    @Brad: Thanks for sharing that inspiring personal story. I can totally relate. I’ve been there.

    @All: Many of you have summed up my point beautifully by simply stating that a friend’s presence is more important than a friend’s advice. I like that. Thank you.

  18. Maclean says

    Thanks for the great article.

    I look forward to commenting further on future and past articles!

  19. says

    Hi Marc!

    When I was 25, I was lost. I call it my mid-life crisis even though I was only 25. So I know that woman’s pain and I have no doubt that she will find her way out. Your decision to just listen to her was wonderful and signs of a true friend. Good for you and good for her for having such a friend! :)

  20. says

    It took me a while to find my way. People always gave me advice, but it was really listening to my own heart that lead the way. I’ve finally found my calling and I’m going for it.

    I hope that you will give us an update on your friend in the near future.

  21. says

    I completely agree with this story (and it is an amazing story too).
    One of the hardest things that I have learned.. probably because i’m a guy.. is that sometimes you just need to listen.

    You don’t always have to have the right thing to say nor do you have to diagnose a person’s problem. Sometimes people just need to speak their thoughts out loud to someone who is willing to sincerely listen.

  22. says

    Really great perspective, because I know I am the person that always feels the needs to give someone the “logical” solution to solve their “obvious” dilemma. But put in the same personal situation myself, I can still arrive at a logical solution, but its unfortunately my emotions that tend to supersede my decisions.

    Your point that sometimes rocky relationships become great marriages is very true, however, I disagree that the decision she needs is somewhere inside her.

    We can all be told 1001 times the correct path to take when our current path couldn’t be more destructive, but the mind is a powerful thing, and it will tell us where it wants to go… regardless of what’s truly needed.

    great post. thanks for sharing.

  23. says

    this is so very true. when i get frustrated and want to ask others for “help” and advice i try to take a deep breath and write it all down in a journal. i find i can write down the ‘answers’ and that i have the answer within me all along. all i need to do to tap into it is some silence.. it’s not always concrete but sometimes it comes in a decision.. you may not know if it’s the “right” decision but it’s at least a direction. life is open-ended. so there is no right or wrong way.. just a way.

  24. says

    Beautiful post! And so true. Many times, it’s the little gestures that truly make a difference. Just being there for your friend, without saying anything at all, can make a world of difference. We could all learn from this very touching story.

  25. says

    This reminds me of when I listen to the Tao Te Ching. One of the concepts is that yes there’s walls and cement that make up the house but it couldn’t be a house unless there was emptiness too. Or we need the empty space in a wheel too to make it move.

    We’re always in such a rush to take any empty spots that might exist and fill them up. But silence doesn’t need to be filled. It may not be genuine and may not even be useful to say anything at all. I love the idea of just being there and not trying to force anything.

    In more practical terms, advice can also lead to analysis paralysis because everyone is going to have a different answer. Yet the only authentic answer is the one that you choose and that your heart is in.

    Thanks for sharing. This is something we all need to practice.


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