Once upon a time, we were told that advice is good, particularly if it comes from someone older and wiser. “A person who does not listen to advice is a fool,” we have often heard. The assumption is that everyone who dispenses advice is wise and well-meaning. However, real life experience teaches us otherwise – not all advice is good. All advice, no matter how good it seems and who it comes from, should be evaluated and taken in context as it is often clouded by other factors. This instalment, while not exhaustive, will assess some of the factors that influence advice doled out by people.
Temperament and personality
Who we are affects our actions. We give advice based on our perception and how we would react if faced with a similar situation. Our personalities permeate the advice we give, for example, the four temperaments of melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic and sanguine and their various combinations . When faced with a difficult situation, the choleric would probably tackle it head on, the melancholic would go through some introspection before dealing with it, the sanguine would look for a pleasant distraction and the phlegmatic would do everything to avoid confrontation. Temperament affects our behaviour and is likely to influence the type of advice we give. I am a melancholic-choleric and this seeps through the advice I give.
A lot of times, our background affects our decision making processes and consequently the advice we give. Often, people give advice based on what they have seen all their life because that is all they know. In the book “The Dreamgiver ,” by Bruce Wilkinson, Ordinary dares to leave the Land of Familiar to pursue his Big Dream. However, he meets much resistance from those in Familiar who do not understand why he wants to divert from the norm. “If it is working well, why disturb the system?” or “We have always done it this way” are all too common sayings.
Our experience – whether past or present – affects our perception and the advice we dispense. I know of a lady who became very bitter after her fiancé stood her up at the altar on their wedding day. The bitterness colours her paradigm and subsequently the advice she gives. Similarly, someone who is undergoing marital distress because of an unfaithful spouse will likely have negative perceptions of marriage and discourage a couple who are excited about their wedding.
A naturally chirpy and optimistic person, I often find myself being discouraged by such people and have to remind myself that I need not relive their negative experiences. Once, I found myself in a heated argument with a colleague who was trying to discourage me from buying a small car because she argued that they had a tendency of going under trucks and I could be killed. I disregarded the advice, bought the cute little car and in all my years of driving it did not once find myself under a truck. My colleague meant well and had seen a number of newspaper articles about such accidents. However, it did not follow that I would be among those statistics – not all people who drive small cars will be involved in an accident and find themselves under trucks. Just because it happened to one person does not mean it will happen to all.
Whether we know it or not, whatever advice people give is coloured by their perception. This is at varying levels. First, there are people who are generally negative and poke holes in everything without advancing a better option. The optimist will encourage and the pessimist may discourage because that is the lens through which they see the world.
Second is the person’s perception of you. If they have decided you are foolish, they will treat you as such and based on the assumption that you cannot possibly think of anything intelligent. On the other hand, if they hold you in high esteem, they may encourage you to carry out a foolish idea simply because they assume that you are incapable of making silly mistakes.
Regardless of what influences their perception, the bottom line is such people will either raise you or put you down. The best is to keep away from those who either view you negatively or are generally pessimistic. On the other hand, try to be more objective with advice from those who think too highly of you. These cheerleaders could unintentionally cheer you into a disaster if you are not careful.
Also, be aware that we have such different perceptions that what may appear like the road to hell for once person could actually lead someone else to heaven on earth.
Level of knowledge
Some people mean well but simply lack the information and knowledge to be good advisers. They may want to see you rise but have insufficient information to give effective advice. Someone who is an expert in one area is not necessarily one in everything. Just because someone gave you good advice about what car to buy based on their mechanical engineering background doesn’t mean they will necessarily give sound advice about investments. Don’t be a victim of other people’s ignorance no matter how well their intentions. Some people are confident despite their ignorance and can give very misleading advice.
Also, don’t just seek advice from everyone. Once, on the way to an assignment at an unfamiliar place, the driver and I got lost so we asked people close by for directions. The first person we asked was a young man who did not say much but pointed to the north indicating that was the direction we should go. We drove northwards but did not find the place so we asked the next person and he pointed south and we drove in that direction. In a place where there was a language barrier and we did not have a map, we were at the mercy of those we met along the way. Finally, after the fourth person I asked the driver if he realised that none of the people we spoke to knew where we were going but they were all reluctant to admit it so they would just point in any direction. We nearly missed our assignment while going around in circles at the leading of people who wished to help but lacked information to do so. Our assumption that they knew the place we were looking for because they lived in that town and appeared confident was wrong. However, this is what sometimes happens when we look to people who lack knowledge and it applies to all aspects of life. Thankfully this was a minor issue but imagine if we had received misguided advice for a life-changing, long-term decision?! I know many people who made serious career mistakes because of the sources of advice they chose.
In another incident, I recently shared my thoughts about a plant I wanted at my place because I thought it would look beautiful. The person I was talking to immediately advised against it and told me it would draw snakes to my home. I have a phobia for snakes and considered abandoning the idea, but I was so in love with the plant and I kept seeing it everywhere. I wondered if all the yards with the plant were really harbouring reptiles. Finally, I worked up the courage to ask someone with a row full of those plants at her house and she was surprised at the theory. First, throughout her life with the plants at her home, she had not encountered a single snake. Secondly, it was her first time to hear that myth and third, the man who told me about the relationship between the plant and snakes does not have such plants at his home and may by some coincidence have seen a snake hiding behind the plant. However, that single incident did not translate to a tendency by snakes to gravitate towards the plant.
Sometimes people can create a box and try to force you to fit into it based on their limited knowledge about you. When I started studying for my Masters’ degree I briefly discussed the issue with a highly esteemed gentleman who seemed progressive. At that time, I had unwittingly settled for a junior position in a regional organisation from a senior position in a national organisation. I thought it was a good opportunity to break into the regional market and did not know that employers would judge me based on the position I occupied then, rather than what I had been in the past, despite all the details being chronicled in my curriculum vitae. I was desperately trying to get out of that position and a post graduate degree was part of the solution. I mentioned my studies to this man in passing. His response shocked me and led to the instant death of what a fledgling friendship.
“You’re ok with a first degree for your position. Why on earth do you need a Masters?” he asked. The man had judged me based on my current erroneous decision rather than my potential. He saw my present, yet I was looking at my future. He saw what I was then, yet I saw what I could become. I later learnt that he had an MBA and I found it strange that someone would try to prevent me from reaching a similar goal, as though I was born for a lower station in life. Looking back I realised we had always related from the position of a horse and a rider with him having the upper hand. It both saddened and angered me that he had tried to mislead me to maintain that status. Through that brief encounter, I learnt the painful truth that not everyone who gives advice means well and some people want to maintain an imaginary position of superiority. I also learnt that it helps to believe in myself and to be headstrong when faced by such people.
Not everyone means well
Human beings occasionally exhibit a characteristic called jealousy. Sometimes it manifests through the dispensing of harmful counsel coated as advice. Not everyone means well. Some people are wicked and find pleasure in watching other people stumble and fall while others are just mischievous. Also, some people may ill advise you so that you repeat the mistakes they made and they can find comfort in numbers. The human mind can sometimes conceive unfathomable evil.
Finally, the aim of this instalment is not to discourage people from taking advice. There are numerous benefits to taking advice. These including learning from other people’s knowledge, getting fresh ideas and avoiding repeating old mistakes, among others. The aim is simply to encourage people to be more objective in seeking and accepting advice, being mindful that counsel is influenced by various factors. Advisors are fallible human beings who just love to dispense advice, which can be either beneficial or detrimental. Sometimes these humans mean well but fall short. Evaluate advice and its intentions before accepting it because it will influence the decisions you make and ultimately, you will live with the consequences.
Life, is a series of choices, so we have been told. The impression is that if you make good choices, your life will be good. Most of us have heard the cliché “you are where you are today because of the choices you made yesterday.”
True, I do not dispute that. The greater part of our adult life is a result of the decisions we constantly make. However, there is that small proportion of our lives that is a consequence of other people’s decisions. Stephen Covey, in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” advises us to focus and work on what is within our control, or our sphere of influence. That’s some really helpful advice. However, sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we end up facing the consequences of other people’s decisions.
As I write this, I am an unwitting victim of someone else’s decision. Today we have no water at home, thanks to the gardener’s decision to pour all the water in the storage tank on his beloved plants. Sadly, only 10 green vegetables are still looking healthy, the rest have withered, while we have to think about how to use whatever drop of water comes our way. This is not the first time we’ve run out of water since he came. Yes, he’s a great guy and extremely hard working, but sadly, he sometimes makes unilateral decisions that place both our lives at risk, like now. The first time was exactly a month ago. I got home at 6pm to be told there was no water. I made a quick decision to get water trucked to the house by a commercial supplier and the problem was solved. My neighbours also stepped in and provided water to meet our needs while waiting for the truckers. However, looking back in hindsight, by quickly stepping in, I denied the gardener an opportunity to learn. Consequently, he missed a key lesson about the importance of water in water-constrained city where diseases like typhoid occur frequently. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation again. Normally, I monitor water usage and advise him not to use what’s in storage for the garden. The plants can wait and it usually isn’t very long before the City of Harare remembers that we pay bills to receive water. However, I travelled last week and in my absence, he used water without restraint – to the point of emptying a 5,000 litre tank on his own in one day. I returned from a week-long trip to a home without water. The last drop was exhausted on the day I left and I am not surprised because on the day I left, I had watched in horror as he created what looked like rice paddies that appeared to drown his plants – all this from the reserve tank - despite being told to use storage water sparingly and only in the absence of council water.
However, rather than arrange to have water trucked again, I decided to remain silent and let him solve the problem in the hope that he will also learn from this experience. His solution was to find the nearest well and ask for water, which he has been using for his daily needs. In a country bedevilled with waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, in a city with a typhoid outbreak and in a suburb that is among those affected by typhoid, this solution puts both of us at risk of contracting typhoid.
Much as I have tried to ensure that this house never runs out of water, and have communicated how water is to be used, the quality of my life is being compromised because I am living out the consequences of someone else’s decision. Thankfully, unbeknown to him, I have another private storage facility designed for moments like this, which he cannot access. I thank God he does not know about it because it too, would probably have been exhausted and I would be forced to use water from the unknown well for everything else. Currently, he brings me water every morning, but since it is not from a trusted source, the best I can do is use it for flushing the toilet, while praying that the man to whom i attribute our current water woes will not contract typhoid. However, i have had to temporarily halt certain luxuries until a steady supply of water comes. At the moment, i cannot wear my contact lenses, i have to shower rather than bath, dishes have to queue up in a pile and be washed once a day, toilet usage has been limited to twice a day, laundry cannot be done and mopping has to be with the minimum possible amount of water - among other changes that compromise the quality of my life.
At least this is a minor and temporary issue. However, many people find themselves in similar positions of living out the consequences of other people’s decisions. For example, the child whose parents make foolish decisions that later shape his/her life, or the faithful spouse who contracts HIV or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from an unfaithful partner who keeps taking risks by having unprotected sex with people outside that union. Some of these are sadly, long term and can affect the direction of one’s life.
Some years ago, when I was doing A level, one of my classmates’ mother opted to buy herself a new dress with money that had been set aside for her daughter’s examination fees a day before the fee deadline. Needless to say the girl did not write examinations and that affected the career she was forced to take up, the pool of men she became exposed to, the type of person she married and the lifestyle she is currently living. Some may say she could have gone back to school after she started working. That’s true, but could she afford it now that she had a family in her new found society where education and a career were not as great a priority as marriage?
I also know of a lady who walked out of a 10 year marriage to start her life from scratch because her husband kept making foolish decisions that were negatively affecting her and their son. The man was in the habit of unilaterally selling off family assets and spending the money alone. When she finally decided to walk out, the husband had decided to sell the family home and she only found out through phone calls when prospective buyers started calling in response to the advert he had placed in the newspaper. Efforts to discuss the matter and reverse his decision were futile, he did not respect her opinion, despite her contribution towards purchasing those assets. She finally figured that if she hung around, they would soon be very poor and she and her son would never enjoy the standard of living she was working hard to attain as long as her husband continued to make unwise choices so she left him and before two years were over, she was happy and prosperous while the husband, now reduced to poverty, was trying to negotiate with her to return.
Also, in 2002, the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN) conducted the “Voices and Choices” research, which looked into the sexual and reproductive health and rights of HIV positive women. What struck me among the report’s findings was the percentage of married women who were infected by the only sexual partners they had known and within the marital union, contrary to the common belief that the virus affects mostly commercial sex workers who are considered a “high risk” group. More than 70 percent of women interviewed were virgins when they got married and were infected by their husbands. This influenced WASN’s decision to focus its programmes on married women and women in stable relationships, who were at higher risk than commercial sex workers. The sad reality is that such a large number of women became unwitting victims of the consequences of other people’s choices, that is, their husbands. Although the research is more than a decade old, this reality still applies to some women, particularly those who are economically dependent on their spouses and have very little say.
These examples and my current situation illustrate how one person’s decision can negatively affect other people. The people whose decisions affect us seem to have difficulty learning from life’s experiences, yet we cannot wish such people off the planet. So perhaps, the best to do under such circumstances is first to empower oneself. This may be difficult for the child whose parents make unwise decisions. However, for adults, don’t place yourself in a position of vulnerability where someone’s decisions affect you negatively. If you are economically dependent on that person, find something to do so you can earn your own money and have a say.
Secondly, where possible, always have a contingency plan. Indeed not everyone is a good planner and unfortunately sometimes we are affected by other people’s failure to plan. However, when we know the people we are working with, it is possible to predict the consequences of their inability to plan and therefore incumbent upon us to come up with a contingency plan so that we do not become victims when the inevitable happens.
Lastly, I hope in the choices we make, we take time to think about how our decisions have a downstream effect on other people, be it family, friends, colleagues, business associates or strangers. If we try to think of others, perhaps, in a small way, we will make wiser decisions and the world will be a better place.
Most of us probably remember this question by the vain queen in the fairy tale: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” written by the Grimms brothers, but never realise how those fairytales affect us as adults, and their role in promoting narcissism.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Most of us probably remember this question by the vain queen in the fairy tale: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” written by the
As innocent children this was just another story about good triumphing over evil and we paid more attention to the moral values it promoted while missing out on the fundamental issues raised beyond its entertainment value. What we probably did not realise, was the underlying personality disorder of narcissism suffered by the queen. Sadly, this trait besaddles a large section of our society today.
Narcissism is the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. The name “narcissism” was coined by Freud after Narcissus who in a Greek myth was a pathologically self-absorbed young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool . While in adults a healthy dose of narcissism allows the individual’s perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others, in psychology and psychiatry, excessive narcissism is recognized as a severe personality dysfunction or personality disorder, most characteristically Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) .
According to the fairy tale, Snow White’s step mother, the queen, asked her mirror daily: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the loveliest lady in the land?” The reply was always; “You are, your Majesty.” This daily ritual took a new twist one day when the mirror replied: “Snow White is the loveliest in the land.” Infuriated and filled with jealousy, the stepmother plotted to get rid of her rival. The queen was willing to kill in order to remain the most beautiful woman in the land and went to the extent of giving the little girl a poisoned apple just so she could eliminate competition.
The fairy tale places emphasis on outward beauty, a theme that is carried through most fairy tales and creates an obsession with good looks at an early age. From childhood, our minds are trained to value beauty above other qualities and this is more pronounced in girls than boys. Sadly, it also colours the way men view women. Such perceptions can either make or break the individual’s confidence. Although some people rise beyond these tags of being beautiful or ugly, and earn respect for their achievements, looks remain the primary defining factor for most who achieve very little in life.
In our current context, the death that Snow White’s step mother tried to execute on her unwitting young rival may not be literal, but people are willing to go to great lengths to eliminate competition and be branded the most beautiful. Beauty, of course, in this case has a very narrow definition, usually limited to specific Caucasian features as we have been socialised to believe that these are more acceptable than others. This view starts when we are exposed to fairytales like “Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping beauty,” among others, and is perpetuated through images that are reinforced in the media. A tall slim body, a narrow petit nose, fair skin, a prominent forehead, perfect teeth, high cheek bones and silky long hair are among some of the features that supposedly epitomise beauty. Not surprisingly, those of us who were born without any of these features either have to go through great pain to attain them, or stubbornly cling to the self-belief and conviction that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” against the tide of a world that believes otherwise.
So strong is the pressure to conform to the prevailing standard of beauty, that people go to all kinds of extremes to fit the bill. During my growing years, cheeks with dimples were part of the beauty package. I remember a friend of mine sitting for hours on end, with elbows on knees, chin in palms and index fingers thrust deeply into her cheeks in order to bore holes and acquire the much desired dimples. This continued for some years until attending biology class convinced her that if she was not born with it, she was not likely to acquire it. Needless to say her cheeks are still as chubby and dimple-free as ever, if not chubbier thanks to weight added by maturity and child bearing.
However, technology has overtaken the era of learning to like what you were born with, and now, if you have the money, you can buy the features you like. Hollyhood is the chief culprit, constantly bombarding us with images of perfect people and telling us it’s not alright to be ordinary. However, rather than rebel against this misguided message, most of us willingly comply with this artificial pop culture and the erroneous gospel that “if you don’t like it, change it.” Television programmes like Dr. 90210, Extreme Makeover, and Bridal Plasty among many others tell the gullible public how you can change your face, reshape your booty and even transform the parts that the public will never get to see! Like sheep to the slaughter, we foolishly allow ourselves to be misled, much to the detriment of our society.
Cosmetic surgery has become cheap and made good looks accessible to all.
- Got mustard seeds for boobs? You can get breast implants and wake up with melons after just a few hours under the knife.
- Do you lack the discipline to exercise? Why not get some form of “suction” and re-emerge looking like Barbie?
- Unhappy with your face? Well, that’s the easiest, Michael Jackson, king of pop and chief hater of natural self demonstrated how that can be transformed. You can also regain your youthful looks through the same procedure, although sadly it will not arrest the aging process.
- Despise your height? How about bone extension surgery then you’ll be taller, even though you might not grow to be a six foot model.
- Hate the colour of your eyes? That’s easy, just buy tinted contact lenses and become blue eyed.
- Resent your complexion? How about de-pigmentation?
- Don’t like your coarse hair? Simply treat it with chemicals or buy a weave and it need not be artificial, you can get a Brazilian weave that will last longer and is more real.
- Feeling trapped in the wrong body? You can become a transgender.
- Hate your privates? There are plenty of solutions to that too!
You can change any part of you, anyhow and anytime, as long as you have the financial means to do so. Sadly though, there are no guarantees that you’ll fall in love with yourself after the changes and some of the newly acquired features may not be sustainable, e.g the new trim body in the absence of exercise.
What this narcissistic culture neglects to tell, is the truth that if you struggle with self acceptance, that problem will not go away just because you have transformed a body part. People with psychological and social problems need long-term counselling, not surgery.
It has been noted that some of the people who undergo cosmetic surgery have an underlying problem of a low self esteem and are likely to become serial patients or addicts of this type of surgery. Unfortunately, some of them hate the new self after each procedure and wish they could reverse the process, but alas, it will be too late.
“If your self-esteem is so low that you view yourself through a filter of self-rejection (“I’m ugly” or “I’m fat”), all the surgery in the world isn’t going to make a difference. If you don’t change the filter through which you look when you see yourself in the mirror, you’ll never be happy,” according to Dr. Phil and I couldn’t agree more!
Clearly, one of the real issues that need to be addressed is that of self acceptance. Whitney Houston had it right in the 1980s hit song “The Greatest Love,” when she sang “Learning to love yourself is the greatest, love of all.”
I know a lady who underwent de-pigmentation recently and turned up for work a different colour! Her clients could not recognise her and she clearly needed time to adjust to her new self. I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing her, the boss asked why there were unauthorised personnel in the premises. Sadly, up to now, almost a year after the process, she still carries herself as if there is a stranger in her body and everyone around her is still trying to get used to her. Further, she has to keep out of the sun. How sad is that! Also, I cannot guarantee that she is any happier now than she was before.
As society, I think we ought to go back to basics. We are the society that makes the rules and we can change them – although pop culture has the greater say when we allow it. If we all, individually, place less emphasis on people’s outward appearance and choose to focus on their other qualities, then collectively, we can change the world. After all, it’s the invisible and intangible qualities of warmth, love, kindness, patience, friendliness, meekness, sweetness, consideration that make the world go round. These are precious and noticeable regardless of a person’s physical appearance, so why not place more emphasis on them?
We also have to teach ourselves self acceptance, and pass that culture on to the next generation. We need to relearn that it is alright to have a fat nose, chubby cheeks, course hair, short legs and whatever else people are trying to change about themselves.
We need to remind ourselves that as long as you love who you are, the world will follow suit. If you appreciate yourself, so will everyone else. Yes, people may tease you at first, but guess what? They’ll soon get used to your features and life goes on! Come to think of it, people are generally too busy getting on with their lives to care about whether your nose is pinched or your bra size is a 38! Besides, the world’s most good looking and richest people are not necessarily the happiest.
Above all, though, we need to come to terms with the reality that there is more to a person than their outward appearance and that real beauty stems from deep within an individual. Instead of spending huge sums of money transforming the appearance, why not divert those funds towards a worthy cause, spend time in introspection and change the inside because ultimately, that is where real beauty lies. Sipho Gumede’s jazz track “Peacocks today, feather dusters tomorrow,” should remind us that outward beauty fades and in the end, people will remember your intangible qualities that made a difference to their lives!
In this world, it is very possible that seemingly innocent sounding words in one language could mean something crude and unspeakable in another. So much for cultural diversity, yet learn to be sensitive we must. And to prove this, here are a few examples that illustrate what I mean.