A thought or two on the advice industry

Advice books and blogs and so on are, in theory, supposed to make people happier.  In reality, they often seem to create anxieties in people that they didn’t even know they had.  I suspect that’s how they make their money.  They’re the Febreeze of the book world, especially if you have (metaphorical) allergies.  This is especially true of the parenting and lifestyle self-help industries.  It is shocking the number of google questions that find our blog asking, “What happens if I don’t sleep train.”  (Answer:  nothing– your kid eventually learns to go to sleep on hir own because the human race would not have survived if people couldn’t figure out how to sleep.  It is highly unlikely that adult problems with sleeping are caused by your parents not CIO when you were a baby.)

On the one hand, these different recommendations, which are usually in the form of hard and fast rules (You must live the MMM way or the LV way or the DR way or etc. etc. etc.) might get some folks to think, “Am I happy with what I’m doing now, if not then maybe I can change something.  Here are some things I can try.”

But, on the other hand, some folks think, “I thought I was happy but I’m not following that rule and someone else says I should be so now I feel guilty and maybe I’ll follow that rule and just not understand why it makes me less happy than I was before… until someone else tells me to follow the opposite rule and it may not work out either.”  Because a lot of people are followers who like to be told what to do or don’t have whatever contrary streak one needs to resist constant assaults to their self-confidence and common sense.  And that kind of sucks.



44 Responses to “A thought or two on the advice industry”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Your analysis sounds right. Advice columns are also really popular because they allow people to feel better about themselves, but in ways that probably don’t have any bearing on genuine happiness.

    First, the readers can feel morally superior about their judgment: “Well, *I* would never do something as mean, selfish, stupid, dangerous, etc, as *that* asshole, idiot, pig, etc.” Second, the readers can feel better about their level of good fortune in their own lives: “Well, at least my sister’s best friend’s yoga instructor didn’t run into my wife at the dry cleaner, f*ck in the rest room, get pregnant, and ask me to raise their child.” Third, the readers can gain a sense of control over their own lives: “Well, if I just play Mozart tapes every night at dinner, my kids will get into Harvard.”

  2. gwinne Says:

    I do read around in self-help (including LV’s books) mostly because of the former…the possibility of getting an idea that’s new or at least solidifying my own sense of things. For me the infuriating part, is precisely the latter; how is it possible to generalize from ONE person’s life experience and say that it will work for EVERYONE else? And I find myself on the margins of many of these conversations. Sort of makes me want to write my own self helpy book.

    Now if any of those CIO advocates want to come to my house and deal with my son on a nightly basis while I go to a hotel and take a lot of xanax, I would happily sleep train. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I prefer the books that have a really strong research base and *explain* the research they’re based on so it’s clear what the limitations are– who exactly their advice applies to. They also don’t tend to have that underlying “you’re doing it wrong” (or “everyone who isn’t a true believer is doing it wrong”) feel to them, they seem more, I dunno, joyous. Like here’s some really cool stuff that we know and here’s how we know it and here’s what the implications might be.

  3. Debbie M Says:

    Oh, ugh, people really do that? How can they see the billions of types of conflicting advice and feel that there is one right way they have to do it? (I almost understand that with religion, handed down through the generations, but not advice books/blogs.)

    Even if you like fitting in, it can’t take long to realize that you can’t fit in with *everyone*. My personality is on the follower end of the spectrum but my brain is way too big for me to swallow, well, loads of stuff. There’s just no denying that I’m some kind of weirdo in many, many ways. (Maybe some people don’t have big enough brains to be able to notice that? So sad.)

    Admittedly, I do love MMM. And I do wish I liked bikes more. Because bike trailers! Those are awesome! Also my boyfriend loves bike riding more than walking. Alas.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      MMM seems to have gotten out of his “my way or the highway” thing these days. In the early days he had more of a, “your preferences are ok” thing going and now he seems to be more back to that. I guess all that hanging out with JD Roth (with the fancy wine rack!) softened his views, or at least his portrayal of them on the internets.

      Also now that he’s moved to a smaller house I’m less irritated by his yelling at other people about their anti-environmental choices. (Because I’m fine with telling people to do good things, but I hate the hypocrisy of my bad choices are ok but yours are wrong.)

      • oil_garlic Says:

        I went to MMM’s site a few weeks ago and I was turned off by the “my way or the highway” attitude. Maybe he’s become more relaxed but many of his readers seem to attack those who even dare to question things a little.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I have to admit that I don’t have time to read the comments.

      • Leigh Says:

        In the comment section of one of his recent posts, he actually said they were going to hire an accountant from here on out because he would rather spend his time working on the blog. It makes their spending posts seem like they’re a bit inflated then too…

        Watching his story unfold makes me realize that I would probably be incredibly bored with a flat out early retirement and would very quickly start trying to find other work, so maybe it isn’t necessary to quit my current career with enough living expenses for the rest of my life!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Interesting. I’m a big fan of outsourcing the stuff you don’t want to do if you can afford to do so! (But I don’t particularly want to outsource the laundry. But I also don’t want to line-dry my clothes.)

        I definitely don’t get a gentle satisfaction from doing a lot of the things that early retirement extreme folks enjoy. I *know* that because I grew up doing those chores and decided to make a lot of money so I wouldn’t ever have to do those chores again. (Also: air conditioning.) It’s so dull doing things that are just going to get undone because you have to fill the time somehow. It is much more interesting to do something productive!

        So I agree with you! Reading early retirement blogs and retirement blogs makes me feel even more like I never want to retire. I just don’t want to do what they do with their time.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Me neither. I find it much easier to be creative and do my own thing in the short bursts allowed by gainful employment. If I had infinite “free” time I think I would often be stymied by the plethora of choices of how to spend it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’d have to move to a city to have too much stuff to do in our free time, but we’d need a LOT more money to do that! That’s not the type of lifestyle most ER bloggers espouse. (Though I guess technically ERE and financial Sam live in the SF bay area, so perhaps it is possible.)

  4. Cloud Says:

    I like advice/self-help books and blogs that give me ideas of things to try, even when there isn’t research behind them. The research in these things is always incomplete, and with human behavior there are so many confounding variables… so I guess I’m willing to do some experimenting on my own. That said, I do like to read what the research says and appreciate how it helps move us beyond the realm of anecdote. I strongly dislike faux-researchy type advice, and think a lot of relationship advice in particular veers into evolutionary psych stuff that I hate. So- I like reading Laura Vanderkam’s books, blogs, and articles because I often pick up good ideas to try. I will stop reading pretty much anything that tries to give me advice based on what my ancestors were doing on the savanna.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Some of Laura Vanderkam’s advice is worthwhile, but some of it is based on her extremely limited world view and is counter-productive for anyone who isn’t in her exact situation with her exact personality type. The problem is that she often doesn’t separate the general advice from the her-specific advice– I think because she really doesn’t realize that she’s doing it– she doesn’t actually know where those lines are. (Or maybe she knows exactly what she’s doing but prefers to let the narrative take charge, which would be ironic.)

      Sometimes she will come back a year or two later and go, hey, my situation changed and my recommendation is exactly the opposite of what I recommended two years ago. But that doesn’t seem to have translated into greater awareness across the board. (Of course, she often admits to not following her own extreme advice because it isn’t working for her, but that disconnect usually takes a couple years for her to sort out to the other extreme.)

      And her advice probably shouldn’t become less extreme because complicated advice doesn’t make as much money as telling natural followers that you are the holder of the One True Path.

      But what really seriously irritates me is her frequent subtle condemnation of poor people who aren’t getting ahead, not because they didn’t marry well or didn’t go to a gifted high school or an ivy league college, but because they’re not doing things the LV way. That’s the world most policy makers seem to be living in too. Libertarianism works for the LVs of the world. Not so much for my husband’s poor relatives. And really not so much for people stuck in poverty traps. Victim blaming is easy when you’re preaching the One True Path.

      • Liz Says:

        Yes, this. I began reading LV’s blog after reading 168 Hours as part of an effort I was making at work to understand more about productivity and how to help me and my coworkers feel more comfortable with the fast pace of our job. It gave me some good ideas about how to think about time, and how to USE time tracking to make observations about time use, etc. But the longer I read the blog, the more judgmental her writing seemed, and I clearly do not fit into the “LV readership.” I am not rich, married, with children, or a graduate of the Ivy League.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I am part of that demographic, but not anywhere near so rich (my DH doesn’t make what hers does) and I live in a place where I’m not so isolated from the 99%. (Technically I’m still part of that 99%, but you know what I mean.) My life is SO much easier than so many people’s. I have all these safety cushions and all this certainty that have helped me to take measured risks. That’s a huge difference in my ability to pull myself up by my bootstraps, just from the mental load alone.

        It’s great to be part of the upper middle class or upper class, but it is terrible to forget that luck had a big role in getting there and that there are systemic inequities that keep people from achieving. So I don’t mind advice aimed at a specific demographic, but the constant underlying condemnation of people who aren’t in that demographic– the tone-deafness… that gets to me. You can be rich, but you shouldn’t actively want government to stop helping the less fortunate just because you’re not in that category.

      • chacha1 Says:

        I grew up in an area where my school bus routinely went past houses – shacks, really – where many of my schoolmates lived. Even then it was clear to me that those kids had about 20% of my opportunities – if that.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I wonder if some people have lost that awareness or if they never had it to begin with, despite claims to the contrary (growing up poor, becoming a success, etc.).

        I believe Scalzi or Obama or Clinton when they talk about their childhoods. Not so much the guys on Fox News who just think they weren’t born on third base.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’m torn here with the “don’t want to bash on a successful woman for being successful” desire, and the “but yoisthisracist says that libertarians are horrible”. On the one hand, I agree with a lot of LV stuff about professional women (with the caveat that our post today applies in terms of the One True Path she sells), but on the other hand, she’s totally out of touch when it comes to people who aren’t exactly like her.

        The latter only really matters when she has that subtle classicism that can actually harm real people if she’s considered to be a “thought leader”. It matters a little for people who are followers and don’t understand why they’re unhappy. It matters a lot for people who live their lives in constant stress and can’t get the help they need to climb the economic ladder.

        Cloud probably has the better strategy of being nice and trying to nicely point out -isms, but I’m also skeptical that anything is going to change, and as yoisthisracist points out, if you can’t change someone, at least you can let everybody else know it’s wrong.

      • xykademiqz Says:

        How do you know how much LV’s husband makes? I am curious. Did she write about what he does?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t actually know what he makes, but she has said he makes quite a bit more than she does, and at one point she mentioned her approx. income which is about the same as DH’s is now (it was much lower as a prof). I can’t remember what he does (I’m really not a good stalker.). But it’s one of those professional type jobs that can go in the 200+ range. He’s also older and established. And she’s always astonished that we can’t afford things, which is another clue. (I have a friend at a top school who is also astonished we can’t afford things. It’s amazing what you can do with an extra 100k or 200k/year.). EXCUSE ME “don’t prioritize things” can’t have the word police come get me. But I’m talking bundles of goods here–we can’t afford that bundle. We can afford a smaller bundle.

      • xykademiqz Says:

        It’s amazing what you can do with an extra 100k or 200k/year

        I hear you, loud and clear. I am a prof at a public school; my husband makes about half of what I do. Having him earn what I make or twice that would certainly make a significant difference in how much we can save or what we can afford. Raising kids is expensive.

        I have had two female colleagues from a different departments who just couldn’t wrap their heads around why I would ever send my kids to daycare. They employed a veritable army of nannies instead, covering days, nights, double-teaming, chauffeuring to activities, doing back-to-school shopping etc. The colleagues were able to work late nights on grant proposals and travel. Key difference? They both had high-earning spouses. As you say, there is a lot you can buy, flexibility included, for the extra $100-200k in family income.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The extra amount DH is making right now is doing a lot of nice stuff for us!

        And the thing is, I already make a lot of money by myself from the perspective of most people. But there’s always levels of a “lot” and there’s always stuff to spend more money on.

  5. waltless Says:

    Don’t know which is worse: self-help pop psychology “solutions” or self-help pop business “solutions.”

  6. chacha1 Says:

    “a lot of people are followers who like to be told what to do” – YEP.

    Also, a lot of people are – mean as it may sound to say so – just plain dumb, and/or don’t know how to apply whatever intelligence they have to solving their own problems. It’s a learned skill and most cultures don’t encourage it.

    Self-solution requires self-knowledge, and frankly I would say that the *majority* of people are afraid to sit down and figure out who they really are and how they should approach their individual lives. Most people – I think – are afraid to conceive of themselves are really truly distinct individuals. It is safer and more comfortable to believe that you are part of a family, part of a community, part of a church, part of a whatever – and to let the norms of that family, community, church, or whatever make your decisions for you.

    I call it “selective application of intelligence” and I see it in everyone from my highly intelligent Ph.D. – holding boss to my next-best-thing-to-a-dropout brother-in-law. I do it myself, but at least I am AWARE when I am doing it.

    There are certain things that I just don’t care enough about to learn how to do, or otherwise pursue, myself. Changing my oil comes to mind. But that is the sort of trivial, unimportant task (compared to choosing a state to live in, or a spouse to marry, or whether or not to have children) that people WILL learn to do vs. learning how to do the other things.

    You can’t know whether advice is any “good” if you don’t even know what you want out of life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Interesting. All these things are true.

      But deep down I also kind of think that a lot of people would be better off if they’d just do things rather than spend so much time trying to find themselves (*cough* specific ex-pf-blogger *cough*). There’s probably a balance. An optimal level of business vs. introspection.

      I dunno, what do you think?

      • chacha1 Says:

        My personal experience? Being forced to solve problems that I never expected to have cured me of any need to “find myself.” By the time I got to the other side of those problems I knew *exactly* who I was and what I wanted (and needed) out of life.

        But you don’t find yourself in those kinds of problems if you never step outside the safe little cultural box you are assigned by your family, church, etc. I had to move all the way across the country with no family support to find myself in the proper jar of pickles. :-)

        If I were king, not only would every citizen have to do a year of civil service after high school, they would be required to do it in the state most diametrically opposite to the one they grew up in.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That sounds like an excellent program.

  7. OMDG Says:

    Yep I agree. Since I started residency and my hours at work have gone through the roof (not this particular week, just most of them), I’ve found I have much less time to read the navel gazing you’re a bad parent if you don’t do it my way part of the internet. I’ve been so much happier and sure of myself! Even with my crazy hours.

    As for CIO, I am tired of the internet telling me what a bad, lazy, uncaring mother I am for doing this to my daughter, and all the insinuations that if only I’d just been more patient/a better person/tougher I’d have just waited for her sleep to sort itself out “naturally.” CIO worked really well for us, and anyone who says I shouldn’t have done if can go F themselves.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So long as the kid was at least 6 months, the research and the AAP are pretty clear that CIO doesn’t do any harm. For younger than 4 months there’s possibilities of harm. (4-6 months it probably depends on the kid.) Coincidentally that tracks with when a mother can hear her baby cry without sobbing herself.

      We live in a part of the country where all the pressure is on CIO, not on not CIO. And we don’t get any questions to our blog from Google asking “what happens if I CIO?” The worries all seem to be on the “is it ok if I don’t CIO” side rather than the “is it ok if I CIO” side. I don’t know why that is.

      • OMDG Says:

        We did it at 3.5 months and went from 4 wake ups per night to 1. I guess I’m going to hell.

        (Citation please.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I haven’t had a kid in that age range in a long time, so I haven’t done the pubmed search in a long time. But I did do it at one point (and #2 send me some “helpful” articles on worse neglect that wasn’t the standard Ferber kind of CIO). IIRC, and I may not, problems include smaller numbers of connections to the brain on scans of some sort and, as an adult mother, not having the “normal” maternal reaction to baby’s cries (being able to ignore a young infant’s cries without distress).

        I don’t know how controlled the studies were and frankly, don’t care, because my youngest kid is 2 and I don’t really care what other people do with their kids (unless it’s something the CPS should be called about), and am VERY much over the standard drama topics on mommy boards.

        Unless you’re planning on having another kid that you plan to CIO before the age of 4 months, it’s a sunk cost so it doesn’t really matter what the research (or what anyone else) says, does it? If you are planning on having another kid, then you have access to pubmed and can make your own informed decision.

      • OMDG Says:

        Amen to being over the drama.

      • OMDG Says:

        PS — I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

  8. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    Reading parenting advice on the internet usually makes me feel like I live on a different planet from the people who write it. Perhaps I simplify things too much, but I just don’t think that hard about 99% of parenting- I usually just do what seems natural to me. The sleep training question is a perfect example. I just put my kids to bed when they were tired and everything worked itself out. It just wasn’t that complicated.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, we’ve found the “whatever works” option to be the best. Even though I would research every question so hard I could have written Emily Oster’s book (though I’m glad I didn’t). Most parenting advice is based on nothing.

    • Rosa Says:

      sleep training and spanking are both things that people get a lot of pressure to do. I have been in mom’s groups where the main activity was just supporting women who had decided not to do one or both of those and were under constant barrage by their “support systems” – especially husbands and parents – to do them. “My baby is 8 weeks old, my mom says put rice cereal in his bottle so he’ll sleep through the night and never ever go see why he’s crying, but it’s so hard! Do I have to do it?” The rice cereal thing actually came up with a young mom in my social circles last week. It’s HARD not to doubt yourself when you’re sleep deprived and some of the people you’re closest to are giving you advice you don’t agree with.

      I’m sure it’s regional and also class and church based (like the pressure in some churches to pray instead of taking antidepressants, which I see a lot of people looking for support for “following normal medical and psychiatric advice”.

  9. jlp Says:

    A touch of irony: I love this blog. And I wouldn’t categorize it as an advice blog. But, because I trust that you are actually basing your statements on research/evidence, I actually now feel guilty about using CIO on my son (aged about 5.5 months at the time). This is probably completely ridiculous of me, too, given that he is normally-attached, an affectionate kid, and a fantastic sleeper. (And I don’t believe that your statements are meant to induce guilt, but rather, to educate people who can use the information. And you say that people should do what works for them. ) Nonetheless…

    Also related: I recently listened to the Freakonomics podcast on parenting (rebroadcast on 9/19/13), which essentially said that it doesn’t much matter what you do as parents, so long as you’re not out at the extremes. However, I suspect their outcome measures (academic achievement, wealth) aren’t exactly the ones I would focus on (though they do mention, in passing, that being kind to your children is something they will remember in their 70s). I did, however, like that their advice was along the lines of: Do what you want! You have no control over this situation anyway!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That area between 4-6 months is unknown, and the fact that they (AAP, Ferber, etc.) recommend it after 6 months means that, based on the best research available, 5.5 month is probably ok for most babies. It’s like, 6 months is ok for almost all babies. 4 months is ok for many babies. To be on the safe side, they say don’t do it under any circumstances before 4 months, and feel free to do it without worry after 6 months.

      Also there are different types of CIO. The Ferber method, which is the standard method, is much more gentle than say the Babywise method (early versions, not the version on the market now) which has caused documented cases of Failure to Thrive

      I cannot believe I still remember this stuff.

  10. Monday Grumpy Monday | ADD . . . and-so-much-more Says:

    […] Grumpy Rumblings on the Advice Industry […]

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