At Columbia, we are told to seek advice, that somewhere in the administrative bureaucracy of the University or our personal networks of friends and family, there is someone to turn to when we feel lost or don’t know what to do.
When picking classes, we are told to seek out our academic adviser in the Center for Student Advising and departmental advisers. When looking for internships and jobs, we are told to look for career advisers in the Center for Career Education. When writing papers, we get pointed in the direction of the Writing Center. When experiencing emotional turmoil, we have a range of services from Columbia Psychological Services to Nightline to the increasing number of student groups looking to preserve our emotional health.
For anything that is outside of the purview of the institutionally sanctioned advising centers, we can expect the voluntary input of friends and family, and, not least, public opinions coming from publications such as this one.
By themselves, these sources of constant guidance are almost always well-meaning. Yet together, they foster an expectation and a desire for outside feedback in every aspect of our lives, which, of course, we adopt.
Flooded with a constant torrent of often-unsolicited counseling, we are prone to becoming indiscriminate consumers of advice. We become unable to tell a thoroughly considered opinion from one hastily pieced together, reluctant to digest words of guidance in the spirit in which they were said, and unwilling to assess whether the person responsible for dispensing wisdom was in a position to be dispensing wisdom to begin with.
We fall into the trap of relying too heavily on the opinions of those around us and not heavily enough on our own judgment. I do not doubt the good intentions of anyone who engages in the business of advice-giving. It is a comforting feeling to think that somewhere, someone can provide us with a remedy for our problems. However, I think that we should be careful not to overdose on honest intentions. This false perception ignores the obvious reality that many of our problems cannot be solved by consulting someone else.
More often than we care to admit, the advice that we heed comes from people who are not fully qualified to offer it. They feel—not out of any malice—obligated to respond when we ask them to. And lacking a full understanding of the situation, they do their best and speak in generalities, which we, in turn, misinterpret and foolishly take to heart.
Nonetheless, we act on this advice, preferring to abide by the ill-conceived rationale of others because it gives us a sense of security about our own actions. Moreover, it gives us a means by which to avoid blame in the event that all goes pear-shaped. We think that it is better to listen to someone else because the alternative is to take responsibility for our own decision-making.
When this false perception becomes pervasive—as I believe it has among Columbia students today—it shackles the self-reliance of those who hold on to it too tightly and renders them incapable of distinguishing useful advice from hogwash. Our lives, by nature, can take on infinite variations. Yet, we can only expect to receive and process advice in finite quantities and forms. At a certain point, we have no choice but to realize that we need to make decisions for ourselves and take responsibility for them.
There is often criticism of the University’s cold bureaucracy doing little or nothing to help students along during their time in college. But this criticism is a product of the expectation that such help should exist in the first place. Thus, rather than viewing the support services available to us—both the institutionally-sanctioned and the informal ones—as supplements to our lives, we contort our lives to suit them. We see advice as necessary rather than auxiliary.
It is not so much anyone explicitly promising that they can solve our problems: More so, what we have is an expectation that we will receive advice when we ask for it. Essentially, we have a culture of seeking advice that is hard to define but greatly influenced by the advising resources at Columbia, the more or less well-defined paths that led us to Columbia, and a greater social culture of mutual dependence that exists outside of Columbia, which sees advising in a similar light.
Regardless of why we have such a culture of advice-seeking, we should be conscious of its effects on us. When we are told that someone else has answers, we are de-incentivized from seeking out our own answers. Yet someone else does not always have answers, or at least the appropriate answers to questions that are unique to each of us. When we fall into the habit of relying on others, we become incapable of coming to our own conclusions.
Lanbo Zhang is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics and history. He is a former Spectator editorial page editor. Second Impressions runs alternate Thursdays.
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