03/23/2012 04:07 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

Some Advice on Seeking Advice

The five words I try to avoid saying to anyone are, "Here's what you should do." Communication technology has created a huge population of instant commentators who pump out an endless river of opinions about all aspects of our daily lives, and I don't want to be part of that flood.

I'm okay with people asking me for advice but in many cases what they really want are instructions. Instructions tell you how to complete a task under controlled conditions. If you want to know a good way to pitch a tent or build a campfire, look in the Boy Scout Handbook and follow the steps.

The problem with giving instructions about how to solve a personal problem is that life has so many variables. It isn't a procedure that can be learned with repeated practice.

When someone does seek my help with a problem, my answer is: "This is how I handled my situation, and that's all I can tell you. I hope something in my explanation may be useful in your case."

There's at least one other contemporary writer who shares my view. A recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Paul Karr described his decision to stop drinking and get sober without help from Alcoholics Anonymous or any support group.

Karr offers his own personal 12-step program to recovery and the final piece of advice is: "Forget Everything You've Just Read." He goes on to say, "The chances that any of the advice here will work for you are vanishingly slim." That's the brutal reality of all personal advice and it isn't what most people want to hear.

Karr concludes with a zinger. "In truth," he says, "all self-help guides are guaranteed to work for only one person: the person who wrote them."

My favorite line in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? is when George Clooney's character mutters, "Everybody's lookin' fer answers." Yes, we are. We want answers about love, losing weight, raising children, enduring grief, finding happiness, and everything in between.

And if you come looking in my direction, I'll be careful not to offer any guarantees with my advice. I may deliver a few sparks of insight, but you have to build your own fire.