As we move through time, and our lives, we make decisions and plans.  Some of these decisions are explicit and conscious, others are implicit in our behavior and conduct.  These decisions and plans have consequences in terms of our life satisfaction levels.  (Of course, they also have consequences for the lives that touch us.)  Some of these consequences are immediate and obvious, others manifest themselves more remotely in time, and still others make themselves felt in the deep future.  Balancing the proximate and distal consequences of our life choices is the great problem of life.  I will offer some suggestions on this dilemma.

            I must confess at the outset that I have no special qualifications for giving advice, and, indeed, it is doubtful that there are any authentic credentials for the giving of advice.  While it is true that I am, by training, a psychologist and attorney, I was never explicitly trained to give advice.  Indeed, believe it or not, during the eleven years of college and two post-doctoral years of training that it took to become a licensed professional, I did not take a single course in advice or general wisdom.  The reason for this is simple enough—no such course was ever offered.  Actually, as you may know, if you have partaken in the occidental version of personally dispensed wisdom, psychotherapists are generally discouraged from giving advice.  Just try asking a psychoanalyst for a little advice!  You may spend the next year trying to understand what ever possessed you to ask.  A little hyperbole here, but a good segue for my first piece of advice:  When you have a subtle point to make—exaggerate.  While legal training, in contrast to psychological training, does have a focus on “right answers” or “correct analysis,” it does not prepare counselors to give advice on anything but narrowest of legal decisions.  For example, family attorneys are well trained to know how to advise a client on whether they can prevail on a claim for custody.  They are, however, ill equipped to know whether it is wise to assert the claim.  While an attorney can advise you on how to successfully exclude a child from your estate plan, they have no training on how to give guidance on the moral, psychological, and social implications of the exclusion.

One needn’t concern themselves with my lack of qualifications and experience relating to life advice because the risk of being exposed to erroneous advice is relatively small in light of the common tendency for people to reject any advice that is not consistent with their own inner wisdom.  In fact, if you’re anything like me, you often don’t even accept and act on your own wisdom.  However, if you are one of those rare people who can and do accept advice, let me suggest that you don’t allow the advice in this book to direct your behavior unless the advice seems reasonable to you.  Of course, in reality, I really don’t mean what I say here, because, like all people who give advice, no matter what I say to the contrary, I secretly believe that I know best.  I “show my cards” here in response to the wisdom:  “Don’t take people for fools, they’ll appreciate that.”

            Why a book on advice?  Basically, there are two reasons for such a text which go hand-in-hand.  First, and most importantly, people do foolish things in life which cause them a great deal of misery.  Interestingly enough this maxim appears to be as true for the very intelligent and well educated person as for the less intelligent and poorly educated person.  Second, there does not appear to be, in the common lay literature, any simple, straightforward, and condensed collection of advice on the general issues of living.  I do not mean to imply that life is devoid of sources of advice.  This is clearly not true.  Priests, monks, political activists, palmists, astrologers, professors, financial planners, philosophers, authors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, parents, grandparents, sports heroes, friends, newspaper columnists, and numerous others are all available to some degree, for some limited purposes, at some time for the giving of counsel.  It is the very plethora of advice givers that constitutes the problem.  The reasonable rules for living must be pieced together in a haphazard happenstance way.  And, most importantly, they all give their advice too late.  Truly useful advice should be deeply settled in the caverns of the mind awaiting the proper moment of life to be activated and called to arms against pending decisional doom.  In sum, in the domain of counsel-giving, we don’t have good preventative medicine.  A problem with the many sources of wisdom enumerated above is that one must accept with that wisdom, a great deal of rhetorical garbage.  This is especially true of religion which embeds its injunctions and instruction amidst a morass of ideological trappings.  The result, one usually suffers from an overwhelming case of distraction, or confusion, before one gets to the core instruction.

            This brings to mind the single most devastating quality of advice and advisors, that is, the enterprise of life instruction is, for the most part, reactive rather than proactive.  Counsel is sought when things have already gone wrong.  Indeed, counseling usually is sought for the purpose of correcting a past failure to be wise.  That is, counseling is the bandage solution to a wisdomless culture.  Further, once the advisee has, through therapy or some other mode, figured out a way to ameliorate the pains of foolicians (foolish decisions), he or she jumps back into life no better for the process.  Ah!! but no sooner do I write this sentence than I hear the therapists rebuttal:  “Good therapy (read in advice, counsel, instruction, astral reading, etc., etc.) teaches lessons that are carried back into the life process.  This is the old growth through pain and analysis metaphor.  This rebuttal is a good one if life is so gracious as to re-present you with a problem in the domain in which you happened to have learned a lesson.  Life is not so gracious.  The solution is to get an overview of advice long in advance, i.e., to get a feeling for the gestalt.

            Before you conclude that I am obviously taking on an impossible task and that it’s unlikely that the advisory content of this volume is any more accurate, if as accurate, as other sources of guidance, keep in mind that the value of this small work does not rest just in its accuracy.

            Ultimately, the purpose of this book is to inspire you to look at life in terms of decisional rules.  I refer to these rules as Life Guidance Directives (LGDs).  It is the discovery of good LGDs that will make you happy.  If one of the LGDs discussed in this text doesn’t work for you, i.e., if you see it fail in your life or another’s, I presume that you’ll question and change the rule.  What is most important is that life and its vicissitudes be constantly translated and abstracted into useful lessons.  This approach will insure the early development of empirically—that is experientially—sound wisdoms.  Stated a little more formally: If you experience, or witness, an unpleasant event which is destructive to you, which you wish would have never happened, then ask yourself what rule of life, LGDs, for you, could have prevented or reduced the likelihood of that event.  (Try to generate a very simple and practical rule).

            I share this advice now because I consider this approach the progenitor of all wisdom.   This is the principle that inspired this book.  That is, all of my recommendations arise out of an application of this LGD.  But because this book is going to be incomplete, you must understand this meta-advice—the big daddy progenitor of wisdom.  Its application, however, is slightly more complex than appears.

            First, once the noxious event occurs, you must generate not one, but many competing possible rules that would have prevented that event.  Now, having these competing alternatives in mind, you must choose which rule is the best rule.  Eliminate from your list any rules that are practically impossible.  After doing this you must actively look for disadvantages, i.e., problems that will result from following each of the remaining LGDs.  Pick the one that has the least problems.  Finally, you must compare this new life guidance directive to the results of doing nothing (that is, compare its disadvantages to the noxious event that you’re avoiding).  If your new rule compares favorably, mention it to someone who you respect (and who appears fairly happy) and see if they can see any problems with it.  If not, you’ve got yourself a temporary LGD, some wisdom.  While time and experience may command some modifications of your LGD, you will have some interim guidance.  At first this process is slow and cumbersome.  But, after a while it will become fairly easy.

            When people try to generate their own life rules, however, they often make errors in three specific parts of this sequence.  One common error is to impetuously conclude something from an experience, a rule or imperative, without generating a list of alternatives (a good long list).  Second, people often do not think of the potential problems that their new rule will itself generate.  For example, as a therapist I’ve encountered a large number of people who, after suffering greatly from rejection by an intimate, have concluded that life would be better if they never got close to anyone.  These people are often in treatment for the results of this new rule, i.e., loneliness, depression, emptiness, and conflicting heterosexual (or homosexual) relationships.  You may have to live many years with your personal philosophy, so take a little time to think clearly about it.

            Finally, people have difficult understanding and using the concept of relative risk.  The concept of relative risk is one of the most essential analytic tools in understanding the potential disadvantages of particular life choices or life guidance directives.  While the basic idea of relative risk is simple, it is not understood intuitively or naturally.  Relative risk requires an appreciation of chance or probabilities.  When doing an analysis of relative risk, you must first compare the risk of some unpleasant event (or some disadvantage) under one set of circumstances against the risk under a different set of circumstance.  For example, let us say that the risk of getting lung cancer if you don’t smoke is one in one million.  That is, one person out of million non-smokers will get lung cancer.  Additionally, let us say that the risk of getting lung cancer if you do smoke is one hundred in one million (i.e., one in one in ten thousand).  That is, one person out of ten thousand smokers will get lung cancer.  In this example, there are two fascinating conclusions.  First, if you smoke, you will be one hundred times more likely to die of lung cancer.  Second, even if you do smoke, it is still very unlikely that you’ll get lung cancer because only one smoker in a ten thousand gets lung cancer.  This does not end the analysis of relative risk.  In fully appreciating relative risks, you must also understand generally what the risk is of the adverse event, cancer, under other circumstances.  Only then can you understand the relative amount of risk.  For example, how would it effect your sense of risk, and the wisdom of smoking, if you knew that living near the center of Los Angeles, with its pollutants, creates a two hundred in one million risk of lung cancer.  That is, out of a million centrally located Los Angeles residents, two hundred will get lung cancer.  Accepting these contrived numbers, suddenly smoking seems a bit less dangerous.  The idea here is that danger, or disadvantage, must be viewed in terms of probability or risk, and that risk must be viewed relatively, that is in comparison to other circumstances and life choices that create the same kind of risk.

            Unfortunately, there are no books that list the risks associated with various life decisions.  Accordingly, the concept of relative risk must be used in a murky guesswork manner, where one’s sense of risk must often be express in terms like, “high,” “very low,” etc., etc.  Notwithstanding these difficulties, the concept of relative risk is still very important.  The concept can be applied to any life decision.  While I have emphasized its application to adverse events, it is equally applicable to positive events and consequences.  For example, imagine that you are eighteen years old and have been accepted to both Harvard and the University of California at Berkley.  You are struggling with whether to become deeply in debt in order to go to Harvard, the school with the better reputation and cache.  You know that both schools are very good.  Your life goal is to be a millionaire before age twenty-five.  (A silly goal, but if facilitates our analysis.)  So how much more likely is it that you’ll become a millionaire if you attend Harvard rather than the University of California at Berkley?  Finally, if Harvard does increase the relative risk, or probability, of being a millionaire, does the amount of the increase justify the expense?  Of course, no one has the exact answer to these questions.  Nevertheless, your estimate or intuition about the answer will be important to your decision.  You might conclude, for example, that the cache of Harvard will only determine your initial post-graduation job offers, and that attending Harvard will not provide you with the energy, creativity, and risk tolerance to become a successful business person.  You might further reason that no one becomes a millionaire from being an employee, and, accordingly, in the final analysis Harvard is not going to advance your objectives very much.  This analysis, however, might yield a very different conclusion if your life objective was to be socially prominent or to get accepted to a prestigious law school. 

            In the final analysis, understanding the idea of relative risk will help you keep a focus on how important a particular choice, life pathway, or directive really is for you given your objectives.