When I was around 15 or 16, it was considered hilarious to tell the careers adviser at my school – a hardworking teacher, who didn't deserve such aggravation – that you were interested in pursuing a career as a careers adviser. We never actually did this, of course, because we were cowards as well as irritating smart alecks. But it was fun to imagine what might have happened: would it have triggered some kind of mental short circuit, causing wisps of smoke to emerge from both ears? Or maybe careers advisers are trained for precisely this eventuality. Perhaps it's a fabled rite of passage among careers advisers, something that grizzled ex-careers advisers swap stories about: the first time you advise someone on how to become a careers adviser.
I'm reminded of this every time I encounter another book or television show full of advice – self-help advice, financial advice, anything – by someone whose profession is dispensing advice. I don't mean any offence towards careers advisers in particular; nor am I endorsing the odious saying that "those who can't do, teach". (And yes, if you count this column as advice, maybe I'm being hypocritical, too.) But there's something jarring about being told, say, how to manage your time by someone who spends their life immersed in time-management systems: the rest of us don't have time to live like that, which is kind of the whole point. Or take the pop-psychology cliché of discovering your "life purpose". This might be a valid notion, but the people recommending it are almost always coaches and authors who've decided that their life purpose is helping other people discover their life purpose – which seems, somehow, like a dodge.
The blogger Ben Casnocha calls these people "meta-careerists". "The best advice on networking will come from someone who is not a professional networker," he writes. "The best advice on entrepreneurship will come from someone whose entrepreneurship is not selling books and workshops about entrepreneurship." And it'll be harder to obtain, because they'll be busy doing whatever it is that they do: true masters are rarely persuaded to write books about their field. My local chain bookshop has a display table dedicated to books on how to write – "So You Want To Be A Writer?" it says, on a little sign – but I've never heard of any of the authors. Which is, surely, an issue.
Even when advice comes from an unimpeachable, highly experienced source, there are complications. Someone who's dedicated their life to promoting stress-reduction techniques, for instance, might know the subject inside out – but since stress reduction is all they do, they risk losing touch with the vital question of how to integrate it into a messy, complex, ordinary life. See also: chefs who write recipe books of "everyday dishes" that take two hours to prepare. Or Buddhist monks who write pop-meditation books, however well-meant, from monasteries expressly designed to be conducive to meditation. (We think of monkish, renunciate lifestyles as tough going – no alcohol, no sex, no entertainment – but in some ways they're surely easier than normal life: all the most alluring distractions are removed.) It might still be great advice. But it needs to be consumed advisedly.