You Can't Just Skip to the Recipe
Advice only works in certain context. Are you sure the person who wrote your recipe to success shares the same context as you do?
Last weekend I made my grandma’s cheese dumplings for the first time. I wouldn’t probably do it if I didn’t have a lot of leftover cheese that had to go fast. But now that I had the cheese, and it was Grandmother’s Day in Poland, I decided to honor her memory by making one of my favorite comfort foods that she often made when I was a kid.
This isn’t the beginning of a culinary recipe, although on another website it might be. Most recipes online start with a long personal story of how the author came up with the idea of cooking this particular dish, or how their relationship with it evolved over time. Some people get so upset by this that there’s at least a few different sites that promise to deliver “just the fucking recipe” without unnecessary fluff.
I don’t mind my cooking recipes this or another way. But I noticed the same thing happening to most self-help advice. One simple trick to this, or a 5-step guide to that, everyone is trying to deliver their insights in the shortest compressed form. An app called Blinkist promises you'll "get the key ideas in minutes, not hours" through their distilled non-fiction books summaries. Who would like to sieve through pages of personal anecdata when the key nugget of wisdom is all you really need?
Since I’ve become a mother, such nuggets of wisdom are pretty much useless to me. I know that their authors have all the best intentions. I’m very glad that having an hour-long morning routine or blocking all distractions for a few hours changed their lives for the better, I’m just not the kind of a person who can do things like this. It’s almost as if I told everyone they should get prescription glasses because I can’t function without them. This is obviously absurd, but most advice written by childless people is absurd to me in similar ways.
Cooking my grandma’s dumplings was quite a humbling experience. As it turns out, cottage cheese and cheesecake cheese aren’t quite the same thing. I ended up with a bowl of a super sticky substance that glued itself to everything in my kitchen and wouldn’t form any shape whatsoever. If it wasn’t for my husband who saved the day by adding infinitely more flour than the recipe called for, I’d probably throw it all away.
My grandma used to call this dish “lazy dumplings”. This might have given me unrealistic expectations of how easy and fast it would be. Compared with pierogi that you need to knead for half an hour, roll out, cut shapes, and fill them in, this might have indeed been the lazy option. To me, it was more time-consuming than most of the stuff I normally make. My lazy goto dish that I can cook in 15 minutes while holding a kid in one hand is tagliatelle with tuna and tomato sauce - but my grandma wouldn’t have access to any of these things.
So what’s a better dish to make when you’re in a hurry, my grandma’s dumplings or tomatoes and tuna pasta? The answer is: it all depends. If I lived in a rural cottage with no access to dried pasta or canned food, I wouldn’t have a choice anyway. I still remember how my grandma used to make noodles by hand for our usual chicken soup on Sunday. When my mom first bought packaged noodles, it was such an incredible game changer!
Every piece of advice comes from a certain context. Everything I write here is from the point of view of an urban mom with one kid, a daycare, house cleaner, and no regular job. I know I’m in a unique and privileged situation, but thanks to this privilege I can share my thoughts with you all. Most of my mom friends have equally valuable insights and no time at all ever to write it all down.
If my insights help someone who’s in a very different situation, that’s fantastic. If they don’t - I’m sure there will be some other advice that resonates. I would never dare to tell a single mom struggling to make ends meet that she should prioritize her own happiness, even though this is precisely what I need to do myself. For every piece of good advice there is someone who needs to hear exactly the opposite advice. A homesteading mom of 5 children will need very different things than a single software engineer who lives alone and orders most of his food on Uber Eats. This is only a problem if we’re trying to distill a single nugget of wisdom that’s supposed to work for everyone.
So how can you tell if a piece of advice is right for you or not? At the end of the day nothing beats trial and error. But personal stories can be a good place to start. You can instantly tell if you’re dealing with similar challenges as the person who’s giving the advice. If you do, there’s a high chance their solution might work for you too.
And even if you don’t, this might be your unique chance to see the world from the point of view of someone who is very different from you. As much as I hate one-size-fits-all advice, I enjoy reading about all kinds of challenges people have and the ways they’ve overcome them. Even if I can’t relate myself, I might notice one of my friends or brothers in some of their stories. If you just skip to the recipe, all of that precious context gets lost.
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"For every piece of good advice there is someone who needs to hear exactly the opposite advice." - This is so true! Love your posts for how candid and pithy they are!
For the recipes I very much think that you can skip to the recipe.
But I absolutely agree on the advice front. Same goes for the "this book could have been a blog post". There is a lot of value in presenting the same advice from the different points of view and context so that somebody can easier incorporate into their own life.
"Don't be stupid" is a great advice but more context is needed to get more actionable approach.
But sometimes specific actionable approach is a gateway drug to higher understanding. When the only way to reach better understanding is through practice than the best way is to have somebody practicing quickly. And the best way to do that is to jump to the recipe.