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Strictly Good Advice

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Strictly Good Advice,

How do I handle setbacks?

Clarissa.

Hello Clarissa, and thanks for the question. Before I get on with the advice, I will paraphrase the usual disclaimer. I have no credentials or qualifications – really, none – and so I am neither credentialed nor qualified to help you with your problem. Talk to an opinionated expert if you find yourself contemplating a decision that might benefit from a little expert opinion. I will also say that Strictly Good Advice has been with you since the beginning. Think about that when an electronic flyer tells you that someone else is now taking anonymous questions for a new advice column. Think about who really has your best interests at heart.

It might help for the sake of the advice if I had some context – the kinds of setbacks you are experiencing, your usual strategies for managing similar issues, some information about your personality or your circumstances, etc. A little information would have gone a long way toward providing an adequate response. In the future you should also try and form your question more carefully. I don’t know what you consider a “setback,” and I won’t make any assumptions about what qualifies as “handled.” I hope you can believe that I say this not to be a snob, Clarissa; I mention the limitations on my ability to provide helpful advice so that you will be more understanding if I fail to address your concern adequately. I did it for my sake, too: it will be easier to proceed if I have some way to silence the natural urge toward unproductive self-discouragement that comes about whenever a reasonable goal becomes farther out of reach, i.e., whenever I have been “set back.”

If we consider the problems with the question (its omission of critical details, its weak grip on vocabulary) to be a setback, then we might say consider the setback successfully handled when the question is answered, despite the apparent obstacles. The first step towards handling my setback has already been taken: sharing the constraints under which the job is done will help me do it. Taking this communicative step gives me the peace of mind I need to work effectively and gives you the information you need to make good use of whatever work I present. This is important because you came to me for advice, and my options are to either give it to you at any cost or to let you take your questions elsewhere. So I will do whatever it takes to get you your advice. While it appears that my approach to this setback depends on an unhealthy trivialization of the challenge or the psychiatrically incredulous assumption that one can flip a cognitive switch and magically activate their productive capacity, doing “whatever it takes” is actually more reasonable than you might expect. In fact, we have already established the first thing that it takes: if it’s relevant to them, let other people know that there are specific reasons why it’s hard to accomplish the task you’ve obligated yourself to accomplish. The rest of this column will roughly characterize the remaining components of “whatever it takes.”

We have established that communicating your difficulties is essential, but it unfortunately does not make them go away. I must now choose to either (1) attempt to resolve these problems or (2) excuse them as beyond my control and plod along with my best effort. In my case this decision is easy to make: because this is an advice column and not psychological counseling, I will not be able to ask you to clarify or elaborate on anything you’ve already said. All questions are to be addressed as-is; a Socratic back-and-forth is out of the question. I’ve agreed to give anonymous advice, not to be an anonymous confidant/therapist. I don’t even have any information about you except for a name that I made up. So I must proceed knowingly within the restraints of the medium or else let my readers lose their faith and start getting their advice from potential undesirables on the Internet. I value and respect my readers. Thus, to address the dilemma presented at the beginning of this paragraph and carry on with the advice, I will go with option (2): I will excuse myself of conditions beyond my control and trudge forward.

This is easier said than done. Because I can’t guarantee that the environment in which my advice comes about will be perfectly conducive to good advice, I can’t guarantee that my advice will be good. This troubling fact has me racked with harmful reservations; how can I, in good conscience, continue to advertise my Strictly Good Advice if it might be Strictly Middling Advice? How can I, lacking basic self-confidence, carry on sneak attacking the Daily Gazette when I don’t even believe that my own work is any good? I will dismiss these questions by recourse to the previous paragraph, in which I resigned myself to plodding. If I accept that I am mechanically satisfying the bare minimum of necessary tasks with only whatever creativity is most readily available, I can skip the agonizing reflection that naturally follows when I assume full responsibility for my actions. Be careful that you only plod to the degree that it helps you overcome your obstacle. Otherwise, you risk regression into toddlerhood or robotic indifference – neither of which is a good look on the readership, whom I hold in high esteem.

After you have done enough plodding, the hope is that your initially confounding circumstances – or your perspective on them – will change. I have observed that as time goes on, memories lose their sensatory content, remaking themselves into words and concepts in my aging mind. This is a descriptive rather than normative claim, and I am unprepared to argue in its defense. My point is that, viewed in retrospect, how you feel often becomes less important than what you feel. Tactile discomforts become vague while socially informed abstractions take center stage. And the less descript your recollection of physical phenomena gets, the easier it becomes to deal with the fact that you were stuck in the mud. Eventually you regain your confidence. The setback has been successfully handled. You may now package your misfortune into a thoughtful, if kind of nebulous question, and send it to your favorite advice columnist.

In need of some strictly good advice? Send a question by electronic mail to strictlygoodadvice(at)gmail(dot)com (your name will not be included in the column unless by request), or by snail mail to the author at 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA, 19081.

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