What Do You Do When Someone’s Flying High But About To Crash?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So you’ve got a friend who’s walking into a field full of red flags.

Usually, those red flags are relationship-based – “Oh, we opened up our relationship, but I’m not allowed to date men, only women!” they cry, thrilled about the hot sex they’re going to be getting, unaware of how that story usually ends. Or they’re a desperate guy who’s ecstatic to have his first real girlfriend, a girlfriend who is quietly encouraging to drop all his friends and hobbies because she doesn’t really seem to like who he is, only who he might be with a little molding.

But he’s in love, so what can you say?

Sometimes the Waving Field of Red Flags comes from other, more mundane topics – the friend who’s quitting their job to sell CutCo knives for a living, the relative who’s found a friendly bank to loan them money to buy a house they can’t possibly afford.

The specific shade of this Waving Field of Red Flags doesn’t matter. The point is that they’re rhapsodic because they’re at the top of this particular rollercoaster ride, the point of max exhilaration where it’s all giddy anticipation as the coaster ratchets to the top, and they don’t see the massive plunge coming.


But experience tells you it’s gonna happen.

So how do you warn them off? Especially when they’re so goddamned happy right now?

And this is when my take on advice comes in strong.

Because nobody seeks advice when they know what they’re doing. You get advice when you’re not sure about which way to go – things like, “What college is best?” and “How do I save for retirement?” There’s usually a research stage before life’s decisions, and that’s when someone is receptive to input.

Ah, but in matters of the heart…

Once the emotions kick in, they’re no longer seeking advice – in fact, logic becomes their enemy. Because when you’re really committed to this new relationship or this lovely house they could buy or this profitable dream of a career they could have, the logical portion of most people’s brains stops seeking input and starts becoming a Rationalization Engine. They’ll cling to any sign of goodness as long as it supports the facts they want to see.

So if you think a friend’s in trouble, well, you can talk. Heck, you almost certainly should. But you have to realize, you’re probably not going to make a difference. They may claim they’re open to feedback, but in truth they’re probably locked and loaded. At best you might be able to wrestle them off the path through a combination of leverage and guilt, but even then you’ll have to deal with their resentment because they were sure they had a good thing – and maybe they’ll fall for the same trick the next time.

So what do you do?

You change your conception of “advice.”

Because the way I see it, advice isn’t actually meant to change someone’s point of view.

It’s a lockbox you bury in their basement.

Because call me cynical, but what I find is that most people won’t change their behavior when things are going right – they only consider alternate paths when they’ve burnt everything to the ground and are wandering dazed through the wreckage, trying to figure out what the heck happened.

Your job is to seed the basement with enough fireproof lockboxes so when they’re pawing through the ashes, they might find the box of your old advice and go, “Crap, that’s what I did.”

Or, if you’d like to be slightly more hopefully, advice is the box that they open when things start to turn sour and they go, “Oh, maybe my friend was right.” Sometimes they leave a little earlier thanks to what you said. It can happen.

But the important thing is this: Advice almost never stops someone in their tracks.

And that’s actually good. Because you’re not always right. I know I’ve done some damn fool things that worked out in my life that arguably shouldn’t have, most notably “Quitting my job and moving to Alaska to marry my Internet sweetheart,” a move that literally nobody at the wedding including the bride and groom thought would work out, and yet here we are twenty years later.

I’m not saying you’re not probably right. But advice is fraught with its own issues – your personal biases, differences in personality, misinterpretations, dumb luck. If what someone’s going to is super-obvious then yes, maybe you wanna go to the mat, but the darkly cynical side of me would like to suggest a darkly cynical solution:

Some people gotta catch wood or drown.

And like the lockboxes, the best you can do sometimes is hold your dumbass friend’s hand while they descend into darkness, knowing that this is probably disaster, knowing that they’ll need a friendly face when this is all done to wipe the ashes off their cheeks and help them back to their feet.

Or maybe you throw a party in a few years and celebrate because whee, you were wrong, it’s the twentieth wedding anniversary and wasn’t it great that you didn’t stop them?

But probably not. This is probably disaster. But your advice is not meant to wall them off from this. Your advice is that lockbox they open up later on, when they’re confused and hurt, and maybe you help them to shape their experience with this so that next time, next time, they’re a little slower to plunge into stupidity.

That’s how cynical people keep friends. We love, but we don’t expect. We stash the love for them for when they need it later. And be ready to pick them up when they fall.

That’s the best we can do. And sometimes, hopefully, it’s even good enough.


  1. Anonymous Alex
    Oct 8, 2019

    But how do you do that without losing your friend to “why do you need to shit on everything I do” ism?


  2. Papa Fargo
    Oct 8, 2019

    Yeah but sometimes you have to walk away too. Sometimes you just get tired of beating your head against the wall or seeing them walk into situations over and over and over again, knowing that your friend won’t listen to your advice.

    Sometimes they walk so blindly into a situation, or hurt people so much by their un-heeding actions that you just have to let them walk away.

    I think that’s an important point to be made as well. Because while your friend might need a friend, YOU need a friend too, and sometimes they just aren’t being one, by actively ignoring you.

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