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Giving advice is easy. There’s something that’s a half bubble off and I have just the right thing to bring balance. I can reach into the barrel and produce all sorts of bromides that precisely meet the need. 

Funny though how some of my best advice fails to produce enthusiasm. 

That’s part of advice giving reality of course. The worst advice tends toward the painfully obvious or so insultingly simple that it offends abundantly. We all know it when we see it. We all have been victims and it almost always arrives unsolicited.

Given that egregious reality, I wondered about the whole advice-giving niche. None of us seem to be able to refrain and didn’t Solomon have a whole sidebar career dedicated to the advice business? Solomon’s three of this and four of that have always struck me as particularly astute; so clearly advice can do some good. But what makes it so? 

The best advice produces clarity and takes you just a little bit deeper. Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac was masterful and is still worth remembering. Not many people would argue with “Lost Time is never found again” or “Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.” Since I tend to capitalize words where they shouldn’t be, Ben offers me clarity, depth and permission to avoid grammar. That’s good advice and a gift.

A more modern piece of advice lodged in my memory is that “nobody sells a used car because it is running too good.” I told that one to a young person just the other day. I think it stuck and I smiled.

Sometimes hard won advice can be deep but with an edge. An old time preacher once told me to “beware of the man who meets you at the train.” That verbal picture has actually proven to be true a couple of times in my ministry, though the rituals of arriving by train are obsolete. 

The best advice has come from surprising places. For a couple of summers, this naive boy from Roseland, Illinois worked in a meat packing plant behind the stockyards in Chicago. That opened my eyes to a world far beyond my sheltered Reformed upbringing.

An old odd character befriended me and one day he said, “Always remember that them that does the most talking does the less doing.” His target were those bragging about their exploits. But I’m still using that phrase for people struggling to find their way through exhaustingly verbose meanderings. Politicians and preachers come immediately to mind, but I must admit to a fair amount of mansplaining myself. His advice taught me at just the right moment that discernment is not optional. It’s a necessity. 

Given all of that, it becomes clear that the finest advice is hard won, harder to express and hardest to effectively apply. It takes work to give advice. It’s even harder to receive it.

I wish I could remember who said it, but someone told me a little advice laden formula to use whenever I was in a place where advice is needed but there’s no Ben Franklin or Solomon handy.  

I first went public with this formula when I was the speaker at my daughter’s eighth grade graduation decades ago (scariest audience ever!). I gave them some Benjamin Franklin advice but then asked the grads to remember three words: somebody, nobody, everybody. 

The prime example went something like this: today is your graduation and you are all the somebodies everybody is celebrating but tomorrow you will be at the bottom in the Freshman pile and everybody will remind you that you are nobodies but almost everybody knows that nobodies are really somebodies but not everybody understands that nobody is a nobody but are somebodies.

After that grammar challenged twister, I added a second example with a social justice leaning and a third with a church caste dynamic. I suggested that it was impossible to remember and apply my examples but they can remember somebody, nobody, everybody to help sort out any knotty puzzles they might face. It really is a fun little activity that can sometimes help. Try one yourself.

But maybe even remembering to apply three words to future challenges is much too much to expect so I boiled it all down to a little slice of advice. I asked the somebodies of that day to remember this:

The greatest somebody 
became a nobody 
so everybody can be a somebody.
Then live your life accordingly!

It was a playful event and to engage young minds with this advice was exhilarating. I didn’t even embarrass my daughter.

Now in 2023 those kids have grown into more directions than I can even imagine. They might be laborers or academics, leaders or followers, spiritual or secular, devout or apathetic or any combination reflecting the immense diversity of God’s creation. They might even be decision makers in ecclesiastical assemblies.

Today we face knotty puzzles beyond the imaginings of the past. From personal identity to global ultimatums the world is becoming a scary place. And all of that is on top of religious bigotry and schism between fellow believers. So here’s my piece of unsolicited advice. No matter the passage of time, the accomplishments achieved, the insecurities overcome, the uniqueness of your being or the certainty of the convictions on which you build your life, remember this:

The greatest somebody
became a nobody
so everybody can be a somebody.

Live your life accordingly!

Al Schipper

Al Schipper is a retired chaplain and teacher. He is optimistic by nature and enthusiastic by choice. Retirement brought interim challenges, foreign ministry, Red Cross adventures, and authoring COPACETIC: God’s People Transforming Chaos. Now abiding in Grand Rapids, Michigan but always with an eye toward the horizon.


  • RZ says:

    Profound, concise, memorable. Thank you!

  • Joel Slenk says:

    This piece was far from an exhaustingly verbose meandering.
    Thank you for some unsolicited (but greatly appreciated) advice that is clear, concise, with the right balance of humanity and mystery.

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