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Is there an idiom or expression that refers to a person who has some unsolved problems and tries to give some pieces of advice to, or guide, others for solving the same problems?

We Iranians have a proverb that literally means

“If a bald man were capable of curing baldness, he would cure himself first!

This sarcastic proverb implies that “...while someone is incapable of solving his own problems, he is in no position to guide others on how to solve the same problems.”

Examples:

  1. Suppose I have made many mistakes in my married life and now I'm in the midst of getting divorced; one day my colleague (person A), who is about to get married, asks my colleagues and me for some advice on how to have a successful married life. When I start giving my opinion, another colleague (person B) might turn and say to person A:

    "Why are you asking Soudabeh? If she really knew how to have a happy married life, she wouldn't be in this situation now; as that old proverb says "if a bald man could cure baldness, he would cure himself first!"

  2. There is a country (A) in the region which has been fighting some terrorist groups for some years and has not been successful in destroying them; now its neighbor country (B) is facing the same problem. If country A's leaders try to guide country B's government on how to fight against those terrorists, country B's leader might say "You are not in a position to guide us! If you had been capable of solving this problem, you would have solved it in your own country, if a bald..."

I have found this idiom "physician, heal thyself". Can I use it as an equivalent to that Persian proverb? (Although it seems that it focuses on "defects" rather than the "problems".)

Notes:

  • The bald man here refers to the one who has been involved with an inherited baldness or a permanent baldness due to a disease like a ringworm (fungal infection).

  • We use this proverb when we are talking to/about our close friends or younger relatives, or to people for whom we don't care about them being offended hearing it (we rarely say it to a really bald person to prevent them taking it personally and getting upset). Also, this proverb is commonly used among politicians and opposing parties as a way of mocking each other for not being able to solve their own problems and yet trying to guide others on how to solve the same problems.

  • Using this proverb doesn't mean that the speaker is accusing somebody but just implies that they are not in the position to give advice about the given problem(s).

Maybe this cartoon gives a better idea. (What is your first impression of that?) Are you ready to go to this dietician? :)

One might reply :"No, I won't. Because if he knew how to treat obesity, he would treat himself first!, as the idiom/ proverb says _____ ."

Actually, I'm looking for something that can be used in this sentence, too (as an equivalent for that Persian proverb).

enter image description here

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While physician, heal thyself is a related idiom, it assumes that the person is capable of solving their own problems, but unwilling. I think the Iranian proverb casts aspersions on the person trying to solve problems for others — she/he is incapable of solving that problem for themselves. – ghoppe Feb 10 at 20:18
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I'm reminded of a song I once heard, which began: The plumber's got a drip in his spigot / The mechanic's got a clank in his car. These aren't established idioms – if they were, I might be writing an answer instead of a comment. However, those lines show how one can derive an expression with the same sentiment by using a little creative thought. – J.R. Feb 10 at 21:07
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Related but opposite direction: "The cobbler's children have no shoes" – Mitch Feb 10 at 21:40
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Considering the number of deliberately bald people (my brother in law shaves his head), this proverb sucks. – Joshua Feb 10 at 22:42
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Could be viewed as a duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/159004/… – MSalters Feb 11 at 0:39

22 Answers 22

up vote 86 down vote accepted

A similar idiom is: The blind leading the blind

It's used in a situation where someone who is incapable of dealing with a particular circumstance gives advice to another person in the same situation.

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We have exactly the same proverb in Persian too, but with a different meaning: we use it when an unhealthy/ ill/ a debilitated person or the one with his own problems, helps an other person with the same or worse condition. For example: When an old lady helps another old lady to pass the street, they would laugh and say " the blind leading the blind" while passing the street together. :) – Soudabeh Feb 11 at 9:50
    
+1 for the concise answer – user1717828 Feb 11 at 11:49
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I should have realized that the phrase would be common in many languages since it is present in similar form in the Bible and Buddhist Pali Canon. In my experience, the phrase is used very generally, but it actually makes sense to use it in the context you mentioned. Thanks for sharing that! – Frederick1214 Feb 11 at 15:22
    
You're welcome, @Frederick1214. Do you mean that you might use it in the situation like this example, too? ( I mean the old lady example.) – Soudabeh Feb 11 at 16:38
    
@JFA, thanks for clarification, So if I choose this answer I don't think I can it use it with the meaning you explained, since we Iraninans have already a different meaning in our mind. Very tough decision, regarding this much upvotes. – Soudabeh Feb 12 at 4:22

There is a quote from the New Testament Bible, Matthew 7.5

You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Wikipedia

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Well, with this, "the blind leading the blind," and "physician, heal thyself" I think we've hit all the Biblical possibilities at least. – Casey Feb 11 at 18:29
    
It's worth noting that "beam" here is sometimes translated as "plank". – Panzercrisis Feb 12 at 14:35
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@Panzercrisis And as timber, and speck is sometime translated as splinter. – bib Feb 12 at 15:09
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My favorite small piece of debris in translations of Matt 7:5 is the mote. – jejorda2 Feb 12 at 19:36
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This is the one I thought of, Don't complain to me about the tiny speck in my eye, when you have a huge log your in yours – Ashley Coolman Feb 13 at 1:34

There is a clever proverb, dating back to John Ray's collection of 1678, that expresses a similar idea, from a very different direction:

Bachelors' wives and maids' [that is, childless women's] children are always well taught.

The idea ironically expressed here is that a person without any actual experience tends to imagine that a task that may in fact be quite difficult to perform well is instead straightforward and easy. A wifeless man and a childless woman who are very free with their advice about how to make a marriage succeed or how to raise a child properly are like a bald man who lays down the law about how to make hair grow—except that they may not be aware of their baldness.

But an even more suitable proverb might be one that doesn't exist:

Don't trust a dentist who has bad teeth.

That's because, whereas a bald man may have no control over his baldness, a dentist really ought to know how to preserve his or her own teeth.

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Thanks,@Sven Yargs, "Don't trust a dentist who has bad teeth" has a close connotation. :) – Soudabeh Feb 11 at 4:33
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A Dentist is one of the few professions who are physically incapable of fixing their own problems (teeth), only action heroes or crazy people would attempt surgery on themselves. Like if there's two barbers in a barbershop, and one has an excellent haircut while the other looks like an old messy mop's on his head, which one should you have cut your hair? The one with the bad hair, since he can't cut his own hair & probably gave the barber with the excellent hair his haircut. – Xen2050 Feb 14 at 8:38
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@Xen2050 "Dentist" and "Oral Surgeon" are separate professions. For many people, the biggest effect a dentist has on their teeth isn't performing surgery or even cleaning, but just advising their brushing/flossing habits. – ApproachingDarknessFish Feb 14 at 10:17
    
@ApproachingDarknessFish Around here (N. America) the cleaning & brushing/flossing advice is done by a "dental hygienist", kind of like a dentist's nurse. The Dentist does the main checkup, filling cavities, root canals, caps, etc. Apparently "Oral Surgeons" do the surgeries requiring anesthesia or "deep sedation" like removing wisdom teeth, reconstructions, etc. --- I wouldn't trust anyone who attempted to perform their own root canal or fill a cavity using a mirror (Unless you're Mr.Bean, see? ) – Xen2050 Feb 14 at 11:35
    
Shouldnt it be bachelors' (he wrote bachelor's) and maids' according to modern English? I guess he meant 'wives of bachelors' while I parse it as 'wives of a bachelor`. – aitchnyu Feb 15 at 13:24

Never trust a skinny chef.

springs to mind.

The idea is, if a chef is a good chef, he can't help but eat his own food a lot and gets fat. Whereas a skinny chef doesn't make good enough food to tempt himself to eat it.

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Intersting and vey close connotation!, @dwjohnston. Is it saying or proverb? We use that Persian proverb in situations like this too, and also for examples : when a fat dietician tries to solve the problem of fat people, or a dermatologist whose skin seems very unhealthy and tries to treat people's skin problem. :) – Soudabeh Feb 11 at 4:25
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I have heard several people use this phrase (and have used it myself, among friends), but it's perhaps worth pointing out that US cultural opinions on thinness/fatness change over time and at current some may find this saying mildly offensive. – GrandOpener Feb 11 at 16:35
    
+1 to @GrandOpener's comment, a skinny chef seems more likely to make extremely healthy food, and I'm a lot more inclined to trust them. I guess if you want to look like a fat chef too, you can trust a fat chef... – Xen2050 Feb 14 at 8:36
    
A thin chef might simply have high standards. The chef who is not satisfied with the quality of his own food is the chef who keeps striving to improve. – Beta Feb 14 at 15:40

I think a similar English idiom is: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

Obviously, while good teachers are capable and experienced in doing the work they teach, there is a cynical view that many who take up teaching a profession do so because they have failed to be successful in that profession.

While physician, heal thyself is a related idiom, it assumes that the person is capable of solving their own problems, but unwilling. I think the Iranian proverb casts aspersions on the person trying to solve problems for others — she/he is incapable of solving that problem for themselves.

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Part of it comes from the fact that you can usually make a lot more money doing, rather than teaching. So in the end, only the people who care passionately about teaching, or the ones who can't do, teach. Many college professors I remember from my studies were the first kind - they already made tons of money doing (and still living off the royalties etc.), and now they feel their time is better spent teaching (for some, it's more fun, for others, they want to see others get better etc.). That said, the proverb seems to apply to consultants just as well, and those often get paid more :D – Luaan Feb 11 at 10:05
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My favorite version of this idiom had a third part: Those who can't teach, administrate! – David Feb 11 at 19:47
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@Luaan, yes consultants are often paid more, but that is (at least in part) because they typically don't receive all of the other company benefits (paid vacation, medical, dental, retirement, etc...) plus job security: I've been at the same company over 10 years, while all the consultants I've ever worked with are long gone... – David Feb 11 at 19:55
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This idiom differs from the OP’s in that the person’s baldness suggests their inability to cure it far more convincingly than teaching a subject suggests inability to apply it. @David: I heard: … Those who can’t teach do teacher training, those who can’t do teacher training do educational research. – PJTraill Feb 12 at 1:25
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@PJTraill I used to work for a school district. So as you can imagine there all lots of variations on that theme. My favorites have one more layer. "Those who can't Do, Teach. Those who can't Teach.... Those who can't do paperwork Teach Gym/Art/Music." :-) – H.R.Rambler Feb 12 at 18:45

"The pot calling the kettle black."

Quoted directly from the from Wikipedia article-

As generally understood, the person accusing (the "pot") is understood to share some quality with the target of their accusation (the "kettle"). The pot is mocking the kettle for a little soot when the pot itself is thoroughly covered with it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_pot_calling_the_kettle_black

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Please give a full explanation of why this phrase is suitable. Remember, you are answering for someone who doesn't know the answer. – Matt E. Эллен Feb 12 at 19:04
    
Good! The Italian version is stronger, il bue che dice cornuto all'asino, where cornuto is also an insult. – Nemo Feb 13 at 7:18
    
@Nemo, and the Spanish version is also rather strong: Dijo la sartén al cazo: "apártate marranzo". – Martín-Blas Pérez Pinilla Feb 14 at 16:00
    
@nemo It's a great proverb but it's different from the pot and kettle, isn't it? In the pot-version, both agents have the property, whereas donkey, at least the ones I've seen, don't even have horns... – Konrad Viltersten Feb 14 at 16:35
    
@KonradViltersten yeah that's another reason why I call the Italian version "stronger", but all sources I found call one a "translation" of the other. – Nemo Feb 14 at 16:46

And Shakespeare addresses it: "If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching." - The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene 2.

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Although, gotta admit I don't like the play, very nice pickup on the quote. – Stu W Feb 11 at 4:47
    
+1 Ay, there's the rub – Xen2050 Feb 14 at 8:48

In response to your edit, I would think that "Physician, heal thyself" is perfectly applicable. I first heard it in context with an old Aesop fable. Here it is from "Aesop's Fables: A New Translation" by V. S. Vernon Jones:

The Quack Frog

"Once upon a time a Frog came forth from his home in the marshes and proclaimed to all the world that he was a learned physician, skilled in drugs and able to cure all diseases. Among the crowd was a Fox, who called out, 'You a doctor! Why, how can you set up to heal others when you cannot even cure your own lame legs and blotched and wrinkled skin?' Physician, heal thyself."

Taken like this,the idiom does seem to focus on "defects", but in a normal, day-to-day context it is fine to use it in relation to problems, as problems seem to be more common than defects.

For example, saying "Why are you asking Soudabeh? If she really knew how to have a happy married life, she wouldn't be in this situation now; as that old proverb says 'physician, heal thyself!'" is fine.

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One common saying (or retort, really) that might be roughly equivalent is:

If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

It's difficult to find a reference for this in the usual sources, but a web search shows there was a song released in 1951 and performed by Louis Jordan and his Orchestra named "If You're so Smart, How Come You Ain't Rich?" A recording of this song is available on YouTube.

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Do as I say, not as I do.

I don't know the derivation of this idiom

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That's an excellent and very useful saying, but doesn't answer his question. – Kai Maxfield Feb 11 at 20:01

I'd suggest,

Look who's talking! or You should talk! or You're a fine one to talk!

(Informal) A phrase that you say to someone when they criticize or give advice on something they do (or are unable to do) themselves.

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Having an unhappy marriage (for example) doesn't necessarily mean that you don't know what it takes to have a good one, or that you have no right to give advice on the matter; it may just mean that you (or your spouse) have made mistakes that cannot be overcome. "Experience is the best teacher" is another saying that can be painfully true...

...said the "man who sleeps in his own room alone"...

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I agree, much can be learned through mistakes, and while patterning your life after a so called "failure" would demonstrate a lack of intelligence, this person may have learned much through it all. Think of Solomon, he wrote what is perhaps the best child-rearing resource out there. It seems, however, that he learned most of it through trial and error. – Kai Maxfield Feb 11 at 19:18

He should throw no stones, who lives in a glass house.

Which basically normally means "do unto others, as you would have them do unto you", however, it might also be interpreted "don't criticise others unless you are without fault"

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Hi, Born2Smile, This answer was flagged as low-quality because of its length and content. Can you try to include reference or link (that can support your answer) and its essential part? The thing is a short answer is sometimes flagged automatically. It would be nicer if you could expand your answer. :-) – Rathony Feb 11 at 7:17
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I've alway's heard "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." I've never seen this particular archaic phrasing.before. – Level River St Feb 11 at 11:19
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And then there’s the third, perhaps lesser-known version: “He who lives in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.” – Papa Poule Feb 11 at 14:08
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I think you may be thinking of the Jesus quote "Let he who is without fault cast the first stone". – Barmar Feb 12 at 5:23
    
@Barmar I wasn't actually, however, that is a brilliant example of the same sentiment – Born2Smile Feb 14 at 3:48

There is a self-explanatory proverb that fits perfectly:

Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties.

It is also mentioned in the book A Dictionary of American Proverbs (By Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, Kelsie B. Harder):

enter image description here

Many sources say that the origin of the proverb is Aesop and Aesop's Fables is an important work which influenced English language also.

There is another proverb that might be used but it is not common:

When the rats want advice, they never ask the mice.

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I have never heard this second one. Though it doesn't rhyme, I think it sort of makes more sense the other way around, no? – 1252748 Feb 15 at 4:42
    
It doesn't fit either way. I know it with frogs and folks who want to reclaim a pond. The point always being not incompetence but a serious difference in interests – TaW Feb 15 at 15:45
    
@TaW: Do you mean the second proverb? I said "might be used" but it is still about not listening to an advice that you shouldn't listen to. – ermanen Feb 15 at 17:16

While quotes relating to specific contexts can be found among the few “Never take advice from … .” quotes out there (e.g., “Never take marital advice from a man who sleeps in his own room alone," from ‘Lizard Tales: The Wit and Wisdom of Ron Shirley’By Ron Shirley via Google Books),

it's also possible to find (or contrive) ones that would be context-neutral, such as

Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have what you want

(from ‘Game Plan: The Definitive Playbook for Starting Or Growing Your Business’ By Warren Barhorst and Rusty Burson via Google Books)

or the slightly more "descriptive":

Never take advice from anyone who is more/(just as) fucked up than/(as) you

(from ‘Golden Success Principles to Live By’ By Izu Godson Udemezue via Google Books)

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I have sometimes heard people say, mostly literally but sometimes figuratively,

Don't take marriage advice from the divorced.

The idea is very similar to your proverb: if they truly were a wise expert on marriage then they would have had a successful marriage, not a failed marriage that ended in divorce. However there is an added connotation that they might also be a bad counselor because they are bitter and sad about their failed marriage, and so their advice may not be the sort of thing which will guide you well. You may not want this added connotation.

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Well, I don't know... (GD&R) - A happily married man ,-) – TaW Feb 15 at 15:46

Practice what you preach.
Do yourself what you advise others to do.

This is from Matthew 23:3

So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

It has a nice alliteration which can lend power to the idiom.

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There used to be an old repartee that went like this: If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?

Seems quite similar to the bald man selling hirsute secrets.

It can also be reversed: If You're So Rich, Why Aren't You Smart?

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You can be stupid as a rock, and still inherit billions ;) – David Feb 11 at 19:57
    
One answer to that is that a smart person needs less money to make themself happy – but that could be sour grapes. Another that this often refers to abstract intellect, which in many situations is less useful than the ability to manipulate people. – PJTraill Feb 12 at 1:18
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The reverse seems like a good retort to Donald Trump. :) – Barmar Feb 12 at 5:24

The typical response in Italy when someone gives advice they clearly don't follow is:

da che pulpito viene la predica!

(literally "what a pulpit from which to give a sermon!").

It's not as strong in my opinion, but appears to exist in English according to some dictionaries and titles:

look who's talking

You can always use a calque from Italian!

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Practically speaking, topics such as marriage and politics would probably be avoided by spectators if the person clearly being hypocritical. But if someone was being hypocritical about something more mundane like, work advice, dating advice etc or if the people listening were (very close ) friends you might here the following very sarcastic comments:

As if you are one to talk, [because we know you did the same]

Alternatively,

That's rich, coming from you, [because we know you did the same]

Or the classic

Pfft! Whatever!

One that I notice is used, but isn't necessarily obvious why (these days) is:

That's the pot calling the kettle black

If you have a woodfire stove, it doesn't matter if you are the kettle, or the pot, you will end up sooty from the fire (black). But it causes confusion in households where there is natural gas (no soot), or an electric stove or kettle (no fire at all)

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I believe there is a Chinese idiom that goes: "Do not complain about the snow on your neighbour's roof, when your own doorstep is unclean."

It's been attributed to Confucius but hard to be sure.

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"an auto mechanic's wife has the shittiest car"

or maybe

"you're backseat driving, and your hands ain't on the wheel" -Judas Priest lyric

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The most common form I've heard is "The cobbler's children wear no shoes" but I don't see how that applies to the original question. – ArtB Feb 12 at 16:38

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