Sean Cheng

Taking Advice From Other People Is A Bad Idea

November 21, 2020 - 9 min read

There’s Another Way

When it comes to decision making, it’s usually a bad idea to ask others for advice.

This article explains why and offers some alternatives. We’ll delve into the difference between advice and guidance, as well as discuss why taking action and creating a minimum viable product for your decisions leads to the most optimal outcomes.

Advice versus Guidance

“When someone [giving advice] says, ‘If I were you,’ what he really means is ‘If you were me.’ See that’s the point of advice— telling you to do in your life what the adviser what do in your situation. Well, that’s great if you happen to be identical to the person giving the advice… [but] we seldom find ourselves advising people just like us. Advice is fine to get— you just want to be very careful about actually taking it.” — Dave Evans and Bill Burnett in Designing Your Life

Asking for advice is tricky is because generally you need to satisfy the following four requirements to benefit from it:

  1. Advice Giver has enough domain expertise to provide accurate insights.
  2. Advice Giver understands your situation well-enough to provide appropriate advice for Advice Receiver’s specific circumstance.
  3. Advice Giver is acting in your best interests.
  4. Advice Receiver understands and implements the advice properly.

Rarely do we satisfy all four of these requirements. Yes, your mom probably knows you well enough to provide appropriate advice for your situation and she’s most likely acting in your best interests. But does she have enough domain expertise in biomedical engineering to let you know with certainty that’s a career you’d like? Unless she’s a biomedical engineer, probably not.

Note: The advice may still be valid or helpful if these four conditions are not met, although the probability drastically decreases. You will want to dive deeper into the assumptions and validity of the advice giver’s claims.

I want to recommend an alternative in situations where these four requirements aren’t met.

Guidance.

It’s different from advice because the goal of guidance is to help you figure out what you think rather than tell you what to think. Guidance requires you to think independently. Mentors only facilitate this process by asking you questions to figure out your values and help make sense of your thoughts.

Quick Recap 💡

  • Advice is when a mentor says what they think you should do.
  • Guidance is when a mentor helps you reason through your thoughts to figure out what you think you should do.

The reality is that in most conversations you’ll receive a combination of advice and guidance. The key is differentiating between the two so you can better apply (or not apply) the information you’re given.

A good litmus test to determine if you’re getting advice and not guidance is if the conversation veers into the other person telling you what’d they’d do in your situation. Good guidance usually consists of a mentor asking lots of questions to understand your circumstance and summarizing what you’ve said to confirm they have the right idea. Through this process, you should gain a better understanding of your values.

During conversations with mentors, ask them to utilize their experience to help you sort through your thoughts. Helping you figure out what’s important, reasoning through your thoughts, and clarifying your desires are the main goals. The mentor’s value lies in their objectivity.

Guidance is a viable alternative to advice, but advice can still be useful in some scenarios. Let’s move onto when you should ask for it.

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When To Ask For Advice

Asking for advice is prudent in what David Epstein in his book Range describes as “kind learning environments.” Kind learning environments have repeatable patterns, well-defined rules, and rapid and accurate feedback to your actions. While most real-life situations aren’t perfect kind learning environments, scenarios that lean towards “kind” are the best times to ask for advice.

An example might be applying for a software engineering job at Facebook. It would be helpful to ask previous employees for advice because the application process is fairly standardized. Some employees might even have been former interviewers themselves and can provide exact insight into what they’re looking for during the interviews. But asking for advice on how to become the Chief Product Officer of Facebook is a lot less practical since there isn’t a well-defined path nor clear repeatable pattern you can follow. Guidance is more appropriate in this situation.

Advice is also helpful in situations where deep expertise is required. For example, doctors advising you on your surgery or a lawyer helping you with your case.

On the other hand, questions that are deeply unique to you or context-dependent, like should I marry this person, which career path is for me, should I get ice cream or boba don’t lend themselves well to good advice. Guidance is much better suited for these scenarios.

Now let’s discuss how you should ask for advice when it’s appropriate.

When You Get Advice, Ask For Facts Not Opinions

The line between fact and opinion is frequently blurred. Statements like “Don’t take that class. It’s super challenging,” register in our minds as semi-factual when they’re really opinions. Advice that imparts value judgments upon a situation often is biased, and while might be useful in the aggregate (many people telling you the course is hard), it often doesn’t present the whole story. The key is identifying the value judgments and remaining open-minded to alternative explanations. For example, maybe the class was challenging because that person fell asleep all the time during the lecture.

When asking for insights try to hone in on what are the facts (Who, What, Where, When, How, Why), impose your value judgments on the situation based on the facts, and try to understand the context of the advice giver’s value judgments. In essence, think for yourself.

Here’s what this process might look like:

Goal: Determine if Introduction to Computer Science is a class I should take.

  1. Ask For Insights: Speak to a past student (let’s call him John) from Intro to CS and ask questions like how much homework is in that class, what specific concepts within the course were hard, and how responsive the professor was to inquiries for help.
  2. Hone in on the facts: John says the homework took 10 hours a week, learning object-oriented programming was hard for him, and the professor didn’t respond to his emails.
  3. Impose your value judgments / Understand the context of the advice: You know that you’re a disciplined worker so you can finish the homework faster (John frequently gets distracted so you infer he’s probably exaggerating the time required), you take note to designate extra time to learn object-oriented programming, and after a little digging you realize that John never attended office hours (which were helpful according to other students) and only emailed the professor for help.
  4. Make the Decision: You decide to take the course.

The Power of Personal Experience

I recently spoke with a Swarthmore alum (and founder of a YCombinator backed startup) who shared this observation:

Take more action + make mistakes + learn >>> advice from others

While advice and guidance both require amounts of inference and uncertainty, taking action and learning from personal experience is the best way to fully inhabit the reality in which you’re uncertain. Whenever possible, prioritize action and personal learning over advice/guidance from others.

So how can we learn from personal experience while minimizing the stakes?

Your Minimum Viable Product

To rapidly take action and learn from your mistakes with minimal risk, you must do little prototypes of big decisions a.k.a a minimum viable product (MVP). Perhaps you want to quit your job and start your restaurant. This is a big step and it would be foolish to do it without testing the waters first.

One way you might prototype this decision is to start cooking on the weekends and inviting friends over to try your food. Analyze how you feel during the process of cooking, serving it, and cleaning it up. If your friends enjoy your food, try asking them to pay for it next time.

Money is the ultimate indicator of value and your friend’s willingness to (or not to) pay for your food is a good measure of your potential. If you find that you either don’t enjoy cooking or your skills weren’t as good as you thought they were, no worries. You haven’t invested a significant amount of time into it and you were able to gain the valuable insight that starting a restaurant was not for you.

An MVP might also mean reaching out to lots of people and applying for many different opportunities. No matter how much advice you receive from others on what’s the best way to conduct outreach or write applications, nothing can replace you doing the work, messing up, and iterating/improving based on your past mistakes.

Conclusion

I still believe there’s value in getting advice from others. But this belief is rooted in one crucial caveat— you must think independently. Question and challenge what others say to you, and whenever possible, take action and experience things yourself.

Of course, maybe you disagree with everything I’ve written so far. That’s okay.

This is just my advice.

Thank you to Neeraj Senthil and Will Han for reading drafts of this and providing valuable feedback.


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