The Giving and Receiving of Advice

I received (an unusually high) 45 comments on my post asking for advice about studying Spanish vs. Japanese. I valued the advice, and it prompted thoughts about the fascinating world of advice giving and receiving.

As someone committed to personal growth and self-improvement, I count myself among those who look to others for feedback and guidance for how I can get better at any number of things. I’ve also given advice from time to time.

Here are some general observations on the topic from both perspectives:

* Sometimes people ask for advice but really just want your attention. People like talking things through in their own mind. Though it might appear they want explicit advice (“So I’m thinking about taking this new job, but I’m torn about the benefits package”) what they actually want is someone to hear them out, and perhaps probe a bit, but not prescribe a solution.

* Emulation: Peripheral or central. There’s a tendency to gaze at someone successful and want to copy every aspect of their life — even silly things like what they wear or eat. Emulating what a successful person does 100% rarely makes sense; when it does make sense, it’s only in situations where you’re imitating a peripheral habit. That is, it may make sense to directly copy someone’s email-management tactics if she’s superbly competent in this area, but don’t carbon copy their basic leadership style which is highly individual. When you feel the urge to emulate someone, first consider whether it’s a peripheral or central habit / characteristic.

* We get too much general advice, not enough specific. Jack Welch didn’t run a small business, and yet many small business owners look to him for specific guidance (on hiring, for example) when they’d be better off, I think, consulting a peer. Following Welch might be an act of self-protection: it’s easy to make excuses if you can point to a famous person’s piece of advice.

* It’s easy to appear to be an expert. You can speak authoritatively without being an authority.

* Overvaluing and undervaluing advice. People tend to overvalue advice when the situation is difficult and undervalue advice when the situation is easy. I saw this a lot in college admissions process — kids would get a million opinions on an admittedly important and difficult situation, but in the end they received so many contradictory thoughts that they ended up confused. On the other hand, when faced with where to go for lunch, people would do better to ask around a bit for a recommendation.

* Does money corrupt the process?. If you hire and pay a “life coach” to give you feedback on tough decisions, how does the compensation affect the coach’s advice? How does the paid nature of professional therapy affect the therapy? Is the most honest advice free? Do we overvalue advice we pay for?

Those are some initial musings. Agree? Disagree? Additions? Subtractions?

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