Taking advice can be a trickier exercise than you might think, and like with everything you can improve with practice.
When taking on board advice, an important starting point is not to take it as given. People imparting advice may have perspectives forged by privilege that they might not recognise.
A smarter approach is to instead look for patterns, and try to understand what they mean. This might not be their main point they’re trying to make but it could be a key moment in their story, or an undercurrent theme that seems to be influencing everything else.
Bad advice comes disguised as good advice. Though it isn’t easy to spot the disguise.
For example, if you keep hearing successful people saying you just need to “work hard” press them on that. Same for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.
This is one of the really, really crappy things that I hate to hear.
There’s hard work involved in being successful, but it really isn’t as much of a differentiator as those who’ve made it think.
Are the people in their teams not working hard? Are they working hard on the right or wrong thing? How do we control what we are working hard on?
There’s a lot of arrogance in the world of expert speakers and keynote presenters.
I’ve worked far harder in minimum wage, zero hour contract jobs for a much less comfortable existence. It’s obnoxious to attribute success with hard work alone.
People often forget to recognise the role of luck and good fortune. Good luck is externalised — which we talked about in how you create your own failure — which makes it less likely to be mentioned as the hero in our stories.
But it is something we can control, and can take credit for. As covered in it’s true, it’s not what you know we can create luck and we can create better fortune.
When people share their stories, they have to leave parts out. Even if they had two hours to tell you the story they’d still miss key moments. These key parts are the moments where luck came into it, or when they made mistakes. We post-rationalise and we fall into the trap of history being written by the victors.
We don’t see all perspectives, and we don’t know what we don’t see. Again, we’ll talk about this more soon in a post on gossip.
My way of thinking about taking on advice is imagine you’re going for a hike — you’ve got a bag but you’ve got to be selective about what you put in it. Some advice comes along for the journey, some is left by the roadside.
You can’t take all advice on board, and you can’t carry it with you the whole way. It might be useful to take everything you need just in case, but it’s often more efficient to ditch the stuff that isn’t appropriate or useful.
This is usually decided by your core values and ethos. The risk here is making sure you’re not just stuck in an echo chamber and listening to advice that reinforces your world view and the way you like to see things and think about it your existence.
There’s also different advice in different moments. It’s a real skill to be able to fully appreciate and understand some scenarios without lived experience. People will tell you it is hard to run a business, they might tell you it’s really hard, but stressing how hard it is using words alone doesn’t make much of a difference.
If you’ve already started up you’ll know that someone telling you how hard it is to run a business, and the realisation of what makes it so hard are radically different things. It doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, or satisfying, or worth doing.
Challenging advice doesn’t have to be confrontational. Take curiosity into exchanges and prepare to be surprised.
When people share advice they often mean well. Anyone who has been preparing for parenthood knows this well, everyone gives you unwarranted advice and the best thing to do is nod and smile. Then you become a parent and struggle to resist doling out your own tips!
But everyone’s experience of parenting is different, as is every experience of being a founder or freelancer.
That’s where the patterns come in. What do people say about hiring, what are the distinctions, what are the similarities? What additional questions does it raise for me? What do people seem to keep focusing on? Why do they keep coming back to that?
When we spot the patterns, we can spot in ourselves where we want to learn more and where we remain curious. Ditch the other stuff, don’t let it weigh you down and focus on where you want to learn to grow.
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