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Why Most Advice is Useless

July 20th, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

When I first started out in business at age 22, I asked some people for advice on how to succeed in business. That seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Surely those with more experience could offer some good suggestions for opportunities to pursue, pitfalls to avoid, etc.

In some ways, this did help. It made me aware of some things I hadn't thought of. It filled in some gaps in my knowledge.

But overall, I think it probably did more harm than good.

Here's why...

Low Quality Advice

The first problem with asking for advice is that it's too easy. Anyone can do it. And since anyone can do it, everyone does do it.

People are always asking for advice, and they receive plenty of it in return. It's not difficult to give someone advice if all you have to do is give a brief answer to a question. But since it's such a common thing to do, the average quality level of the advice being given is typically quite low.

Many people, when giving advice, just toss out the first thing that pops into their minds. If you'd asked the same question on a different day, you might have received completely different answers, perhaps even 180 degrees different.

For example, if someone asks a successful blogger what the secret to blogging success is, one day that blogger might say it's great content. Another day the answer might be about networking with other bloggers. And next week it might have to do with leveraging social media.

Advice is state dependent, meaning that the answer you get depends on the other person's state of being at the time they provide the advice. Based on what they're dealing with mentally and emotionally, you're going to get different answers.

This is normal human behavior. It's not a problem per se. But it's something we need to acknowledge and accept.

Consequently, it's a bad idea to put too much weight in any one person's advice. Even if the person giving you advice is someone you deeply respect and admire, be aware that the advice is probably going to be fairly weak in terms of quality.

Irrelevant Advice

Another problem with advice is that often you get answers that are completely irrelevant to you.

For example, if you ask someone who runs a successful business about their secrets of success, and they tell you how they built a thriving restaurant chain, their "secrets" might not translate so well to the Internet business you're building. Maybe you can adapt some general principles, but many success factors are domain-specific, meaning that they may work in one field but might not even make sense in another. Your Internet business probably won't have to deal with food critics and health inspectors, for instance.

I've read hundreds of books about how entrepreneurs have succeeded in business across many different industry sectors. Their stories often share some important high-level factors like creating a clear vision and hiring talented people, but most of the details are specific to them — their industry, their people, the time period in which they grew the business, etc.

I still find such books worth reading, but I read them almost like fiction — as entertainment. Instead of getting lots of specific ideas from them, it's the general vibe of success that I enjoy connecting with. Even when I have the chance to meet the authors of such books, I hardly ever ask them for advice. I get more value just from hanging out with them and connecting with their energy and enthusiasm. Even so, some successful entrepreneurs are quite dull in person; they may be brilliant at innovating and taking lots of action, but they can come across like shy teenagers if you try to talk to them one on one.

If such people are to be considered goldmines, I suggest thinking of them as goldmines of vision and action, not goldmines of information and advice.

Mismatched Advice

What happens when you ask someone for advice, and they give you the best advice they can, but it actually creeps you out?

This often happens when you and the other person have different values. If the most important thing to you in life is making a positive contribution, and you ask advice from someone who's very materialistic, you may get advice that's a total mismatch for you. The advice may be down to earth and practical, but you can't use it. It's just not you.

I've often had this experience when hanging around certain groups whose values are very different from my own. I might overhear a conversation where one person is giving advice to another, and I'm silently rolling my eyes in disgust at just how bad the advice sounds to me, but the intended receiver doesn't seem nearly so turned off by it.

Another common situation is when the advice seeker is on a similar path to the advice giver, but the former isn't far enough along to really connect with the advice. The advice isn't bad per se... just premature. In any event, it still cannot be effectively applied.

If you get advice from someone, and you end up feeling like their advice wouldn't work for you, but you can see why it worked for them, you're getting mismatched advice. If you actually do try to apply it, it probably won't work for you, and even if it does work to some degree, you probably won't feel good about it and will eventually dump it.

Giving Your Power Away

The biggest problem I discovered when I sought advice from others is that I was subtly giving my power away. I was sending a message to myself that I was too weak and inexperienced to come up with my own answers and solutions. I put those people on a pedestal, which meant I was taking myself down a notch.

Asking others for advice was ultimately confusing. Most of the time I received honest answers, but people told me what worked for them, not what would work for me. I applied a lot of advice that spun me in circles professionally. My first business drifted for many years. I took a lot of action, but I didn't feel like I was truly building something.

In the long run, I got much better results by relying most heavily on my own judgment, even when I seemingly lacked experience. I explored new paths that were a good match for me, not stale paths that had worked for someone else in the past. I got into indie game development early. I got into blogging early. My timing was much better.

Moreover, using my own judgment made it easier to think things through long-term. When I asked others for advice, they had no idea where I wanted to go in terms of my long-term vision. So they could only provide short-term situational answers. To use a chess analogy, they could tell me what move to make next, but they couldn't advise me on overall strategy. They didn't understand the game I was playing or the opponent I was facing. Even if their suggestions made logical sense, quite often it didn't fit the big picture of the game I was playing.

By putting more trust in my own judgment, I was able to lay out better long-term plans. I saw a progression of new actions building upon previous actions. It felt like I was making some real forward progress. I wasn't just spinning in circles. I was building some meaningful momentum.

Outdated Advice

When you ask for advice, you're usually going to hear suggestions based on what worked in the past. But that isn't necessarily what will work in the future.

When I wanted to get into professional speaking, I asked my pro speaker friends for advice. I got a lot of genuine answers, but their advice was based on what worked for them in the past. If I'd taken their advice, I'd have focused on getting good at doing 45-90 minutes presentations. I'd have put myself out there as a speaker for hire and tried to speak at many conferences. But that isn't what I wanted to build. So in the end, I shunned my friends' advice and went my own way. I started doing my own public 3-day workshops. Now I've been able to build upon that success. Instead of just one workshop, I'm now offering four different ones, all of which are unique and exclusive to me. And I'll continue to build upon this over time. Many of those same friends are struggling in this economy, whereas relying my own judgment provided me with a solution that I'm quite happy with.

This week Borders Books announced that it's closing all of its remaining stores (after announcing earlier this year that it would close a third of a them). They're bankrupt and going out of business, and now they must sell off their assets to pay their creditors. They made some serious blunders that led them to this place, so it was a long time coming. Perhaps the worst is that they doubled down on physical books, CDs, and DVDs when the whole industry was moving to digital distribution.

I'm sure Borders received plenty of advice during the past decade, but in this case what worked in the past wasn't going to work in the future. They had to radically change their business to keep up with an increasingly digital world, and they failed to do that.

Interestingly, in July 2009 I was at a conference where a speaker predicted that either Borders or Barnes & Noble (or both) would be dead in 2 years. That's a damned accurate prediction. He nailed it almost to the week. Maybe they should have asked him for advice. ;)

I understand that it may seem a bit scarier to put your faith in yourself — in your own talents, skills, and judgment — but in my experience it works so much better in the long run. It's often faster too. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it can take significantly longer to figure out how to adapt someone else's general advice to the specifics of your situation than it would to devise and apply your own solution. Sometimes it's easier to make a round peg from scratch than to attempt to turn a square peg into a round one.

Imagine making a meal. It might be faster to whip something up on your own instead of following someone else's recipe. You know what you like. You know what ingredients you have on hand. You know your kitchen. Other people may be better chefs than you, but do you have the same equipment, ingredients, and experience they have?

From the Advice Giver's Eyes

These days lots of people ask me for advice. I see all the same problems from this side that I experienced from the advice seeking side.

People frequently request advice from me as if I can do a better job of solving their problems than they can. For example, I'll get a question like: "I think my boyfriend is cheating on me. What should I do?"

I dunno. Practice forgiveness? Dump him? Hit him with a bat?

In order to give this person reasonably good advice, I'd have to spend a lot of time talking to her (and perhaps her boyfriend as well) to understand the details. I'd need to get a sense of her values, personality, strengths, and weaknesses. The advice I give her would depend on many factors.

The best I can do with such a vague request is to offer vague advice in return. Maybe I'll say something that sounds wise and hope for the best. Most likely I'd just refer her to Eckhart Tolle and let her chew on him for a while.

Giving advice can be just as awkward as seeking it.

Never Say Should

When people ask for advice, they frequently use the word "should" — as in What should I do?

But of course that's a really bad type of question. There are no shoulds. You can do whatever you want to do.

The underlying assumption is that the seeker wants to know what can be done to improve his/her results. But what constitutes improvement? That depends on the seeker's values, personality, desires, and more. One person's improvement is another person's headache.

If advice givers were to answer such questions honestly, they might reply, "Hell if I know!"

How is someone else supposed to know what you should do? That's impossible since again, there are no shoulds.

So if people can't really answer the questions being asked, what do they do in practice? They answer a different question entirely.

The question they usually answer is something like, What has worked for you in the past if/when you encountered similar circumstances?

And so you get advice based on the other person's experience, values, personality, etc. And most of the time, for the reasons previously mentioned (and for other reasons I didn't address), this advice is useless.

Advice vs. Ideas

Seeking advice isn't such a great practice, at least not in the sense of inviting someone to tell you what to do. But seeking fresh, stimulating ideas is perfectly valid.

Instead of asking should-based questions, try this instead. Say to the other person, "Here's my situation. What would you do if you were me?"

Once they reply, then ask, "And why would you do that?" This will help you understand the reasoning behind the answer. See if you agree or disagree. Feel free to discuss it until you come to a place of mutual understanding, even if you don't agree with what they have to say.

Then ask them, "What else might you consider doing in my situation?" Feel free to ask this question a few times to elicit multiple options.

The key phrase is "if you were me" since this invites the other person to consider your perspective — your particular values, talents, etc.

What I find most fascinating is that when people ask me questions using this phrasing, it puts me in a totally different state of mind than when they ask me should-based questions. My brain can't make sense of shoulds. But I can grasp the invitation to see the world through the other person's eyes. I find that in such situations, I end up giving much better answers, and it doesn't really feel like giving advice. It feels like we're co-creating solutions.

Another benefit to the "if you were me" phrasing is that it doesn't put the other person on a pedestal. "Should" puts the other person on a pedestal. It gives away too much power, as if you're asking the other person to tell you what to do. But the "if you were me" version keeps you on equal footing in my opinion.

I also like tack on the phrase "Out of curiosity..." to the front of such queries. So I might ask, "Out of curiosity what would you do next in this situation if you were me?" This phrasing makes it clear that you're under no obligation to act on what the other person tells you, so you aren't giving your power away. You're just curious.

Don't ask list-style questions. I.e. never ask someone, "What are your top 3 suggestions for X?" It's a dorky practice and feels very unnatural to the person being asked. It might make sense during a formal interview since those kinds of questions can provide value to listeners/readers sometimes, but don't do this in a casual conversation.

You're in Command

You're in command of your life. If you invite others to tell you what to do, you're shirking your duties. Use others to help stimulate new ideas, but don't put them on such a pedestal that you value their advice above your own problem-solving abilities.

Challenge yourself to get better at coming up with your own answers. Exercise your creative muscles regularly. This may seem more difficult at first, especially if you've allowed those muscles to atrophy from neglect, but it's much more rewarding and productive in the long run. If you rely too much on other people to tell you what to do, you'll be playing the role of a dependent adolescent who hasn't yet reached adulthood. But if you get good at solving your own problems, you control your own destiny.

In other words, the best solutions are the ones you devise. You're a lot more capable than you think you are.