There are only two types of advice. Good and bad. The trick is knowing who will give you which.
I love giving advice. I give advice for a living. But I’m not always very good at taking advice. Most of the best advice I have been given has taken months or even years to sink in. Sometimes it’s taken even longer for me to heed advice that was so important it’s now shaped my life.
So what do I know?
“It’s at times like this I wish I’d listened to what my mother said when I was young.”
“Why, what she say?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”
— Arthur Dent. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
No one likes being told what to do because it’s easier to believe that no one else understands the complexities and details of your unique situation, than to deal with it as you know you must. If asking for advice is hard, and heeding advice is even harder, then understanding what is good advice (and what is not) is the hardest skill to master.
I did listen to my mum’s advice once, when I waiting for the birth of my first son and was feeling a bit overwhelmed by everyone’s ‘helpful input’.
“Just listen to everyone” she said, but wisely added, “but then make up your own mind what to do. You’ll know.”
Because I’m a good boy and listen to my mum, I’ve come to realise that all advice is useful if you know how to filter it. I believe that’s just about asking the right people, but who are the right people?
The problem is that it’s often hard to know until you’ve asked their advice, but I think that there are five main types of advice-givers. Let’s call them advisors for short.
A good friend won’t tell you what you want to hear if it’s not the truth. A buddy will be honest and won’t sugar the pill too much. A good friend (and you might include your mum in this) knows you well and can probably see the things that are holding you back. They are the ones most likely to confirm what you already knew.
Filmmaker and novelist Alex Garland summed up how annoying it is when “….somebody points out this isn’t working and instantly you know, ‘Yeah, I always knew that; I just was refusing to look at it. I was kind of hoping I’d get away with it.’”
The buddy won’t let you get away with it. A buddy will tell you to stop when you’ve reached the time to do something else.
Birds see the world from a different perspective. From their flightpath, birds don’t know why you’re doing the things you are doing, they just see what you are doing. From their perch they can maybe see where you are headed better than you can at ground-level too. Birds could be co-workers outside your team and young people will definitely give you an ego-skewering perspective. Customers — especially unhappy ones — are usually great people to ask where you should go. People outside your industry often make great birds and your friends and buddies can be birds too.
Remember, however, that bird-brained is an insult because birds have notoriously small brains, so do beware the pigeon-thinkers. Spotting the truly ill-informed and uneducated isn’t easy, but remember that Pacific Islanders made a good living harvesting sea-bird shit for fertilizer. Even the poop can be valuable if you use it right.
I remember one contestant on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ blowing a vast wad because he ‘Asked the Audience’ — 90% of whom were emphatically sure of the answer but were, sadly, emphatically wrong. Usually the crowd does know best. If you ask twenty advisors a question and nineteen of them say blue, you should probably consider a blue future. The trick of course is picking the right crowd and asking the right questions.
‘New Coke’ famously did brilliantly against their nemesis Pepsi in hundreds of focus groups, but bombed spectacularly on the market because no-one told the tasters it was going to replace real Coca-Cola. Being the USA it didn’t go down well at all and shots were fired.
Right crowd, wrong question.
The American presenter of ‘Millionaire’ admitted that, statistically, the audience was right 95% of the time.
Some of the best advice only becomes the right advice years later. At the time it’s given you might not understand its pertinence or wisdom; it may not even be good advice then, but it becomes so with time and your own maturity.
When I was a schoolboy painter my teacher Don Gorrie* used to repeatedly implore me to, “Look. Look. Look. Look really hard.”
The first time I’d asked him what was the colour of the glass in the windows of a building I was painting? You can’t paint see-through. The answer that he made me discover by looking was, of course, the colours of the reflection. Human skin isn’t out of a bottle pink, or brown; when you really look it’s a million different shades of purple and blue and red and yellow and black and ochre, but that wasn’t the mystic bit.
Learning to look, and to look really hard has informed the way I write, the way I think and my whole approach to work. The most powerful thinkers — from admen and business leaders to philosophers and scientists — look really hard. They see the details and patterns that give everything their unique shapes and forms.
“Beautifully observed” is the critic’s highest praise.
It took nearly twenty years for me to realise what Don Gorrie really meant, but it’s the best advice I’ve ever received.
(*Don Gorrie was the best teacher in the whole world ever. Obviously)
The very best advisors are probably those that can quickly simplify complex problems. Someone who can instantly see the wood from the trees. They’re the Yoda-like types who will ask exactly the right question and spear you with a very simple answer.
When I started working for myself I asked for a lot of advice, but the best bit of advice was shot back at me when I asked for help defining my new company’s purpose.
“What do you really want to do?” Asked my Yoda.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” I replied.
“Well do that then.” said Yoda.
We then talked for hours about other things so it took a while for me to come back to that first sniper-accurate head-shot. And of course that’s what I’m happily trying to do.
Know the answer you already do.
Cicero said “Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself,” and he was known to be a bit of a handy thinker too.
My advice is to listen to my mum. Choose wisely who you ask, but listen to all the advice you can; consider it carefully; look very hard; be honest with yourself; then back your own judgement and get on with it.
Do. Or do not. There is no try.