Advice

Every day we will hear people give advice to others. Sometimes, it starts with “Let me give you some advice…”, and other times it is more informal. Everyone, even those who lack relevant experience, gives advice to other people in some forms. Perhaps it is about how to approach a certain problem that a team is facing. Or perhaps it is about how to live your life. I have been thinking a lot lately about the usefulness of advice, and, upon further reflection, the extent to which advice can assist you is limited.

The main problem with advice is that it is given based on one’s personal experiences, and so that advice may not resonate with other people. Let’s use the advice of getting into a habit of reading, given to a young person. If you were to say to the young person that reading is an immensely important part of your life, then although they may listen, they do not yet realize that fact. If they haven’t read many books themselves, then it will be very difficult for them to internalize and follow the advice. How can one be expected to build a habit out of reading just because an adult says that it changed their life? In this case, the young person does not have the perspective needed in order to fully understand the advice. Indeed, they may take that advice to heart and try reading. The more likely outcome, however, would be for them to completely discard it. The adult is giving that advice based on the mistakes they have made, and their experience with books. The young person doesn’t have this: they have the words of the adult.

That is not to say that advice is a bad thing. Advice is engrained into our society — we all naturally give advice because we want to see other people succeed. I would argue that the best thing you can do is seek out as much advice as possible in your life. The advice of others is the compressed wisdom of their experiences, and so can give you a great insight into how others have overcome a certain issue, or how they have changed their life. Indeed, without perspective, this advice has very little use. However, as you learn more advice, you will be able to synthesize information and develop a greater and broader sense of the advice.

This greater perspective will make it easier for you to create your own opinion, rather than operating on one person’s advice. The benefit of this is that if your decision comes from within — rather than from an adult who has the relevant experience, to use the last example — then you are more likely to follow through: you have made the decision. Using the advice others have given you to make up your own mind is also useful because you can then account for your own perspective. Advice is general, and normally does not account for the specific intricacies of your life — it is just a quote, or an essay, or a speech. Therefore, for many people, the advice will be completely irrelevant. If I were to say “You should attend college because it will allow you to get a higher paying job”, then the people who either don’t believe in college, or don’t care about earning a high salary — they just want to do something meaningful — would not derive any value from the advice (I should note I do not believe in this perspective). Learning new perspectives means you can make an informed decision about your next steps based on other people’s opinions, that accounts for your identity and thoughts. This will also make it easier to follow your advice, because it will integrate better with your life. A quote from someone else will just stay as a quote, but a thought developed by you will become part of your mental patterns. The more advice you listen to, the better final decision you can make by yourself.

Having your own point of view is a competitive advantage. If everyone followed the advice of a certain subset of people, then we would end up with a society filled with people doing things a certain way. Independent thoughts make it easier for you to differentiate yourself in a world where most people try to follow the crowd. The crowd may convey a lot of wisdom, but your own viewpoints will ultimately prevail. I believe that the best advice in your life is that which you have developed based on others’ opinions, and noted down for future reference, rather than a quote you have discovered, or a speech you enjoyed. I regularly reflect on some of the advice I have given myself because it helps me put my life into perspective, and better understand the impact of doing a certain thing on my life. This constant evaluation also helps me get used to relying on my own thoughts to come to a reasoned conclusion, rather than using others’ thoughts to achieve a certain goal. The best advice I have has been to look back to my life one year ago, and think about what I would change that is still going on. I have the benefit of hindsight, and the experience necessary to develop my own opinions about the future direction of my life.

Another problem with advice is that the person who actually gave you that advice will likely not be around to see the impact of that advice. Indeed, they may be around you often, but that does not mean that they are able to measure the effectiveness of the advice they have given you. There is little incentive for them (in most situations) to spend a significant amount of time thinking about the advice to give you — most advice given by others is in-the-moment. That is not to say that their advice is bad, but rather that its usefulness in your life will be limited. Most advice that people give is not thought through very well, and if they were to be around to see you follow it, they would likely change their advice to be more applicable to you.

Understanding the nature of advice also begets one thought: you shouldn’t take advice to heart. You should also not spend all of your time searching for advice, when the best advice comes from within. Advice, as aforementioned, is based on the experiences of someone else, not your personal situation. The example I used about attending college is particularly interesting. Most people’s parents say that their children should attend college because it will give them a better chance at success. For a young person who is more perceptive and has another path planned — starting a company, doing research, moving into a job in tech based on their personal skills, et cetera — then this advice would not resonate with them: they do not have the experience necessary to understand their parents viewpoint like they do. The young person, in this case, should develop their own advice to follow, based on their personal experiences and understanding of the world. This advice will ultimately be easier to follow, resonate more with the individual, and be based on the thoughtful deliberation of the individual.

Don’t take advice to heart, but don’t ignore it either. Use others’ advice to create your own independent thoughts. Advice is merely a maxim, it is not a guide to life.