What if All the Advice I’ve Gotten has been Wrong?

December 12, 2012

A reader wrote me with a question. He explained that he rarely turns to others for counsel because in his life experience, almost all the advice he’s gotten has been wrong. So he relies on himself and on his own research on the web and books. How to make sense of this?

Let’s analyze this situation based on the framework of Advice is for Winners, assuming that indeed all the advice he’s gotten has been bad. Let’s also rule out a unique streak of bad luck.

Likely explanation #1. Good advice truly takes account of your circumstances, goals, and constraints. If you do not explain these, then the received advice may be off the mark. Possibly you don’t explain them because you’re not asked, or because you think it’s presumptuous, irrelevant, embarrassing, or whatever. So, I’d suggest reviewing those life situations where you got bad advice and ask yourself if you made your situation clear to the advice giver. Advising is a collaborative process.

Likely explanation #2. Good advisors have certain qualities, such as being good listeners. If you chronically choose advisors who lack many of the right qualities, especially the listening one, then you may get bad advice.

Of course, there are other good qualities to have. One is suggested by the proverb “Those who have no children bring them up well,” meaning that the lack of relevant experience undermines one’s credibility, and also one’s usefulness as an advisor.

An Everyday-Life Example: House Buying

December 3, 2012

I am constantly struck by how rarely the act of seeking advice comes easily to mind. As I’ve written elsewhere, we are just not trained by parents and teachers to ask a simple question: Do I have the knowledge and experience to deal with this issue by myself, and if not, who does and can help?

As a recent example from everyday life: I have friends (let’s call my friends the singular “Henry” for short) who are looking into buying a new house. Henry saw a house that he liked a lot, but he was concerned about asbestos in this grand, old house. Henry knew little about asbestos because his current house doesn’t have any. He did some background reading on the web, but felt quite unsure of himself because he didn’t know what he didn’t know, and that’s just for starters. Emotional issues were also involved.

I myself know nothing about asbestos, but over lunch with Henry I learned that a good friend of his is an architect who is involved with house remodeling. It didn’t occur to Henry to inquire with this architect, but he did so at my urging – with great results. The architect was happy to help his friend Henry by answering his questions, posing and answering questions that Henry didn’t even think of, putting things in the context of the neighborhood where Henry was looking, and reassuring Henry that there weren’t important aspects that he was just plain missing. The architect also dealt skilfully with the emotional issues, since asbestos has scary associations. Henry went on to make a confident house-buying decision.

The lesson is not that one should trouble one’s social network with every little detail, but important issues do call for it and knowledgeable friends are often pleased to help. But one has to think of it first.