The Best Advice I Ever Got

January 28, 2013

Several times I’ve been asked about the best advice I ever received. This is a favorite topic in interviews, because it’s an interesting question that can be asked of anyone who claims to have wisdom to share. For example, a Google search on “best advice” turns up over a thousand results. I was asked the same question in a National Science Foundation profile here.

The very first result of the above Google search is entitled Homeless Man Turned Millionaire Offers The Best Advice I Ever Got, where the advice was:

Here’s the secret to success: find something you love to do so much, you can’t wait for the sun to rise to do it all over again.

I don’t believe this really counts as advice. Instead, it’s a principle. As a principle, it may be wise, foolish, or nonsensical, but if it is meant to apply to everyone, regardless of their situation, then it’s a principle.

For me, advice is dependent on an individual’s circumstances, goals, and constraints. If it’s not, then it’s a principle, an example, method, or inspirational story – but it’s not advice.

Why does this distinction matter? Because it cements the idea that before advice is given, the advisor must learn about the advice seeker, for anything but the most generic problems. Since books and the web don’t typically learn anything about their readers (except for clickstreams etc. on the web), good advice is more likely to be gotten from others via personalized interactions rather than from reading material, which does of course offer up valuable principles and stories.



Does Competition Rule?

January 3, 2013

I came across a blog review of several “mentoring” books, which included my own. The first commenter wrote the following:

But competition rules in this topsy-turvy world of Silicon Valley and most other industrial locations in the US, and it’s difficult to find advice that you trust. When people are clawing their way up the “ladder” or hanging on for dear life, few are willing to help someone else over – in fact more likely the opposite.

Yes, I agree, 50 years ago or so when business was stable, organizations fixed, mentoring was popular and we looked for protégés who could and would assist and, on the other hand, mentors we might replace in the future. Today, even the social scene is infused with competition – people outdoing people, needing to be heard, having more than he or she, being most recognized and important.

A nice idea worked well in a sustaining environment but not so today. Caution is what I employ when hearing advice, and seeking direction – neither of which I do often.

I live in Pittsburgh, not Silicon Valley, although I started a software company in 2000, which we sold to IBM last year. I’ve also touched down in San Jose and San Fran airports a time or two. It’s possible that I missed that human beings are fundamentally different over there. But I doubt it.

I believe that competent advice-givers will gladly offer good advice in at least these cases:

  • they genuinely like the individual
  • the individual has helped them in the past
  • they are themselves accomplished, and so appreciate when others are trying earnestly to accomplish something
  • have been given good advice or mentored in the past, and feel an obligation to do their part
  • they are approached in an appealing way, with the right deference and humility

It follows that certain behaviors are better than others, if you want to be able to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of others.

Of course, none of this prevents getting contradictory advice from multiple advisors, for the reasons discussed in my chapter on Dealing With Contradictory Advice.