Teaching Advice-Seeking in Schools

April 9, 2013

Last week I gave a talk for an audience of Health Innovators Fellows at the QIT Center in Pittsburgh. As is my custom, I pointed out that people are not in the habit of advice seeking because neither parents nor schools train them to do so. The key question, which should become ingrained, is to ask oneself, when faced with a problem or issue, “Do I have the knowledge and experience to deal with this myself, and if not, who does and could help?” I asked the audience if any of their parents had taught them this, and no one raised a hand, which is almost always the case.

Then one participant asked how this could be taught in elementary schools or high schools, for example in connection with homework. My reply was that making changes to the go-it-alone tradition of homework is tricky, but there are many things that go on in schools besides homework, which present teaching opportunities.

Students form clubs, invite outside speakers (even commencement speakers), they plan field trips, and other joint projects, supervised by a teacher. Each of these activities presents an opportunity to teach the skill. For example, say that students are taking over publication of a school “newspaper” and have little experience with this. Rather than have the teacher be their sole guide, the students could be encouraged to interview the previous managers, asking them what worked, what didn’t, and what advice they have for the new managers. Students forming a club could be encouraged to pay a visit to the most successful club at the school, finding out what are best practices in running a successful club. All of these present opportunities to encourage and teach the skill of advice seeking in schools, without disturbing the traditional grading system.

What if You’re Unsure of Your Goals?

March 1, 2013

Recently I gave a faculty development talk at the University of Pittsburgh. I explained how, building on passages in The Wise Advisor by Jeswald Salacuse, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, it’s the responsibility of the advice seeker to prepare for an advisory meeting by answering these questions:

  1. Where am I now?
  2. How did I get here?
  3. Where do I want to go?
  4. How can you (the advisor) help?

Salacuse explains that these are the key items that a wise advisor should extract. However, as advice seekers, we realize that not every knowledgeable and experienced person is an expert advisor in Salacuse’s sense. Advising is a collaborative process, so we should make it easy for the advisor by clearly laying out those items, even if not asked.

A questioner in my audience asked: “What happens if I don’t know my goals? How do I then make use of your book’s methods?”

My answer was that only a slight adjustment is needed. In that case, your problem is that you’re unsure what your goals should be and you need advice in how to formulate them. It’s not an uncommon situation. The adjusted items then become:

  1. Where am I now?  (I’m not sure what my goals should be.)
  2. How did I get here?
  3. Where do I want to go?  (I want to formulate goals that are consistent with my values, circumstances, and constraints.)
  4. How can you (the advisor) help?  (Help me figure out what my goals should be.)

The old saying “If you don’t know your destination, any path will get you there.” is misleading, since we all have starting points, constraints, and values, so not every path will do.

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 site:forbes.com “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.

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.

Are Search Engines Good Enough?

November 24, 2012

On Intuit’s The Fast Track blog, the blogger Eva Rykrsmith reveals that with two tools “Google and a laptop” she figures she can:

“… do the research myself, collect all the relevant data points, and come to a reasonable and logical conclusion independently. This technique is quick, simple, accessible, and—the main reason I stick with it—it usually works wonderfully well.”

After considering my book’s Chapter 2 (What Advice Does For You), Eva lists six benefits of advice and reconsiders whether search engines are good enough.

I think that search engines can actually provide most of these benefits, except social engagement, which strengthens human relationships for future mutual aid. It’s just that they don’t provide those benefits so well, because good advice, except for straightforward tasks, depends critically on one’s circumstances and goals, which vary greatly from one person to the next.

Some very general examples of such tasks:

  • What college should I attend?
  • What major should I study?
  • In what geographic area should I start my career?
  • Should I change jobs?
  • Should I change careers?
  • Should I get more education? Part-time or full? Online or off?
  • Should I buy a house now?

If making good, effective decisions is the goal, rather than, say, exercising one’s freedom, making one’s own mistakes, and living through the consequences, then advice helps and search engines are not good enough.

Why Small Businesses Need Advice

November 16, 2012

Consider the challenges that a business faces: Serving a market and identifying new ones. Product or service development and innovation. Recruiting and retention of good people. Physical and information infrastructure. Government regulations. Taxes. International sales. And many more.

Note that both large and small business face these challenges. In fact, small businesses face almost all of the challenges that large businesses face.

The difference is that small businesses lack the internal expertise of larger ones, as well as the money to hire outside consultants. So small businesses get by with the expertise they have and go it alone. Or, they seek out informal or formal advice from peers, business acquaintances, an advisory board, or anyone with knowledge and experience to bring to bear on their challenges and a willingness to lend an ear.

As CEO of Vivisimo Inc. from its founding (three people) in 2000 through 2009 (about 80 people), our company and I faced these challenges, made acute by the fact that Vivisimo had never taken on outside investors, so the financial stakeholders were largely all internal. Outside advice, both informal and formal, was critical to our success.

Small businesses, as well as small organizations like non-profits, are in special need of improving their advice-seeking skills, which enables making better internal decisions at no extra cost beyond time and dedication.

Book published!

November 9, 2012

After three years of research, writing, and editing, the book has just been published and is available through Amazon for  paperback and Kindle and Smashwords for eBooks.

I’ve been asked a very interesting question:  Anyone can benefit from advice, understood as bringing the knowledge and experience of others to bear on your problem, while acknowledging your circumstances and goals. In view of this, what is the right audience for your book?

I think that the most suitable readers are those who have some experience with this chain:  knowledge + experience + thinking ⇒ decisions ⇒ success OR failure. If you’ve not made any decisions in your life that are complicated, then you’re unaware of the roles that knowledge and experience play, and are oblivious to how bad outcomes can flow from faulty steps. For many young people, their first such experience is with applying to college after high school, or looking for a summer job after freshman year.

So one way to answer the question is: The book is for college sophomores and above, or for people with equivalent life experience. There is lots more to say about the best audience, which I’ll leave for another post.

Why do people avoid seeking advice?

March 7, 2012

My personal experiences, research, and discussions have uncovered 28 reasons that lead people not to seek personalized advice from others.

For example, here are three:

  • they just don’t think of it (this is very common)
  • they are too shy to approach others
  • they don’t want to share credit for a successful outcome

I’d like to hear from readers about their own thoughts, stories, and reasons why they or others haven’t proactively sought advice on important issues at work or in life.