in Essays, Short

The Problem With Advice

screen-shot-2011-11-13-at-11-25-50-pmWe give advice all the time. And when we’re not busy dishing out our very own seemingly sweet words of wisdom, we search for it in gurus, friends, family, books, and religion. Advice-giving is not just a multi-billion dollar business either. It’s impact permeates everything from simple day-to-day choices to life-altering decisions. Yet, advice–especially the informal kind–is easy to give or consume dangerously, which is to say, little care is given as to whether the advice on offer is of a high quality.

Ever since I enrolled at Oxford to pursue an MBA I’ve thought about this topic a whole bunch and after a year of seeking advice in lots of places I now have a few concepts–quick rules of thumb if you will–that can help filter and refine advice before you give it or take it. These “sniff tests” are based on quotes for ease of memory and are as follows:

First, remember that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

Advice that worked for someone in a specific context and at a particular time will not necessarily work for you. The world moves fast. Times change and people change. Good advice should be malleable enough to adapt to new situations. If not, it becomes useless pretty quickly. Here’s an example:

Bad advice: Get a university degree.

Good advice: Get an education.

Second, notice that often “we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” 1Stephen R. Covey

Our experiences shape how we make decisions and ultimately, how we consider advice. Had a bad experience at a not-so-bad restaurant? You probably won’t recommend it even if the chef simply had a bad day. In other words, all advice we give and receive is coloured by our unique histories. So before you give or receive advice, consider if there’s any baggage it’s coming with.2

Third, “if you give advice, you need to be exposed to losses from it.”Nassim Taleb

This last concept sounds extreme, but if you imagine that you will be exposed to losses related to poor advice, you are likely to take greater care. Likewise, if you are on the receiving end of advice, consider whether the person giving it really cares about you.

A Note on Good Advice

In sum, good advice should consider:

  • context (what’s different this time?)
  • bias (what personal history is colouring perceptions?)
  • skin in the game (what’s the responsibility and how invested is the advisor?)

Keeping these three ideas in mind should help us all deal with advice a bit better, including the advice in this blog post.3


[1] Thanks for helping me find the quote Vicky!

[2] My baggage for the advice in this article is that I’ve spent many years seeking advice on a range of subjects and also writing lots of advice. Some of it has worked really well and some of it hasn’t.

[3] I considered all three sniff tests while writing this post.