And Why the Best Advice Isn’t Advice
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” — Buddha
As a knucklehead teenager, I had lots of energy but little direction. Not until a math tutor offered guidance did the fog start to clear and the internal compass start to calibrate.
With goals and vision came clarity, curiosity, and ambition. I’d experienced the damning frustration of idleness already and knew I’d be a lot happier if I applied myself and made the most of the opportunities my family had worked so hard to provide.
When I was sixteen, someone told me that if I wanted to be successful, I should ask older, wiser, more experienced people for advice. “They’ll see their younger selves in you and want to help.”
So I started asking everyone for advice, trying to learn everything I could.
At first, most of the advice–basic stuff–was good: set goals, sit at the front of the class, study hard, take notes, say please and thank you. Things my parents had told me but I’d never applied.
Then, along the way, the quality of advice started to vary widely. I learned (as a friend recently said) that “advice rarely comes with a confidence interval.” After taking bad advice (and bearing the consequences) a few times, I began sharpening my instincts withintuition and principles so that I could make bigger and better life decisions on my own. It turns out that the people who are most willing to give advice are often the least qualified to do so.*
Discovering how much bad advice is out there also gave me a new appreciation for great advice and how rare it is. Less than 1% of the advice out there produces more than 99% of the results.
Here’s the 1% that has made all the difference for me:
- “The best advice usually isn’t advice.” That’s because best advice comes through inquiry, not prescription. The best mentors know there are no answers, only infinite questions. They know only that they know nothing. They don’t tell you what you “should” do; instead, they help you diagnose your needs and help you explore your unknowns. They’re humble enough to listen first and talk second. And when relevant, they share personal experiences that have worked for them. If they do give direct prescriptive advice, it goes accompanied by “if I were in your shoes” or “take this with a grain of salt.” Every piece of bad or inaccurate piece of advice I’ve taken started with the word “should.”
- “Be selective with whose advice you take.” Everyone has something to say — how do you cut through the noise? The best teachers are usually the ones who don’t think of themselves as teachers, but as coexistent learners: nature, animals, young children, (often dead) authors, and builders/practitioners. Nothing is more humbling or instructive than the natural patterns and behaviors observable in nature. Nobody is more demonstrative of human creativity, imagination, and inhibition than a young child at play. No insights are wiser than those from the people who took the time to practice, ponder, and put pen to paper in times past. And often, nothing seems more relevant or applicable than insights from people who have done what you want to do at the scale you want to do it (or who’ve built what you want to build at the scale you want to build it).
- “Take big steps in the right direction.” People talk about “the road less traveled” being so difficult. It turns out that the most difficult part is actually deciding to take the road less traveled. Once you make the decision and commit, you’re free to focus on the path ahead–turning back is not an option. But it’s easy to get caught up in the “analysis paralysis” that happens in the moments before deciding. Several years ago, when I faced a crossroads, a mentor nipped my anxiety in the bud: “If you do what feels right, and do it in a big way that pushes you past your comfort zone, then even if you fall, you’ll fall forward and when you get up, you’ll still be on a good path, and you certainly won’t ever regret having tried. Take big steps in the right direction.”
- “Do things that’ll make you speechless.” The greatest growth experiences are the ones you can’t articulate while they’re happening. In fact, if you’re ever able to perfectly articulate where you are in life, you’re probably not moving fast enough. “In over your head” is a state of being to be embraced — it’s where the meat of life exists. A few years ago, I was preparing to move for several months to a country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anybody, and hadn’t secure shelter or a job — it would be my first solo international trip, and my nerves were sweating beads. Before departing, I was encouraged to “do things that’ll make you speechless.” The next few months were intense–some of the most uncomfortable of my life–with new experiences and challenges happening faster than I could handle. “Do things that’ll make you speechless” made all the difference, helping me embrace uncertainty, navigate ambiguity, and thrive in chaos. “I’m definitely speechless,” I’d think to myself in moments of confused, frustrated reflection, “so something must be going well, even if I don’t know what that something is.”
Today, if I’m not speechless regularly, then I’m doing something wrong. I have more questions and fewer answers than ever, and hope it stays that way.
*Of course, the quality of advice matters little for a seeker whose mind is closed.