Too Little, Too Much: Advice and How to Take It

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For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

“For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” ― Gandalf, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Whenever people talk about advice, they either lament that there is too much survivorship bias (as in “anecdotal evidence of what worked for them won’t help others”) or that there is too much focus on the mistakes made (as in “if it didn’t kill your business, is there really anything to learn from this?”).

So when we talk about what worked for us or what didn’t work for us, neither approach produces good enough insight. If this were true, then the advice itself would be pretty useless. I don’t believe so. This false dichotomy of “too much and too little at the same time” ignores the core components of successfully applied advice: contextual reflection and bias checking.

As someone who often hands out advice to my own consulting clients and mentees, I see it being handled in many ways. Usually, the advice gets ignored. In that case, there is a mismatch between the message, its sender, and the receiver. But when advice is well-received and subsequently applied, I have noticed that there are two ways people handle it, and only one is effective.

The fruitless way of taking in advice is to apply it verbatim. If I tell you something and you immediately jump into doing it without reflection, you’re essentially a process copycat. You clone the outer shape of what worked for me. You don’t understand the inner structure of the process, why it was created, or to what end it exists. The flipside of this behavior is to completely ignore advice without giving it a chance.

Both blind adoption and complete dismissal are extremes. So what allows for a more balanced approach?

Context is everything. If you don’t understand what happened before, during, and after an event, just following the steps of a solution will not produce meaningful results. You need to understand the extended context of what someone tells you should be done.

This extends to avoidance as well. If I tell you to avoid using Twitter ads for personal accounts, that doesn’t mean that you should never even consider boosting particular tweets. As much as something that worked for someone else might not work for you, something that didn’t work for them might be quite useful for you.

“This worked for me” and “this didn’t work for me” itself isn’t instructive. It’s just one perspective on a complex interaction between an event, a strategy, the circumstances, and the unwritten assumptions of the person talking about it.

So, where does this leave you with advice? What’s a reliable way of applying advice successfully?

I personally consider every piece of advice that I get to be the starting point, not the blueprint. It’s anecdotal, as is all experience. Yet, it is through anecdotes that we learn. The narrative of a good story does more than entertain us: it instructs us to understand. And for an entrepreneurial action to be successful, you will need to understand the why, the how, and the what.

So, being completely aware of the ironic nature of this statement, here is my advice on how to deal with advice:

  • First, put some distance between yourself and the advice. Don’t make it a part of your plans immediately. Consider it to be quarantined for a day or two. Keep up your intellectual defenses when you deal with that particular piece of advice. Even though it might sound very enticing, you still need to be absolutely sure this is the right advice for you and your efforts.
  • Then, try to contextualize the advice with the person giving it. What circumstances lead them to learn this? Can those circumstances be generalized so that, should you ever encounter them yourself, the advice could also apply to you? This is usually very hard to judge, as your lack of initial insight makes you seek advice in the first place. Trust your gut: if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. Why is this person giving this advice? If advice is selfishly given, it has intentionality beyond helping the person it was given to. Look out for that.
  • Then, filter down to the actual event that caused the learning and expand your knowledge of its surroundings. What was the pivotal moment that sparked this experience? What happened before it, what led to it? What happened after they applied the solution to the problem? There are many things to learn that aren’t contained in the advice itself but are important to understand to see the whole picture.
  • Finally, contextualize the advice with your own currently lived experience. Does it fit in with your overall strategy? Would it be on-brand or in-character for you to do the things suggested? Would it strengthen your public perception, or would it dilute it? When applied, advice changes the way you do things. It’s imperative to keep this change under control.
  • If advice raises red flags, ignore the advice. You should trust your entrepreneurial gut feeling more than even the most renowned expert’s opinion. Entrepreneurship is trial & error anyway, and the more you run into obstacles, the better you learn. You can’t pre-jump the hurdles. All advice can do for you is to tell you where they might be on your path. You’ll still have to do the jumping.
  • Look for bias in three locations: the person giving the advice, the advice, and — this will be the hardest one — yourself. It’s easy to spot survivorship bias when someone tells us a grand story of success while dismissing the factor of luck and coincidence that helped make the outcome happen. It’s easy to detect selective and uncritical advice when it doesn’t attempt to contextualize its content by providing multiple perspectives. But it’s hard to see bias in ourselves. We don’t want to hear what we consider potentially flawed, no matter if it’s true or not. If we don’t trust the person giving advice, we won’t take their guidance, even if it would immediately make our lives better. Bias can live in all three parts of a communicative act: the sender, the recipient, and the message. Check all three to ensure you can rule out prejudice.

If you keep your distance and contextualize the advice with the sender and the receiver, you’ll have a much bigger and less volatile approach to taking advice. Ignoring advice is a huge part of taking advice, as well. You’ll find conflicting advice on every single subject out there. “Do paid marketing! Don’t do ads! Build it yourself! Buy it from a vendor!”

What matters is finding guidance that is relatable and applicable to your journey. A journey that only you truly understand.

So, in the spirit of taking advice pragmatically, take it or leave it. Think about this for a few days, then consider if it’s all just anecdotal and how it can fit into your larger picture of where you are going.

Because in the end, it’s your own unique journey, and all that advice can — and should — do is to give you some well-intentioned guidance.

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