Taking advice

I ask for a lot of advice. Maybe too much. Sometimes the advice is great, sometimes it ends up seeming worthless and wrong. Invariably, I attributed the outcome of following advice to the giver - following advice from good people led to good outcomes, and vice versa. In the last few years, I've found myself giving a lot of advice and have realized how wrong I was in attributing cause and effect.

There are two axes that determine the goodness of advice. The first is the obvious one: the quality of the person giving advice. This it the part which most often get discussed. We're told to seek out high quality mentors and advisors. These should be people who think clearly, have experience, have the time to think through problems and help.

While these things might be hard to find in a single person, they're not typically that hard to evaluate. What's much harder, and probably more important, is the other axis: how good you are at describing reality to someone with much less context than you have. It turns out, this is really hard to do for a number of reasons.

  1. Honesty is difficult, especially about issues we're facing. When you ask for advice, you are implicitly saying you don't know how to do something. That's hard, but seems to be accepted. What's much tougher is making sure you know the reasons you're having the issues you're having. Often, figuring this out is the point of advice (even if you started asking for something much more surface level).
  2. Context is hard because it is vast. Think about how much you know about your company. Think about how little anyone else knows, no matter how involved they've been. At best, they see a series of snapshots and can construct a reasonable amount of context themselves. This is nowhere near what you have rattling around in your head. Being able to rapidly construct necessary context is important for an advisor, but they rely on you to give them relevant details.

If you can't pull off these two inputs when asking for advice, you'll get bad advice no matter how good the person on the side is.[1]


[1] Yes, this does constitute advice, but I'm pretty sure this is of the type that's good in all situations.