Advice on Advice

“I always advise people never to give advice.”

- P.G. Wodehouse

Advice is a double-edged sword. It’s easy to give but hard to give well, and easy to receive but hard to evaluate. In short, advice is hard. This post is about how to give and receive advice more effectively.

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is going to be one of those fluffy posts. The kind of post that tells you that the secret to being successful is to “follow your dreams” and “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “prioritize well.” The kind of post where you finish and wish you could get you 4 minutes back. This is not going to be that kind of post. Like most engineers, I like substance and hate bullshit. Like most VCs, I’ve watched many people try to give or receive advice, and this post is a summary of what I’ve learned.

Tips for Receiving Advice

  1. Ask the advisor about the personal stories behind their advice and about their level of conviction. What experiences have they had to inform their opinion? Why do they think their advice will work for you in your situation? Is the advice pure speculation, an intelligent guess, or an observation based on years of experience? Knowing why someone would do something if they were in your shoes is just as important as knowing what they would do in your shoes.

  2. Consider the advisor’s personal motives and incentives. A friend suggesting that you buy a bigger insurance policy is not the same as an insurance agent suggesting the same thing. However, while incentives tend to bias people, having incentives that are aligned with a certain point of view doesn’t mean that the point of view is wrong. For example, when the insurance agent tells you to get a better and more expensive life insurance policy, a natural reaction is to think, “well, they’re collecting a commission, of course they’d suggest that policy.” True. But that doesn’t mean their advice is bad. This is another reason that asking why someone recommends something is as important hearing their recommendation.

  3. Ask different types of people for advice. If you’re not sure which college to apply to, don’t just ask your 3 friends who went to Ivy leagues. Also talk to your friends who went to public universities or community colleges or trades schools, or who decided to skip college and go straight to work. The more perspectives you hear the better your decision will be.

  4. Be data-driven. Ask multiple people for their opinions. If you poll 10 people, the result might be that 6 of them tell you to do X, 2 of them tell you to do Y, and 2 tell you to do Z. If that happens, you’ll probably do X. If you had only asked one of those 10 people, there’s a 40% chance you’d do Y or Z instead – quite possibly a mistake.

  5. Ask for meta-advice. If one person tells you to do X in your situation, ask a few other people what they think of X.

  6. Use advisors to test your reasoning. If you’re starting to hone in on doing X for reasons A, B, and C, then you can ask people what they think of X, but you can also test your assumptions by asking people what they think about A, B, and C.

  7. Don’t confuse brand and reputation for correctness. Just because a famous or successful person tells you to do X doesn’t mean you should do X. Maybe their advice is based on a unique situation that they encountered, or they have ulterior motives, or they don’t understand your specific goals. Inversely, just because someone is not especially famous or successful doesn’t mean that their advice isn’t worth listening to.

  8. Don’t mistake confidently delivered advice for good advice. Just because someone sounds sure of themselves doesn’t mean that they’re right. Pay more attention to the content of what someone says than to how they say it. Inversely, advice delivered with less confidence can still be great advice.

  9. There’s no guarantee that any piece of advice you get is right or wrong. If half of your friends tell you to do X and the other half tell you to do Y, then it’s natural to focus on deciding between X and Y. However, that’s a mistake. X and Y could both be valid, or they could both be incorrect. The set of advice that you hear might not include the right answer, but it’s also possible there’s more than one right answer. Treat each suggestion on its own merits and don’t assume that there’s exactly one right answer among all of the advice that you hear.

  10. Remember that when all is said and done, you’re the one who’s accountable for your actions. If everyone tells you to do something but your gut pulls you in a different direction, it’s okay to go with your gut. Following advice that you disagree with is dangerous because if it turns out your instincts were correct, you’re still responsible for whatever you did. Saying, “well, I was told to do this” is a cop out.

Tips for Giving Advice

  1. Get permission before giving advice. Sometimes people don’t want your advice. Be sensitive to that. When someone has a problem, don’t just starting telling them what you think they should do. Instead, ask them if they’re interested in your opinion.

  2. Ask a lot of questions. Ask about the advisee’s situation, their motives, and their concerns. Tweak your advice to the facts at hand.

  3. Use language that reflects your level of confidence. If you’ve seen a similar situation hundreds of times, telling someone “you have to do X” might be justified. That kind of language is not justified if you’re making an educated guess. In general, use neutral language (“approach X might work” or “have you considered doing Y?”) instead of strong language (“you need to do X” or “only an idiot wouldn’t do Y”).

  4. Make it clear if you’re expressing a fact or a personal preference. “You should use a different color for your logo” could mean “I think blue is ugly” (opinion) or it could mean “blue connotes calm and stability, and you should use a color that connotes wealth and luxury instead” (fact). Be clear about your intent.

  5. Explicitly state your level of confidence. Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know, or “this is a guess” if you’re speculating.

  6. Explain your advice. Tell stories. Provide data. Discuss the likely consequences. Let the advisee make up their own mind whenever possible.

  7. Explain potential conflicts of interest. If you have motives that might affect your advice, disclose those motives and explain why they are not clouding your judgment.

  8. Be humble and empathetic. You might have a lot of experience with a specific type of situation, but the person you’re talking to has much more knowledge about their exact predicament, and they’re much more emotionally invested. Don’t be a know-it-all and don’t dismiss someone’s feelings. Use questions like “what did you discover when you investigated XYZ?” instead of statements like “you have to do XYZ” (which the listener has likely already considered and dismissed). Don’t forget that if someone has spent 100x more time on a problem than you have, the chances that your advice will be novel or insightful are low.

  9. Don’t take it personally if the advisee doesn’t listen. Your job as an advisor is to help, not to command. If someone takes a different course of action than you suggested, support their decision. After all, it was their decision to make. (That said, understanding why someone did something different than what you would have done can be a great learning opportunity.)

Fundamentally, I think what good advice boils down to is that the advisee should be gathering as much useful data as they need in order to make a smart decision, while the advisor should be sharing personal experiences, anecdotes, and data points that might help. Advisors should focus on helping, not on looking smart or exerting control. Advisees should focus on learning and understanding, not appeasing advisors or following advice blindly. Well, at least that’s my advice. =)

Additional Resources

Thanks to Aarthi Ramamurthy, Ryan Petersen, Sean Byrnes, and Elliott Hauser for feedback on this post.