On Giving Better Advice

Note: This article is a little less coherent than a lot of my other pieces, and still really a draft. I decided to publish knowing I plan on making a lot of changes in the future. I just felt like getting it out and hopefully it will be useful to people.

There's a joke I say sometimes: "I know my advice is good because no one ever takes it." Although it's a joke I realized there's a lot of truth to that statement. When I reflected on why that might be what occurred to me is less so about anything to do with it being my advice and just advice in general. So why are people so bad at giving and receiving advice?

Ignoring delivery/ content... maybe the person might not be asking for advice? they might be looking for empathy or sympathy. They want you to feel/experience/relate to the emotions that they are currently feeling. They want a compatriot in the experience. They want some help getting through the thing... which I understand. This life is hard and homo sapiens weren't built for the stress and mental agility we need to make it through modern life.

Sometimes advice is geared towards having a person make a change in their identity/behavior/personality they might not "take the advice" not because they don't want to take the advice but because a change in those aspects of their life may require many small nuanced changes that won't be directly attending to your advice, even if it is in the spirit of your advice. In my experience, people can change but it's slow-moving. Often it's too slow for normal people to observe because they aren't paying attention to small, long-term changes.

Another situation that frequently occurs: is when a person is trying to decide between a short list of options- it's common for the advice-giver to just tell the "receiver" things that they know already know, restating the problem, and not provide any decisions or tactics for moving forward. Real advice requires a decision or tangible guidance on making a decision in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There's an assumption that the receiver will figure it out on their own if you just have them look at it differently- but that's not reasonable.

What's interesting about this to me about the "limited options" problems is how often the correct answer is just picking the "harder" option. It's as if people are asking advice to get out of having to do the "hard" thing - hoping someone will permit them to take the easy route.

Similarly, if your advice isn't counter-intuitive it might not be advice. "Counter-intuitive" in this sense is not meant as a colloquialism. If the person has thought of the thing that you are providing as advice before with a similar context... it's not advice. Your statement needs to be somewhat novel to the person to provide value. But of course, there's a paradox here - If a piece of advice truly is counter-intuitive, novel, etc it's probable that they won't be open to it.

Another concept about giving good advice is the difference between "strategic" and "tactical". Often people need is tactical advice but they are too novice or lack the personality traits to utilize it... so strategic advice is offered but strategic advice ends up being too contrived to create any tangible benefits. This is the concept of "theory vs practice."

If you liked the article you should check out my monthly newsletter "Cocktail Napkin Math":