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a blog by @captainsafia

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The Good, The Bad, The Unwanted

Recently, I have had to deal with several tough decisions in both my professional and personal life. While working through these decisions, I was given some advice that didn’t sit well with me and that I eventually had to turn down. Thus, I felt it was as good a time as any to write up my thoughts on bad and good advice, what you need to know about yourself and your goals before taking advice from other people, recognizing who your best advisors are, how to turn down bad advice, and how to be a good advisor.

As a young woman, I often feel pressured to listen to whatever the adults in my life have to say about my current predicament. For several several years, I struggled with trusting my own gut over the “sage” wisdom of those who were older than me. As a result, I made some choices that were detrimental to my career, contrary to my values, and opposite to my dreams. I got to thinking, how would I have known when to take someone’s advice and when to trust my own instincts? How can I prevent myself (as much as possible) from making choices that I will one day regret?

I believe it starts with a strong knowledge of one’s self. Before knowing who you can seek advice from or who you aspire to be, you have to have a strong sense of your own values. Do you value community? Are you a lofty or pragmatic thinker? Do you work for profits or people or both? Do you value conformity or innovation? Without having this strong value compass, you’ll be unable to identify when the advice that you are given is against your values. You’ll end up taking whatever the first piece of advice you are given is and fall into a chaotic mess of incoherent decisions. I know because I’ve done this many, many times.

Of course, this begs the question, how do you recognize your own values? To a certain degree, it require a great amount of introspection. There is no BuzzFeed quiz for your value system so you have to actively observe how you respond to the world around you. What are your thoughts on social issues? How do you respond to the latest headlines? How do you feel when a character in a film or television show has to make a particular difficult decision? Over time, you’ll come to recognize who you are as a person. This isn’t easy but it is definitely worth it. Now, you definitely do not need to have the entirety of your self figured out (I would say it’s impossible to figure out your entire self in a lifetime) before you recognize what advice you should reject or accept, having a core set of basic principles is enough. For example, I’ve chosen to actively reject advise that actively forces me to be in petty competition with other people. This is based on my core believe that I’m looking to help, not hinder, those around me.

In addition to understanding your own values, you have to be aware of what your end goals in a particular situation are. Even after explaining your problem to someone, they might have different goals and motivations than you. Bias can infiltrate any aspect of the discussion and one must be wary that they are aware of the nuances that affect that advice people eventually give them. When your goals and motivations don’t align with the advisors, take their advice with a grain of salt.

Finally, in order to minimize the amount of bad advice that you receive and the amount of time that you waste thinking about whether or not to take it, it’s important to have a strong understanding of what your ideal advisor looks like. As you ask for more advice, you’ll eventually determine who in your network is the best to approach for different kinds of issues. Even better, you’ll discover who in your network you shouldn’t reach out to for advice on a particular topic. It’s important to also recognize that the attributes traditionally associated with good advisors, such as age and prestige, aren’t necessarily that important. I’ve received some of my best advice from people who were my age or a little older. The common notion that older means wiser and more experienced isn’t necessarily true.

Now let’s assume that you’ve determined that some piece of advice that you were given by a mentor, friend, or colleague is in fact bad advice. How do you go about letting that person know you won’t be taking their advice without burning any bridges? The easy option is to not let the person know that you are not following their advice. This will put you in a tough spot if weeks, months, years later they ask you whatever you did with that advice they gave you. The second option is more honest, but also more difficult for some, is to let the person know that you don’t think their advice is the best to pursue.

There is a flip side to this. Sometimes, you might be the advisor who is giving the bad advice. When advising another person, it’s important to caveat any of the advice you give with insight into your prior experiences or personal opinions. Saying things like “From my experiences dealing with X, you should Y” or “In my personal opinion, I think you are looking to X so you should Y” can go a long way towards providing the advisee with enough information to make a good decision about whether or not to take your advice. It’s also important to recognize when your advice is clearly unwanted. I always assume that you shouldn’t give any advice unless explicitly asked and you should stop providing advice if the advisee expresses misgivings about the advice you are giving. In essence, don’t shove your ideas and opinions down anyone’s throat.

I don’t claim to have figured this whole good advice thing out, but I definitely think that I have made some good progress in rejecting bad advice and understanding my own goals and motivations. It’s an ongoing process that involves a growth-mindset and a willingness to say no to friends, which is difficult but necessary. Maybe in several years, I’ll come back and update this blog post with more insights and stories as I refine my abilities to get and give good advice.