We reach out for advice

You ask for advice from people, on things you are unsure of or don't know enough about. Or when you are mulling over a big decision and stuck. When you were younger, your parents did this job for you and as you saw more of the world and made more connections, your network grows. So, when a question arises, you look for smart or successful people (relevant to the problem at hand) around you and ask for their advice. If you are like me, you turn to books as well.

Given the ease of everyone being able to publish their opinions online (from blogs like this to Twitter and Insta etc), there is a plethora of irresponsible advice.

The crux is most of the advice is a personal experience, shaped by prejudice and perspectives. And there's nothing wrong with that, except when generalised as "This happened to me. So, here's what YOU need to do."

It is a responsibility

Recently, a friend of mine was talking about moving back from the US to India. He had spoken to a couple of other friends of mine who had bad experiences in moving back from overseas. I've had a great experience moving back to India.

Took a walk downtown hong-kong (kennedy town) and took some shots.
I like this photo. I witness a short moment of live of people I don’t know. I guess it’s a significant chapter of their live.
Photo by Théo Dorp / Unsplash

The advice he received was contradictory - based on each individual's prejudice and perspective. "Here's what happened to me in this situation" and so it is a bad idea or a good idea.

The more extreme the experience (better or worse), the firmer the advice. Which is plain irresponsible.

Founders at Work

A long time back, when I got my job working for a startup in the Valley, I bought this book called Founders at Work. A decent book with stories of how various startups made it big, the origin stories, their trials and tribulations, the pivots they did, and the various twists and turns before making it big.

When you zoom out enough, you can see the similarities and patterns. What also happens are you don't see a lot of what is not being said, what has been abstracted - either because it was not central to the narrative or too personal to share, or edited out. But all these are part of the journey. It is imperative to understand that one never sees the full picture, and one might not understand the individual prejudices that shaped decisions.

Specific vs Personal

The older I've gotten, the warier I've become in giving advice. My prejudices and opinions, however hard I try, are a part of me. A million experiences have shaped me, many of which I might not remember or comprehend. And that's what makes me me. Likewise, for my friend and for you.

And it is a bad habit that's easy to indulge in - giving advice. Whether one is asked for it or not.

Saying "I don't know" is underrated.

Of course, the more specific the question is and the more it is in one's domain of expertise, the more apt it is to offer perspective and advice. For example, "what should I do to lose weight", while rather vague, is something I can guide you on over the course of a long conversation. If you ask me "how do I fix my kettlebell swing", a good long look at a set or two, and I'll have specific tips and drills for you, and solve your problem.

Most questions and advice requests are murkier and deeper though. When you are asking for advice, and you definitely should, what works for me is to talk to at least a handful of different people. With different backgrounds and experiences, and asking them to share their experience. As I've learnt from talking to people smarter than me, they are wary of offering advice and sharing how and why they did what they did. This is something I've attempted to copy unabashedly.

Asking for advice

When you ask for advice, know that no one can or should be able to answer this question for you. If someone attempts to, it is a good litmus test (that you should be warier of what they are saying.)

Collect the stories and the experiences. You know the person, and you understand some of their perspectives and prejudices. You know what is common in your upbringing and what is different. Because all those go into the box marked "input" to create the decision marked "output."

And you form your construction of the stories. You contextualise. You sit with yourself and ask difficult questions and dig deeper. You need to understand and know yourself a bit better, to be able to take this decision that's required of you.

Understand the stories. Understand the why. From the person, you are speaking with. And your own.

Photo by Maegan Martin / Unsplash

And even if you decide one way, it doesn't close the door or do any such thing. It is the right decision to make today, based on what you know and understand.

Every time you are faced with a deep question, with a decision to make, it is an opportunity to learn and grow. Do the work!