When (and When Not) to Take Advice


“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” ~Erica Jong

I’ve received all kinds of advice in my life, both welcome and unwelcome. Most of this advice is easy to divide into two piles: “good” or “bad.”

“Good” advice: when somebody makes a suggestion and I think, “Oh, of course!” It might be advice about how to improve a poem, or how to peel a mango. This kind of advice is easy to take.

“Bad” advice: when somebody makes a suggestion and I have a clear sense that I don’t agree with it. I might not respect their opinions, or I might know they have their own agenda which clashes with mine. I might understand their point of view but simply disagree with it. This kind of advice is easy to ignore.

Sometimes, it’s trickier.

A while ago decided I might change my career. I started the process of signing up for the three-year training I needed. Lots of my friends and family thought it was a great idea.

I asked one person’s advice—someone I admired a great deal, who cared a great deal about me. To my surprise, they said they didn’t think it was the right thing for me to be doing. They thought I was doing it to run away from a career that would be more risky, but more fulfilling.

I could understand why they gave me this advice. They’d had a risky career themselves, and they were invested in this having been the “right” decision for them. They were biased. I didn’t agree with their advice. I didn’t think it was about what was best for me.

Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It niggled at me. I continued applying for the training, and talking to other people about my new career choice. They were all supportive and encouraging. Why did it matter so much that this one person had given me the opposite advice?

Eventually, I sat down and reflected upon what this person was saying to me.

At that point, I admitted to myself that they were right. I was taking this career choice as “the easy option.” It wasn’t right for me. I felt a deeper calling to do something else, something that was much more financially and emotionally risky.

Like Erica Jong, I often find myself asking for advice when I already know the answer to my own question, but I don’t like it. I also feel the most resistant to the advice that is telling me what I already know, but don’t want to.

Here are my top tips for how to deal with advice from that tricky third category, when we can’t decide whether it’s good or bad.

Listen to your gut. What is it telling you about the advice you’re hearing? Does it feel uncomfortable because the advice is wrong, or because the advice is right? Do you feel annoyed or defensive? As a general rule, if you feel stirred up by the advice in some way then there is something useful for you to learn.

Consider who is giving you the advice. Some useful questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do they have your best interests at heart?
  • Are they biased about your situation for any reason? (For example, did they make a mistake in a similar situation which is still haunting them?)
  • Do they understand you and your situation?
  • Has their advice been helpful in the past?
  • Do they have similar values to you? If they think money is the most important thing in the world and you don’t (or vice versa) then their advice might not be right for you.

Give yourself some time to let the advice sink in. Get some distance. If you feel defensive or annoyed, you’ll be able to be more objective after these feelings have faded a little bit. See how the advice looks in the cold light of day.

Get a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. Go to a mixture of people you trust, people who know you and care about you, and people who have experience of the situation you’re in. Encourage them to be as honest with you as they can be. If lots of people are giving you the same advice, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right, but it does mean it’s worth paying more attention to the advice.

Take some quiet time to reflect on the advice you’ve been given. Allow your mind to wander. Think about your “worst case scenario.” Think about what you might be trying to avoid. Try to keep an open mind. Be especially curious if you start feeling defensive. You might want to do some writing in your journal about the decision you want to make.

Listen to your gut again. Trust yourself. This can be difficult, especially when people you trust are advising to do something different.

When I want to do one thing and everyone is advising me to do something different, it’s helpful for me to remember that I have more information about what is right for me than anyone else does.

I also know that, even if I don’t know for sure that it’s the right thing to do, sometimes it’s more important to try something out and learn through our mistakes than it is to play it safe. We all make mistakes all the time, regardless of how much advice we listen to!

Advice from other people can save us a lot of time, trouble, and energy. Sorting advice into the “good” and “bad” piles is an art, and we can learn how to get better at this art.

What helps you with your sorting?

Photo by Adam Jones PhD

About Fiona Robyn

Fiona Robyn is also on a mission to help other people to connect with the world through writing. Visit her free community where all are welcome.

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