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

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  • something that always helps me, is going back to my journals and written thoughts. there is always something to rediscover, something to tell me “oh i’m like this!” or “oh i prefer this to that”, and helps me distinguish the advice. part of it though, comes from the person’s personality traits. some of us are more self aware and so can be more confident about our decisions even if the world thinks its bad. yet others waver easily. so it’s all a balance and case by case. at the end of the day, i believe we know ourselves best – all advice is reference only. 

  • I was having this very same conversation with myself yesterday.  I ran from something rather than to something and wasn’t listening to my gut.  I just took the first thing that came along.  Unfortunately, when that doesn’t work out, as it is fated to do, it’s hard not to run to something else and perpetuate the cycle.   

  • Jlvancho

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

  • michelle

    WOW great article and perfect timing for me.

  • Jess

    I’m experiencing the same situation you did. And I feel confused about that opposite advice from the one person I reallly value. I guess it’s time for me to reflect on why they’re giving me advice. Your post helps a lot with this important decision I’m making in my life. Thank you.

  • I love your tagline “simple wisdom for complex lives.” Just reading it gave me a thought: Instead of constantly striving for a simple life and being frustrated, maybe I should simply accept the fact that my life is complex and try to apply simple wisdom to the complexities.

  • Thank you Jean! My name is Lori and I run this site. (This is actually a guest post). That was exactly the idea I was going for with the tagline. =)

  • Thank you all for reading my article – I’m glad it was helpful. (and yes, Jean, it’s a great tagline isn’t it!)

  • Syaf @motivationMY

    What a timely post. I recently created a motivational blog and was recently featured in a newspaper in Malaysia. It was great publicity for the blog but I was flooded with a few unwelcomed advice on how my blog should be. Though I appreciate their feedback, but I feel like they don’t really understand the concept of the blog and I felt if I make the changes that were asked, I would change the direction of the blog. After a while, I asked my friends and they thought the blog is fine as it is. 

    Sometimes it’s hard to be pulled in various directions, but at the end of the day, one got to stay true to his/her intention. Every now and again, I always remind myself what the main objective of the blog is. 

    Thank you for this wonderful post. 

  • I never take advice from another unless they are intuitively gifted. Many people give out free advice and it is worth the price that you pay for it.

    I’ll go with my own gut instead of someone else.

  • Thank you. Yes, it’s hard isn’t it, Syaf, especially when something is new and you’re maybe feeling a bit less confident about what you’re doing. Thanks all for reading.

  • Pingback: Advice on Advice, Living a Beautiful Life, Little Dragon & More | Miss Cabrina()

  • Joshcw

    Good article; things are much clearer now!

  • Pingback: Advice (on taking Advice) & Little Dragon | Miss Cabrina Online()

  • andy

    I’m in the exact same boat. sort of. I have to choose between a really easy job that pays me A LOT for a little work, to a job in a tropical paradise that has more responsibility and a 10th of the pay.

    Usually I rely on this one friend, who seems to always be right whether I listen to him or not. So it really scared me when he said Not to take the tropical job! His advice instead is to do neither, and stop working Period! :O!!!!! I’m only 38, I really don’t want to retire.

    Situation A) Currently, job is easy and not demanding, company is nice, I save A LOT of money every month. They basically pay me to sit around and do nothing in a very very remote area of the U.S/Canada where the weather is all snow, small population, middle of nowhere. Super mindless but easy, no room for growth, lots of free time though, high pay.

    Situation B) Risk it all in SE Asia (I would love to live in Latin America or Asia) on a new job that is extremely demanding for only enough $ to just about break even every month.

    I really don’t know what to do. I was hoping my friend would have said Situation B no doubt. But instead his advice was “SE asia is too religious and dangerous and America is sucks, so you should not work in either and bum around the world until you’ve spent all your money.” I don’t like that advice AT ALL! But I’m scared, because he’s never been wrong before. Anyone else here have any thoughts?

  • Cassi O.

    In my opinion, I think you should pick Situation B. You said you save a lot of money now, so you theoretically should have a large savings. If you end up not making quite enough money doing what you love you would have a cushion to fall back onto. And if you end up not liking the job in Asia (or after a few years would like something that is more stable) you could always move back You probably have a lot of experience if you are 38 so you could find a job pretty easily.

  • Karmal

    Advice is what you don’t know. Knowing that you don’t know is the real challenge. In not knowing you realize you know, therefore not asking for advice proves you know. So why ask?

  • C.Hoffman541

    Simply the best advice I have ever received…thank you OP

  • budcat7

    Sometimes we take advice based on mutual respect and trust but when the party you are asking is being deceptive about the level of respect and trust they have for us, our “choice” in taking this advice is compromised.