Monday, 4 August 2014

Take the Advice, Not the Advisor

So someone asked this on Danger and Play,

I had a question. When did millennials and other young men stop asking for wisdom and advice from their elders? And why? Was it suddenly too dangerous to talk to strangers? Did the millennials become too cool for it and started to think that technology would solve our problems? Did it get dropped out of the value system where people were not told to ask for advice from older more experienced guys? Did we become too lazy and entitled? How often do you see successful guys in modern media telling stories about their experiences and what they learned? Almost never.

My inner Feyerabend awake at this one. So I replied along these lines...

I get two senses from the OP’s question. First, why don’t these dumb kids ask me before they go ahead and do that dumb thing they do that gets us all into the weeds? Second, why don’t successful people offer more good advice?

Answer to question one. Either they didn’t know you had an informed opinion, in which case you need more self-publicity, or they did know but didn’t ask you, in which case you need to work on your public image, or they asked you and didn’t do what you recommended. If they asked and went ahead anyway, it was because your reasons for not doing the dumb thing didn’t seem more important than their reasons for doing the dumb thing. Happens a lot of the time where I work, and thank God for it, as the resulting fall-out makes work for the working man to do. Do you know how many otherwise unemployed graduates across the world are employed by the UK PPI repayments industry, and have been for the last four years?

Answer to question two. Successful business people offer advice all the time. Usually for a fee. Success in sports, creativity and problems-solving? Guitar-soloing? Cooking? There are books and books on this stuff and almost all the advice is the same, because there’s only one way to get good. Practice. Discipline. Reading / Listening / Looking / Competing . Stealing ideas. Making mistakes and abandoning them quickly. Experimenting. Focussing on marginal improvement on a daily basis. Having a good support team. Locking yourself away in a loft for three years - if you’re Andrew Wiles - can work, as can writing your novel in a cafe - if you’re J K Rowling. Mostly it helps to socialise in your chosen industry.

Success in life? Like GS Elevator says: "Work hard. Exercise. Eat right. Don’t drink too much. And only buy things you can afford. It’s not rocket science.” And yet how few people do it. Maybe because they look at the lives of those of us who do do it, and shudder in horror.

The advice is out there. What aren’t out there are advisors. There are no gurus, Yodas and even Gramma-and-Gramps are now 40% divorced and 100% in debt. It’s the advice that matters, not the advisor. Doesn’t matter who comes up with a good idea, what matters is that it’s a good idea. This can be hard to take when you need to believe there is someone who can help you sort out your pain and confusion. You have to start making those decision about what advice to use yourself, in all that pain and confusion.

You have to ask for help and advice. Nobody tells you that: you’re expected to know. You have to choose your advisor depending on the problem and the context. Even if you are getting it from a book. No-one is going to tell you something straight unless you ask. (Okay. I have done that a couple of times to people who were in danger of getting the wrong reputation at work. And I have a standard bunch of things I tell any new analyst who works for me about time, project and client management.)

If I need advice on something, I find out who seems to know about it and check their interests and purposes are close to mine, and I ask (or read) them. I’m not going to ask Jamie Lewis at Chaos and Pain for advice on training because he’s a total lunatic and has different objectives from me. When I changed my working hours from 9-5, I asked a guy who was working 8-4 how he liked it and how it worked for him. That he was half my age made no difference. Age ain’t nothing but a number: it’s the relevance and quality of someone’s experience that matters, and their ability to draw lessons from it. There’s nothing that says “elders” are any good at that at all. All their age may have given them is the same year for forty years, from which they learned not much.

I get the feeling the OP meets a lot of bratty kids. Bratty kids don’t ask for advice, and frankly I could give a damn that they don’t. Less competition for me. But then don’t meet many brats at work. I work for a huge, conservative, blue-chip company and I may be seeing a careful selection of high-quality, conservative young people. Maybe the brats are all in Soho and Shoreditch start-ups and media companies. The kids at work know what I’m good at and they ask me about that. They don’t ask me about Life, The Universe and Everything because they know I don’t live the way they want to. And sometimes they ask me about something, and I tell them why it’s dumb, and they go ahead and do it because it makes their CV look good. Which was where we came in.

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