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An uncomfortable relationship with advice

Like me, I believe you too should have an uncomfortable relationship with advice.

It’s sensible to seek guidance from someone we trust in scenarios where the advice-giver has experience with a similar situation, is empathetic toward our worldview, and understands the context of the matter at hand.

But it is also strange how routinely and effortlessly we rely on someone with limited experience or potentially questionable motives or an insufficient understanding of the situation to help guide our decision making for matters large and small.

The hard part about using bad advice is that it’s difficult to assess its damage retrospectively. We use advice to take action. Then it’s done. Would we have made a different decision if we hadn’t sought advice? Or if we had sought more advice? It’s hard to say and it’s impossible to determine what effect more or less advice may have had.

The hard part about using bad advice is that it’s often difficult to assess its damage retrospectively.

Advice is complicated. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it isn’t. But it always influences. And I know that the same back-and-forth scenario has played out throughout my career in situations large and small, personal and professional.

Like the time I was in a job I desperately wanted to quit. I was burned out. I was bummed out. I was being taken advantage of. I believed the leadership support necessary to actually find success in the role was nonexistent. I was emotionally and physically exhausted and didn’t want to do it anymore.
The conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t quit a job until you have another one lined up. That’s usually pretty solid advice.

But I was done and I knew it. Staying in the job wasn’t something I was interested in doing. So I made my case and the advice-giver who had been supportively reminding me of conventional wisdom finally agreed it was in my best interest to submit notice. I had the permission I needed to quit.

Then I started sharing my plan with the people that needed to know. 

“Are you crazy?,” asked a senior leader I worked with, “You can’t quit. You have power in this situation. You can make it better for yourself and get out of this mess without quitting.”

Those words and the advice-heavy conversation that followed changed my perspective.

So I didn’t quit, moved to a new department, quickly felt frustrated again, stayed with the organization a while longer, and then accepted a new job with an organization I was excited to work for.

Which piece of advice was better? Would leaving have worked out too? Probably.

I think it’s important to remember that any piece of advice, even from the most experienced, well-meaning, empathetic person living on the planet, is still an opinion based upon their experience filtered through a worldview that isn’t exactly ours.

I even think it deserves a George Box-inspired adage for easy recall: All advice is wrong, some is useful. 

All advice is wrong, some is useful.

So when we seek advice, I find it important to consider two things before heeding it: first, advice is best used as a starting point in finding our own path through anything and second, we must be comfortable with the idea that any advice we take holds the potential to be bad advice.

That is, well, advice and as the conventional wisdom goes: your mileage may vary.


That’s an endorsement of my weekly pep talk email from my good friend Jade. She’s trustworthy. She’s a healthcare person. And she’s working to make healthcare better through the work. I’m betting you’ll find it valuable every Wednesday, too.


My philosophy on email: Don’t send a bad one.


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