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M&Ms: How to Give Advice
The thing about giving advice is that most people don't want it.
How do I know?
I've given a lot of advice in my career to people who reported to me, colleagues, friends, and family. And I've been incredibly lucky to get advice from some amazing humans. I've recently given a ton of advice to strangers on the internet too. Heck, I even have a course titled "Timeless Career Advice."
So, trust me, I know a thing or two about giving advice.
But the internet gets advice all wrong. Many social posts go viral on this; the hook is usually something like "Things I would tell my 20-year-old self if I could go back in time." Those posts do really well; some get millions of impressions, but not because the 20-year-olds are listening. Those posts do well because people, usually older than 20, who banged their heads against the wall are listening.
I'd bet that if you could go back and tell your 20-year-old self what to do and what not to do, even your own 20-year-old self would not listen. I know mine wouldn't. Never mind these 20-year-olds today.
So this brings us to Principle One of giving advice: the people you are giving the advice to have to want it.
So let's first assume that the people we are about to advise are primed by life, ready to listen, and ready to receive the advice we have to give.
How should we approach our advice-giving?
I have found the best way to give advice is to show, not tell.
Find a similar situation from our life and show the person we are about to advise the path we took. Show them how we navigated that path, don't tell them what to do.
What if we can't find a similar situation? Well then, maybe we have no business giving that advice. Suppose I gave you advice on something that I never did, never tried to do, or am not in the midst of doing it. In that case, I am not qualified to give that advice.
Trust me on this one; I have made this mistake. After graduating with a Computer Science degree around 2008 to a horrible job market and in the middle of the biggest outsourcing boom in U.S. history, I incorrectly assumed that Computer Science was a lousy degree. My younger brother was headed to college and was passionate about Computer Science. But I strongly advised him to do a business degree, something I had never done myself. He did, especially after seeing how much I struggled to land something that paid well in Computer Science. But when he got out of college, that business degree turned out to be far more useless than a Computer Science degree.
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Luckily that story has a happy ending because my brother was still very much into computers, taught himself, and is a great software engineer today.
But to this day, I regret that advice; I should have kept my mouth shut.
Bad advice can harm people. It can harm people we care about. So Principle Two of advice-giving is: don't give advice if you don't have experience with the thing you're trying to advise on.
Advising by "showing" rather than telling means we are less likely to violate that principle of advising on things we haven't done.
But showing also has other benefits over telling. When we show them a situation we've been through, they can choose to take the things that apply to them from it. They can use their brain. This works well even if their situation is different or circumstances like the markets have changed.
Showing our path also usually means telling a story, and people remember stories; they are far more likely to remember a good story about what we've been through than some step-by-step dictation telling them what to do.
Advice giving means also giving away principles and rules of thumb. Showing how our principles have kept us out of trouble means the person we are advising is more likely to apply it to their situation. Like I am giving away my principles and rules of thumb in this essay.
So Principle Three to giving good advice is to show, don't tell.
Better yet, if we can walk the path with them, literally show them. For me that has been an even better way to do it. Like it says in the Bible, lead them to the lake if they want to fish. But we will also drop our own line and won't be doing the fishing for them. I think what the Bible actually said was, "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." Either way, it's much easier to teach people how to fish by showing them rather than telling them.
Another great tactic I have found when giving advice is to ask questions. Clarifying questions are very much encouraged. Many people don't really need our advice; they are just stuck and need someone to talk to.
That's why the very best advice out there leads the person to their own senses. Realizing that they have the key to their own lives and the solution to their problems means your "advice" is far more likely to work.
There is this great story from The War of Art that highlights exactly this:
"One night I had this dream:
I was part of the crew of an aircraft carrier. Only the ship was stuck on dry land. It was still launching its jets and doing its thing, but it was marooned half a mile from the ocean. The sailors all knew how screwed up the situation was; they felt it as a keen and constant distress. The only bright spot was there was a Marine gunnery sergeant on board nicknamed "Largo." In the dream it seemed like the coolest name anyone could possibly have. Largo. I loved it. Largo was one of those hard-core senior noncoms like the Burt Lancaster character, Warden, in From Here to Eternity. The one guy on the ship who knows exactly what's going on, the tough old sarge who makes all the decisions and actually runs the show.
But where was Largo? I was standing miserably by the rail when the captain came over and started talking to me. Even he was lost. It was his ship, but he didn't know how to get it off dry land. I was nervous, finding myself in conversation with the brass, and couldn't think of a thing to say. The skipper didn't seem to notice; he just turned to me casually and said, "What the hell are we gonna do, Largo?"
I woke up electrified. I was Largo! I was the salty old Gunny. The power to take charge was in my hands; all I had to do was believe it."
In software engineering, we call finding the solution through conversation rubber ducking. Engineers sometimes keep a rubber duck on the desk. When we face a really tough technical problem, we talk to the duck. Of course, the duck can't talk and does not give us any advice. The duck certainly does not know how to solve tough technical problems. But somehow, the tough problem gets solved, and it's because what we needed was tangled up inside of us the whole time.
So Principle four is that the best advice of all might be no advice at all. It might be just helping the other person find what they need inside themselves.
I like to ruminate that I wish I had someone to advise me when I was in my 20s. I would've loved to have a mentor tell me how to invest in real estate and avoid certain mistakes. I daydream about how great it might have been to have someone advise me on my career. How much faster I might've moved up.
But then I think about all the 20-year-olds today and how much good advice is all around them if they want it. And I am reminded that great advice is all around us too, but we have to want it.
Three Articles I loved this week:
This article by The Pragmatic Engineer is wonderful on so many levels. It embodies the show don't tell approach to career advice.
It highlights how Nivia Henry navigated her unconventional career, but it has so many insights for others trying to break into Tech.
You may know that I am a huge fan of the Pragmatic Engineer in this newsletter. And I highly recommend it, and you should also know that I would never recommend something to you if I didn't believe in myself.
Few publications go into this sort of detail in the careers of others. But more should because Tech is one of the most powerful forces I know of at getting people out of poverty and into wealth. It got my entire family and me out of poverty.
Speaking of things I believe in, my friend Chris Wong whom I run The Newsletter Launchpad and I met through Write of Passage, is an incredibly underrated writer and thinker.
This latest edition of his newsletter on modern Online Courses will give you a glimpse into why.
You should subscribe to it; it will make you smarter. I know it does that for me.
I came across this wonderful older article by Derek Sivers again this week, and you may have read it, but it is one of those pieces you can read again and get inspiration.
It’s a reminder that you can run this race of life at any pace you want.
Three Tweets that got me thinking this week:
Mortgage payments are up for new home buyers and not by a little bit. By a lot. Rents are up, and utilities and all expenses are up.
There is no question we are in uncharted territory economically.
An interesting stat that proves the funding environment of the last decade has not been good for the public markets and retail investors.
Massive VC funds kept tech companies private for much longer, all so they could extract the last bit of value before they hit the public stock markets.
For many of these firms, it might've been better to go public at sane valuations and grow at sustainable paces.
I loved this thread on wolves because it highlights how everything is connected.
Wolves disappearing from the Yellowstone national park had bad effects all around. But, reintroducing even a small number of them had outsized effects on everything, even plant life.
This sounds crazy, but second-order effects tend to be very crazy.
Two Memes I loved this week:
I love this meme, while I am not yet in my 40s, I have for sure not been in the gym for a while.
And I will let you be the judge if I have dad calves or not. This is a picture from our family vacation last week:
I have some good friends and former colleagues from Australia, and I know this meme is a little messed up but its too good not to share.
Thank you for reading. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.
P.S. a reminder you can reply directly to email@example.com, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org about this edition or any topics you’d like to discuss.
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