I quit my dream job at a tech company a few years ago when I realized it didn’t fit my true personality. I left without a plan and broke the news to my family.
I was suddenly the recipient of more unsolicited advice than I knew what to do with. A career coach recommended jobs to suit my strengths. Bestsellers and blog posts told me to start my own online business or jump to a startup. Pieces of advice that were delivered with total confidence pointed me in opposite directions. And when too many people agreed on one thing, I worried that it could be the type of popular wisdom—like “get a prestigious tech gig”—that would lead me back to the trap I’d just escaped.
At the exact moment I needed advice more than ever, but I had no idea how to process it.
That’s when I started learning how to really take advice—how to listen to it, how to understand it, and how to use any piece of advice, good or bad, to my advantage.
And that’s what this piece is about: Tried and true advice on how to take advice.
The first step in making advice work for you is to understand your own goals and needs. The more in touch you are with what you want and the obstacles that hold you back, the more sophisticated and grounded you’ll become in processing feedback.
You can learn about your needs by talking to experts and taking personality tests, but sometimes it’s most effective to simply spend 30-60 minutes thinking about what you want in your life and why it’ll make you happy.
For example, if you’re considering a career change, try the following thought exercise:
* Imagine your ideal lifestyle by walking through a typical Tuesday, from the time and place you wake up to the time and place you go to sleep.
* Examine each of its characteristics. Do you have job security? Do you get no-pants Tuesdays? Do you have an impressive job title to blow away your friends? Are you physically active from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.?
* For each characteristic, ask yourself, Why do I want that?
* Keep asking Why? over and over again. Maybe you’ll find that you want to exercise from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. because you just like exercise, but maybe you’ll find that it’s because you’re afraid of poor health in old age, and long-term security and comfort is actually a top priority for you.
* Becoming more self-aware (which is an ongoing process in and of itself) helps you discover your true self—the person actually listening to advice, and actually making decisions based on it.
Our ego is like a pair of glasses through which we filter the world, including the advice we hear. Every idea you encounter will be put through that filter, and might cause you to either overindulge or miss the information that comes your way.
This is totally normal. Your ego is especially on guard when getting advice or recommendations, because they directly affect your identity. If someone threatens your sense of self, the ego will work to defend itself. If someone hits a flattering note, the ego will feel validated and secure, and probably more receptive to the advice.
But what you need most when you listen to advice is just that: the ability to listen, without preconceived ideas, biases, defenses or beliefs. In the moment you receive feedback, the best thing you can do is simply hear the information as information—to entertain ideas you would normally dismiss, and to remain objective about ideas you already believe. Later, you’ll process that information with as much or as little ego as you like.
So how do you suspend your ego? The first step is simply to observe. The next time someone gives you feedback, just notice any resistance you have. Check for tendencies to:
* Get defensive about your past choices.
* Feel competitive or compare your achievements to others.
* Dismiss recommendations out of hand or protest a solution with “I’ve already done that.”
* Shut down or feel like you’re being treated like a kid.
* Feel sorry for yourself or misunderstood.
* Vent about your current situation.
The moment these signs of ego arise, you can notice them, create some distance, and refocus on taking the advice at face value.
By being open, you’ll take advantage of the full spectrum of advice that comes your way and be more likely to find the gems that change your life. Later, you can use your beliefs, priorities and past experience to filter and harness the advice you like. But in the moment, setting aside the ego is a crucial part of filtering in the best feedback.
In a letter to a friend who had asked him for advice, Hunter S. Thompson wrote that “all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it.”
People’s feedback is always informed by their life experiences, beliefs, assumptions, and (this is important!) relationship to you. Feedback—even great feedback—is never objective. It’s inextricably linked to the source.
Which means it’s your responsibility to be aware of that source and navigate feedback accordingly.
First, take a moment to figure out someone’s agenda when talking to you. Every source of advice has some sort of agenda—to sell you something (authors), to approve of you (friends), to feel proud of your choices (parents), to keep you around (bosses and significant others.) That doesn’t mean all advice is ill-intentioned, only that all advice reflects certain beliefs and intentions. It’s our job to identify what those beliefs and intentions are, so we can put the feedback in context.
Next, make the most out of advice by connecting it to the person’s strengths and accomplishments. Ask yourself: What do I value in the person who’s giving me guidance? If you admire your boss’s management game, you might take his team-building advice to heart. You might choose to follow relationship advice from your happily married uncle instead of your Casanova cousin. You’ll probably want to follow a coach whose life reflects his philosophy.
The bottom line: If advice is the product of the man who gives it, then it’s crucial to understand just who that man is, and process the advice accordingly.
All advice has value. The question is whether you follow all of it, none of it, or part of it.
If someone gives you eight different recommendations, it’s highly possible that only a few ring true. At the same time, they might understand your problems perfectly—and articulate them better than you ever could—but the solution they’ve come up with feels misguided.
This is where self-awareness and sensitivity to the source come into play once again. If you can appreciate the bits and pieces of advice that speak to you based on your own internal compass, you can get great advice from all sources, even ones that don’t entirely serve you. As we often say on The Art of Charm Podcast, “Take what works and leave the rest.”
So let’s replace the all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to feedback. There isn’t “right” and “wrong” feedback, so much as varying degrees of usefulness. Pieces of advice can be immensely valuable, even if it doesn’t work for you as a whole. Taking that view will allow you to find value everywhere, even in seemingly unhelpful places.
If there’s no “bad” advice—since you can always extract value from individual pieces—then it’s also true that you can benefit from advice you disagree with.
One of our Art of Charm alumni, once met with a huge investor to discuss his new start-up. The investor told him right off the bat that his product was a poor fit with the market. Instead of serving restaurant customers, the investor wanted him to serve restaurant owners. He left the meeting in total doubt, wondering if he should completely retool his business.
So he marinated for a few days, discussed the conversation with his partners, and realized something simple but profound: he didn’t want to follow the investor’s vision. His passion was serving restaurant patrons. He had no expertise or interest in building sales software for restaurants. He thanked the investor for the advice and returned to building his original product.
What he gleaned from that meeting, he says, was an alternative point of view that challenged his thesis and forced him to reevaluate his strategy. By meditating on this investor’s advice, though, he remembered why he was driven to build the business he originally set out to build. He got some advice that he fundamentally disagreed with, and yet it ended up helping him nonetheless.
So what can you learn from bad advice? In short, anything you choose to take away from it.
Feedback you fundamentally disagree with can give you new confidence, by forcing you to reconsider your position. It can strengthen your strategy, by encouraging you to revisit your assumptions. Sometimes it can even give you a laugh or a dose of optimism, if the advice is particularly out of left field.
Once you let go of the right-or-wrong, all-or-nothing view of feedback, you’re free to capitalize on all ideas, whether or not you ultimately decide to pursue them.
There’s nothing more tempting than jumping on an exciting idea, especially when it comes in the form of good advice.
But one of the most important stages in processing advice is giving yourself space and time to sit with the information, assimilate it, and apply it in the right way. Moving quickly can be gratifying (especially if you were in a rut before you encountered the advice), but it can easily create new problems to resolve.
Interestingly, this also applies to advice we don’t like. Sometimes we need distance to discover that advice we initially distrusted is actually correct—or, as we’ve discussed above, valuable in parts.
So when you get a piece of advice, give yourself some time to process before taking action. Twenty-four hours is a good baseline, but every decision requires a different amount of distance to make the right move.
Of course, time is only one factor. Talking out your decision with trusted friends and colleagues is also essential. Listening to your internal compass and observing how conditions change in the meantime are key. Space might also be a useful factor. There’s a reason people take vacations and executives hold off-site retreats: physical distance also helps us get some objectivity while opening up our worldview.
Whatever the situation, consider buffering advice with time and space, and avoid acting (or reacting) after the initial charge of new advice. Staying level-headed about advice is key to making smart decisions, and spreading out those decisions is an excellent way to pursue advice while remaining stable and self-aware.
And that is how to take advice—good or bad, useful or unuseful, relevant or random—and use it to make great decisions.