Learning from Advice

April 16, 2019

College is a pretty stressful and uncertain time. And if you’ve heard anything about how cut-throat an environment Penn is, then you know how much people worry about their futures. Am I freaking out a bit? Are my friends freaking out a bit? Yea. But this essay isn’t about commiserating that experience directly. It’s about what we do when we face these uncertain times. Usually, we look for answers on Google, in churches, older peers, parents, and even fortune cookies. We look to anyone and anything that might have pertinent advice. Yet for all the so-called advice we get, why doesn’t much of it seem to stick?

When I ask for advice, I'm in a moment of semi-crisis or with someone who I think knows more than me. Hearing a piece of seemingly insightful advice is excellent instant gratification. Regardless of the quality of advice, anything that sounds remotely confirmatory of my planned direction gives my brain a small dose of dopamine. If I have a notebook handy, I might even write it down. But after a while I forget that piece of advice and move on with my life just as before. Until, of course, I invariably do the same thing all over again—ask, feel good, forget. When I ask for advice, I actually do want to improve my live trajectory. So that’s not that a very helpful cycle.

Advice is something that’s been gained through years of experience, and that’s how it’s should be applied. Advice is a little kernel that we are supposed to carry and ingrain in our minds, a habit or behavioral change that we should make. Yet in the moment of asking for advice, in our minds, we do something that’s called substitution. Because the question of how we will feel in mid-to-long term future is so cognitively hard (impossible?) to forecast, we substitute that hard question with the easy question of how we feel the moment after we receive a piece of advice.

Knowing that we have to be aware not to continue a cycle of taking advice is a good start, but it’s also pretty general. In the end, taking advice and acting upon it is about building new habits. Since there’s already mountains of literature out there about building habits, I won’t go into it. Deciding to take advice and change a habit is also a step past where advice can trip us up. Bad advice implemented well can lead us down an American Beauty-style midlife crisis.

In general, advice from books is probably better than from a person. Books older than 50 years old and ones with ancient wisdom are extremely helpful. They give time-tested advice with the intuition/experience behind it. And when moving on to seeking wisdom from people, make sure to keep track of how much that person knows their domain before taking their advice. When someone is older or seems to have more esteem, it's hard not to get sucked in by their halo. If the advice is delivered confidently, it's harder to discount the advice even though it's often guess work from their end. Even if they do somewhat know what they are doing, be wary of how they came across their advice. The environment in which advice is sought and experience earned matters. Wicked environments are those where individuals can learn the wrong lesson from participating. A broad example of this is the 2001 dot-com crash. A whole swath of people learned from this time that tech is a bad investment, something that we can see now is not true. This applies to investing or any highly random, low feedback environment--(finding a soulmate, landing a dream job??).

Take advice from people whose shoes people want to be in. The future is indeterminate. In ten years, I could see myself as a startup entrepreneur, a VC, or even doing something in public policy. Therefore the cross-section of people that I'd seek advice career advice from is large. After asking and compiling advice from multiple sources, I try to discern the experience behind the advice, look for ways in which the advice breaks, make sure the incentives of people dispensing advice align with mine, and not ask for more advice before changing my own behavior. And in the case that their advice conflicts, as it often will, I will just go with my gut. I do this because I know that it probably either I'm asking for the wrong advice or that the decision point of the advice leads is inconsequential, or both. Not overanalyzing the situation can be tough when deciding whether or not to drop out of school. In the case that their own actions conflict with their own advice, it matters even less what course of action we take. Advice is just a data point as every situation is different. Being able to live with your decision is what's most important in the end (Thanks Demps).