Thoughts on advice

I've been thinking about a phenomenon that I'm certain happens to everyone. A wise soul gives you advice, you don't heed it for various reasons, and after a period of time (days, months, years) you have an insight about your life or a problem that turns out is equivalent to the advice that was handed to you. You regret your foolishness at ignoring the wise soul and tell yourself that it won't happen again. And it happens again.

Sometimes you might overcorrect, and become overly sensitive and responsive to advice. The wise souls were right after all! All these wise souls must be right about most things. So you take the words espoused by these wise souls and start abiding by their words like commandments of a religion. You might see some of the effects the wise souls are talking about, but you also start to see the happiness fade out of your life as the numerous commandments take over any flexibility, creativity, or freedom that you have in your life. It all reaches a crescendo and you break down, telling yourself to not do this again. The next day, a wise soul gives you advice, and you don't heed it for various reasons... Maybe this is why history tends to repeat itself.

It's important to note that there's a selection bias at play here. People are often asked what their greatest regrets are, but less often about the best advice they've been given. I also suspect that people are not very good at tracking what advice they're following and how useful certain advice actually is. For regrets, I think people do a better job at identifying advice that could have helped them, potentially a result of the risk-averse nature of humanity. Not that people are always great at this, I think not heeding advice like "work hard" is hardly a regret worth sharing.

Maybe all or some of this applies to you, but all of it has applied to me at some point of time. This represents to me a flaw in the communication between generations and leak in generational knowledge flow. Fixing this can help society improve; after all, the value of good, well-followed advice compounds over time.

Whose responsibility is it to fix this? I'm sure it's both the wise soul and the advisee. There are numerous bad articles about the advisee online, how kids don't listen to their adults anymore, how kids are spoilt know-it-alls, etc. I tend to disagree with these opinions. I think the advisees these days are smarter and more well-aware of the flaws in wise souls. They are less likely to accept general platitudes that don't seem to be useful to them or that appear to be thought-killers. "Respect your elders", "Patience is key", "Practice makes perfect", etc. might be examples of great advice, but in the rest of this piece, I will argue that advice like this is poorly explained and presented. We should try to change this so that more people, both young and old, truly understand it so that they can make a better decision on how (and whether) to follow it.

I think good advice should:

  • Explain what the advice is.

  • Explain why the advice should be followed.

  • Explain the conditions when the advice should and should not be followed.

  • Provide examples of people who follow the advice.

  • Outline the values underlying the advice.

  • Describe your personal progression in following the advice. Describe common pitfalls, their causes, and how to overcome them (you might still be trying to follow it).

  • Ensure that the individual believes that you have their best interests (not just yours) in mind.

  • Respect the agency of the individual.

Explain what the advice is.

This part is simple, this is the part which most people do successfully, communicate the main general point of the advice that applies to the most situations. These often sound like vague platitudes, because everyone has heard a lot of advice before. A lot of generic advice is probably useful and true. However, stopping here would result in most people ignoring the advice. I think the other criteria are critical for making it stick.

Example: Slow and steady wins the race. Slow down, and you will succeed.

Explain why the advice should be followed.

This is critical. Provide a causal mechanism which explains how following the advice will achieve the goals of the individual (or help them find new goals). This will make the advice seem more concrete and feasible to follow as the rewards are 'in sight'.

Example: When you're too fast, your mind does not have any breathing room and engages in repetitive behaviors that might have worked in the past. It also cannot think or process clearly, as it is focused on executing the actions involved in the task, such as reading, typing, writing, etc. When you slow down, you allow your mind to think. You'll find that your mind can't help but reflect and process the information you are engaging with.

Explain the conditions when the advice should and should not be followed.

No advice is without constraints. Without explaining the limitations of advice, the individuals is expected to apply the advice all the time or figure it out themselves. This is almost an impossible task for individuals who needed the advice to begin with. Sometimes the constraints are implicit in the context the advice was given. It can still help to explicitly outline the constraints, as the implicit constraints in the individuals head might be narrower or broader than the constraints you intend the advice to have.

Example: Make sure you're not unnecessarily slowing yourself down. While I think most situations call for some slowness, if not for your peace of mind, don't slow down on well practiced tasks that you can already achieve high quality on. You might also be bored when deliberately slowing down on certain tasks. Sometimes this is might be a cue to think more deeply about what you're doing and to embrace the moment. Sometimes it's a sign that you're moving slower than you need to. Also, some things are more fun when fast. Don't slow down then, just keep your mind and body safe!

Provide examples of people who follow the advice.

This makes the advice infinitely concrete. Having a person to think about allows people to attribute the advice to the properties of the person. Often times, the individuals mentioned have other good qualities or habits that the advisee would like to adopt, so you can get a lot of change this way.

Example: Many smart people love to talk and play with ideas, even ideas that they already know by heart. Take Richard Feynman, who enjoys teaching basic physics to the public or Carl Sagan, whose career was a professor but wrote books in his free time, sharing his wonder of the cosmos to the masses. These activities are not quite the high intensity activities for experts as they might be to us non-experts, but I think there is no doubt that their deep reflections on the basics of their fields have provided strong support for their academic work.

Outline the values underlying the advice.

This ensures that people understand where the advice is coming from, and whether they should pick it up. Often times, advice about "success" is aimed at increasing one's net worth. Advice from people who hold such values is meaningless for those who hold more worthwhile values. Yet if the values are not mentioned, one might mistake incongruent advice as the way to act in accordance to their values.

Example: Being slow and steady is not necessarily value-laden advice, but it works well with my values. I value a life full of qualify, I love consuming works of art that have a lot of thought behind them, I love pondering about their implications or emotions, I value understanding how I work and how I think, I believe it allows me to become a better person, and being slow helps these tasks tremendously.

Describe your personal progression in following the advice. Describe common pitfalls, their causes, and how to overcome them.

This tip only applies if you are providing advice that you follow. One does not simply drop whatever they are doing and heed the words of others. There is often a progression, and a story involving success and failure. Describe your progression so they know that hope is not lost if they are not perfect.

Example: Initially it was hard, as I was not used to having so much time to think without having something in front of me to think about. However, over time, I learned to enjoy it and now I explicitly seek out slow moments, such as reading a book, cooking a meal, or taking a walk outside. I regressed often, as old habits die hard. My computer and mobile phone were often the cause, and I turned of notifications on my phone and wrote a website blocker on my computer to force myself to be slow. I would say it is working, as I no longer frequently check on the websites with infinite content that make me restless and impatient.

Ensure that the individual believes that you have their best interests (not just yours) in mind.

This does not always apply, definitely not in the case of the running example in this post. Sometimes advice given to people benefits you. An example would be when an PhD advisor tells their students that they should work harder and into the weekends (this is not good advice). In cases like these, it is responsibility of the advisor to convince the advisee that it is in their own best interest, and that it is their choice.

Respect the agency of the individual.

Hard handed advice that sounds like an order can often have opposite effects, especially for those with rebellious personalities like myself. There is a careful balance between checking in on the advisee often enough so that they don't forget, but not too often that they start to see you as a burden. If they choose to not follow your advice, that's totally fine. You should resume your relationship with them like it has always been, and prevent any awkwardness that might occur. Advice takes time to soak in, and if not now, maybe the next time it is given, it will soak in just right. It's up to them to accept it, after all.