A 60-something friend known for her wonderful design sense tells this story:
Since I was a child I’ve loved putting things together—table settings, shelves, furniture, colors. I dreamed of becoming an interior designer. But while still in high school I talked with a professional and she discouraged me. She said there were already too many interior decorators. So I never pursued my dream.
Let’s set aside the issue of whether there really was an oversupply of interior decorators 45 years ago. The matter on the table today is “advice.”
Knowing how to find good advice and how to tell when advice is good or bad are life skills that can take years to master. Here are some tips to shorten your learning curve:
1. Ask more than one person. This is the golden rule of advice-taking! No one human, no matter how experienced or smart or well-meaning, is going to know all the facts, especially as they pertain to you. What’s more, you’ll be amazed at how often you receive conflicting advice. It’s proof that there are many ways to pursue any one goal.
[See how to find a mentor.]
2. Seek out advisers who are successfully managing their own lives and careers. Sounds obvious, but how often do you hear of “investment advisers” who own financial lives are a shambles? You may need to be a bit of a detective. Ask for recommendations. And use your own good common sense. Some people project a success that does not hold up upon closer scrutiny. In fact, be a bit suspicious of people whose lives look too perfect.
3. Try to find advisers who have your best interests at heart. Did you suspect that the professional interior decorator above was more interested in discouraging potential competition than in helping a young person with her career? Other motives are less nefarious, but never forget that anyone’s perspective is colored by his background, level of success, personal demons, world view, and what he had for breakfast that day.
4. Consider your own motives, too. If you find yourself resisting advice that most people think is sound, ask yourself why. Maybe you currently lack the confidence to step from the known to the unknown. Maybe you’re on the wrong path. Understanding yourself and your capabilities is key to evaluating the input of others.
5. Be open to input from a variety of sources. Talk to people outside your field for a fresh perspective. And don’t limit yourself to graybeards with forty years of experience. You can often get great advice from people only four or five years ahead of you—they will remember what it was like to be where you are now and may have some very practical things to suggest.
6. Don’t ignore naysayers. People who always see the bad in everything, or who simply don’t like you, can occasionally be the source of invaluable advice. Naysayers quickly hone in on potential problems. And people who "don’t like you” may say things—true things—about your work or your ideas that friends won’t say for fear of hurting your feelings.
7. Take notes. Some people love being asked their opinion and will give you way more information than you expected. You won’t be able to take it all in, much less remember it later, so write it down and study it later. However, beware of an adviser who does all the talking. Good advisers are good listeners. A good adviser asks questions, tries to understand you and your goals, and serves as a sounding board for your own ideas.
8. Look as well as listen. Sometimes successful people are unable to pinpoint why they are successful. But if you study their actions in addition to listening to their words, you might discover their secrets.
9. Just because you ask for advice doesn’t mean you have to follow it. Do you worry that your advisors will be miffed if you ignore their words of wisdom? Well, maybe they will. But it’s your life and your career, and you are the one who has to live with your decisions.
Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.