Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bending Over and Taking Advice

I give advice all the time, often without being asked.

A wise man (Baz Lurhmann) once said: Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

He's right. We feel we've earned our experience, and sharing it with others makes us feel good by believing we're helping someone else.

Because advice is more about the advisor than the advisee, most of it is useless.

Of course, this blog is a notable exception, and my words should be taken as gospel.

"But JA," the canny among you might say, "you can give advice, but can you take it?"


And no.

While everyone truly believes they have an open mind (they also believe they have a sense of humor and are an above-average driver), very few truly do. We're saddled with years of prejudicial, repetitive behaviors, and very little can make us entertain new ideas, let alone attempt them.

Anyone who has heard the story of how I got published knows my eureka moment was when I realized I didn't know what I was doing and starting looking critically at the situation and listening to others. In other words, I did the best I could to become a blank slate with an open mind.

My mind ain't so open any more.

The problem with being right is you take being right for granted, and assume one successful strategy means they're all successful.

Of course, they're not. Learning is about observing, asking questions, and experimenting with what works. It's not about getting an idea and automatically knowing it is the gospel truth.

So, like most people, I feel I know a lot. But I also try to listen to contrary viewpoints, and if possible, incorporate them.

For writers this is essential.

Since it's impossible to be objective about our own work, and our own careers, it's mandatory to get the advice of others. Family. Peers. Agents. Editors.

When they say things we automatically agree with, that's not very helpful. Sure, validation is nice. But you won't get better or smarter unless someone tells you what you're doing wrong.

It isn't easy being told you're wrong. But it is a wonderful opportunity to learn something.

When I'm given advice I don't agree with, here are some strategies I use to gauge its usefulness:

1. Consider the source. If the source is a trusted friend, or a respected peer, or an industry professional, I listen more closely. The importance of the person offering advice doesn't make the advice correct, but it does give it more weight than that overly-critical dunderhead in your writer's group or your Aunt Helga who keeps asking if you're rich yet.

2. Consider the intent. The best advice comes from people who have a good agenda. A flippant remark from a jealous sibling doesn't mean as much as a detailed critique by your agent, who is trying to sell your work.

3. Drop your guard. You can't hear advice when you're being defensive. Attacking the advisor turns it into an argument, not a discussion, and offering knee-jerk rebuttals is childish.

4. Listen. Listening is something that very few have mastered, but it is THE most powerful social skill. Completely hear the person out, and ask questions to clarify things.

5. Imagine. Think, really think, about the possible outcomes if you take this advice. Worst case scenario is you always learn something by trying it. Best case scenario is the advisor is 100% correct and just saved your ass.

6. Weigh. Advice, by its nature, usually goes contrary to what we're currently doing. In some cases, it gives us direction where there is none. But in many others, it asks us to change our direction. After you imagine where this advice might take you, you must weigh that against the path you're already following. Drop your pre-conceptions, and look at both ideas without ego. What are the pros and cons of each, and which will be better for you?

7. Act. You learn by experience. I think everyone should try just about anything at least once. Bias doesn't help you to grow. Denial doesn't help you to learn. Only through action can you truly understand cause and effect. If you like the advice, then take the advice rather than just dwell on it. I also believe that you should try taking advice that you don't necessarily like, just so you can study the outcome.

8. Thank them. Being grateful, and gracious, makes the advisor feel all warm and toasty, and ensures you'll be getting advice again.

I also need to add that giving advice, while cheap and easy, requires more than just an opinion and a big mouth. Many people don't want advice, so you should only give it when asked, or at least offer to give it before blurting it out. I try to give advice based on experience, rather than on hypothesis. This blog is about the things I've learned. Sure, there are also educated guesses, and my opinions are still subjective and hardly universal. My advice might even be flat-out wrong for you.

But if you want to know whether you should take my advice, you should take my advice about taking advice.