The art of getting good advice
Because when it comes to advice, there’s an awful lot out there
Because when it comes to advice, there’s an awful lot out there
If you’re looking, advice is everywhere. It’s the blog post telling you how to get your first 10,000 Instagram followers, the friend who tells you not to go after the guy, and the TED Talk on how to stand like superwoman.
But good advice—the kind that’s right for you and propels you forward—there’s an art to receiving that.
Good advice gives you clarity, a kind nudge (or push) forward, or the tools to take the step you need. To get it, you need to be able to spot it. You also need to be able to ask for it, or at least know when and where to go looking.
I’m trying to be more intentional about it, so I reverse engineered some of the best pieces of advice I’ve received. How did they happen? How could I make them happen again? And how much is just chance?
This is what I’ve learnt about getting good advice so far.
We need reassurance just as much as we need advice
Let’s begin with a brief side step. You might not even need advice. Often, what we really need, but struggle to admit, is reassurance.
It’s an important distinction to make because it will mean the difference between being disappointed when you don’t get the tenderness you need and finding clarity because you turned up knowing you might hear something challenging.
So, you’ll have to go in with your wits about you and ask yourself, What is it I actually need?
And then, dally a little so you can let your inner compass find the person whose wisdom or TLC you seek. Dally because your ideas are precious and not for everyone to see. For example, I might ask an artist friend to tell me what he thinks about some sketches, knowing that he will give me new ways to see things with some tenderness thrown in because he feels the vulnerability of making art too. On the other hand, the business advisor I hire to help me with a new website skips straight to pointy questions about the size of my target audience that I don’t have answers for yet. And that’s exactly why I hired him.
What good advisors have in common
When I think about one common thread that runs through the people who have given me the best advice, I land on this: they all seem to be about 10 to 15 years ahead of me.
People who are about a decade ahead of me have made the decisions I am about to make. They have lived through the results and can still reach back in time to the memory of being my age and feel empathy and excitement for me.
I first noticed this when I worked at a publishing house straight out of uni. I started out as a publicity intern and, to my great surprise, no one caught on to the fact that I didn’t actually know what a publicist did.
I sat opposite another publicist who was about 10 years ahead of me. She showed me patience and tenderness when I asked beginner questions like: What’s a tardis interview? And how do you tell an author that their book won’t be getting reviewed in a magazine but you still love them?
She could also see opportunities ahead of me. She pulled me aside before I interviewed for a permanent role at the end of the internship and suggested I focus on a part of the list that needed some TLC. It wasn’t rocket science but I didn’t know enough then to clue onto it.
This mix of wisdom and empathy has come to me over and over again—it’s become a compass for me when searching for advice in the first instance.
Good advice re-frames what you already know
Good advice isn’t always telling you something new. Often it’s simply reframing what you already know. We just need someone or something to bring it all into focus, a bit like a kaleidoscope.
I like to remind myself of this because it changes your stance. You don’t need to act like an empty well that needs to be filled from the bottom up. Despite what the self-help section of the bookshop is telling you in embossed letters, your years here on planet earth do count for something. Phew.
I forget this all the time, of course. Lucky for me, friends pull me into line. It happened recently on a trip to New York when I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years. We sat in a bar in East Village, a Manhattan and a glass of wine between us, giving one another the five-minute show reel of the past few years. I must have finished my update with a “What should I do now?” look on my face, because my friend then leaned in and said, “Shall I draw you a life map?”. I had no idea what this was, but of course I said yes.
She sat with a pen hovering above her notebook the way a reporter might, “Steph Stepan” written in biro at the centre of the page. What is it I want to make? Who do I want in my life? And so I babbled out all the things that swirl around in my head but make far less sense when I try to say them out loud.
When I finished, she read it back to me. She’d written the key things down, circled a few words and condensed it down so it all fitted on a piece of paper that was just bigger than the palm of her hand.
I felt like I was listening to fortune teller: You will do this in 2019, and you’ll find this here. She read it all out as though it was a prophecy.
But here’s the thing; she came up with none of this herself. I told her everything. I just needed someone to reflect it back at me with clarity.
What to do with good advice
Here’s what no one tells you: when a nugget of wisdom comes your way, you don’t need to take the whole thing. Just take what’s right for you.
This takes no small amount of grace. After all, you’ve humbly accepted that there are things you don’t know, searched for help, and now you’re getting picky about things. But of course you can’t take it all. Of course you must filter. Sometimes wisdom sounds great but doesn’t quite fit when you apply it to your own life.
With this in mind, I give all advice a Steph test. I look at the shiny piece of wisdom and give it a grateful nod while trying not to be too dazzled by it. I ask myself, does this line up with my personal values? And how about the context? If someone’s lived experience is wildly different from my own I might pause and reassess.
And when I’ve figured out what I want to take, I sit with it for a little, knowing what’s next. Because good advice is just a nod towards the way forward. It’s not the actual taking of the step. That bit’s still on you.
For it to be of any worth at all, you’ll have to act on it.
I find this to be both terrifying and reassuring. It means that in the end it doesn’t matter who you know or how well connected you are: You’re only as good as what you put into practice. So, go on then.