Once upon a time, we were told that advice is good, particularly if it comes from someone older and wiser. “A person who does not listen to advice is a fool,” we have often heard. The assumption is that everyone who dispenses advice is wise and well-meaning. However, real life experience teaches us otherwise – not all advice is good. All advice, no matter how good it seems and who it comes from, should be evaluated and taken in context as it is often clouded by other factors. This instalment, while not exhaustive, will assess some of the factors that influence advice doled out by people.
Temperament and personality
Who we are affects our actions. We give advice based on our perception and how we would react if faced with a similar situation. Our personalities permeate the advice we give, for example, the four temperaments of melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic and sanguine and their various combinations . When faced with a difficult situation, the choleric would probably tackle it head on, the melancholic would go through some introspection before dealing with it, the sanguine would look for a pleasant distraction and the phlegmatic would do everything to avoid confrontation. Temperament affects our behaviour and is likely to influence the type of advice we give. I am a melancholic-choleric and this seeps through the advice I give.
A lot of times, our background affects our decision making processes and consequently the advice we give. Often, people give advice based on what they have seen all their life because that is all they know. In the book “The Dreamgiver ,” by Bruce Wilkinson, Ordinary dares to leave the Land of Familiar to pursue his Big Dream. However, he meets much resistance from those in Familiar who do not understand why he wants to divert from the norm. “If it is working well, why disturb the system?” or “We have always done it this way” are all too common sayings.
Our experience – whether past or present – affects our perception and the advice we dispense. I know of a lady who became very bitter after her fiancé stood her up at the altar on their wedding day. The bitterness colours her paradigm and subsequently the advice she gives. Similarly, someone who is undergoing marital distress because of an unfaithful spouse will likely have negative perceptions of marriage and discourage a couple who are excited about their wedding.
A naturally chirpy and optimistic person, I often find myself being discouraged by such people and have to remind myself that I need not relive their negative experiences. Once, I found myself in a heated argument with a colleague who was trying to discourage me from buying a small car because she argued that they had a tendency of going under trucks and I could be killed. I disregarded the advice, bought the cute little car and in all my years of driving it did not once find myself under a truck. My colleague meant well and had seen a number of newspaper articles about such accidents. However, it did not follow that I would be among those statistics – not all people who drive small cars will be involved in an accident and find themselves under trucks. Just because it happened to one person does not mean it will happen to all.
Whether we know it or not, whatever advice people give is coloured by their perception. This is at varying levels. First, there are people who are generally negative and poke holes in everything without advancing a better option. The optimist will encourage and the pessimist may discourage because that is the lens through which they see the world.
Second is the person’s perception of you. If they have decided you are foolish, they will treat you as such and based on the assumption that you cannot possibly think of anything intelligent. On the other hand, if they hold you in high esteem, they may encourage you to carry out a foolish idea simply because they assume that you are incapable of making silly mistakes.
Regardless of what influences their perception, the bottom line is such people will either raise you or put you down. The best is to keep away from those who either view you negatively or are generally pessimistic. On the other hand, try to be more objective with advice from those who think too highly of you. These cheerleaders could unintentionally cheer you into a disaster if you are not careful.
Also, be aware that we have such different perceptions that what may appear like the road to hell for once person could actually lead someone else to heaven on earth.
Level of knowledge
Some people mean well but simply lack the information and knowledge to be good advisers. They may want to see you rise but have insufficient information to give effective advice. Someone who is an expert in one area is not necessarily one in everything. Just because someone gave you good advice about what car to buy based on their mechanical engineering background doesn’t mean they will necessarily give sound advice about investments. Don’t be a victim of other people’s ignorance no matter how well their intentions. Some people are confident despite their ignorance and can give very misleading advice.
Also, don’t just seek advice from everyone. Once, on the way to an assignment at an unfamiliar place, the driver and I got lost so we asked people close by for directions. The first person we asked was a young man who did not say much but pointed to the north indicating that was the direction we should go. We drove northwards but did not find the place so we asked the next person and he pointed south and we drove in that direction. In a place where there was a language barrier and we did not have a map, we were at the mercy of those we met along the way. Finally, after the fourth person I asked the driver if he realised that none of the people we spoke to knew where we were going but they were all reluctant to admit it so they would just point in any direction. We nearly missed our assignment while going around in circles at the leading of people who wished to help but lacked information to do so. Our assumption that they knew the place we were looking for because they lived in that town and appeared confident was wrong. However, this is what sometimes happens when we look to people who lack knowledge and it applies to all aspects of life. Thankfully this was a minor issue but imagine if we had received misguided advice for a life-changing, long-term decision?! I know many people who made serious career mistakes because of the sources of advice they chose.
In another incident, I recently shared my thoughts about a plant I wanted at my place because I thought it would look beautiful. The person I was talking to immediately advised against it and told me it would draw snakes to my home. I have a phobia for snakes and considered abandoning the idea, but I was so in love with the plant and I kept seeing it everywhere. I wondered if all the yards with the plant were really harbouring reptiles. Finally, I worked up the courage to ask someone with a row full of those plants at her house and she was surprised at the theory. First, throughout her life with the plants at her home, she had not encountered a single snake. Secondly, it was her first time to hear that myth and third, the man who told me about the relationship between the plant and snakes does not have such plants at his home and may by some coincidence have seen a snake hiding behind the plant. However, that single incident did not translate to a tendency by snakes to gravitate towards the plant.
Sometimes people can create a box and try to force you to fit into it based on their limited knowledge about you. When I started studying for my Masters’ degree I briefly discussed the issue with a highly esteemed gentleman who seemed progressive. At that time, I had unwittingly settled for a junior position in a regional organisation from a senior position in a national organisation. I thought it was a good opportunity to break into the regional market and did not know that employers would judge me based on the position I occupied then, rather than what I had been in the past, despite all the details being chronicled in my curriculum vitae. I was desperately trying to get out of that position and a post graduate degree was part of the solution. I mentioned my studies to this man in passing. His response shocked me and led to the instant death of what a fledgling friendship.
“You’re ok with a first degree for your position. Why on earth do you need a Masters?” he asked. The man had judged me based on my current erroneous decision rather than my potential. He saw my present, yet I was looking at my future. He saw what I was then, yet I saw what I could become. I later learnt that he had an MBA and I found it strange that someone would try to prevent me from reaching a similar goal, as though I was born for a lower station in life. Looking back I realised we had always related from the position of a horse and a rider with him having the upper hand. It both saddened and angered me that he had tried to mislead me to maintain that status. Through that brief encounter, I learnt the painful truth that not everyone who gives advice means well and some people want to maintain an imaginary position of superiority. I also learnt that it helps to believe in myself and to be headstrong when faced by such people.
Not everyone means well
Human beings occasionally exhibit a characteristic called jealousy. Sometimes it manifests through the dispensing of harmful counsel coated as advice. Not everyone means well. Some people are wicked and find pleasure in watching other people stumble and fall while others are just mischievous. Also, some people may ill advise you so that you repeat the mistakes they made and they can find comfort in numbers. The human mind can sometimes conceive unfathomable evil.
Finally, the aim of this instalment is not to discourage people from taking advice. There are numerous benefits to taking advice. These including learning from other people’s knowledge, getting fresh ideas and avoiding repeating old mistakes, among others. The aim is simply to encourage people to be more objective in seeking and accepting advice, being mindful that counsel is influenced by various factors. Advisors are fallible human beings who just love to dispense advice, which can be either beneficial or detrimental. Sometimes these humans mean well but fall short. Evaluate advice and its intentions before accepting it because it will influence the decisions you make and ultimately, you will live with the consequences.