In my career as a scientist and again in the world of business, I was often met with unsolicited advice and opinions. The advice ranged from how to progress my career, run a business and generally how I should approach life. There was so much advice and the advisors were so convincing. Regrettably, there were times when I followed advice from senior professionals without doing my homework, only to receive a poor outcome. This is why it is important to know how to qualify advice from others, to protect yourself.
While I am grateful for the lessons learned, my life would have been less complicated and less stressful, had I been given the tools and knowledge to qualify the advice received from others. So, the aim of this article is to give you some tools to help you qualify advice from others.
People generally mean well when giving others advice. However, even well-intentioned remarks can be detrimental to your career, business or personal life.
Good intentions can end poorly when the advice is not well suited to your situation, the person is not an expert, the person has some expertise but has not worked directly on the things they are advising on and other scenarios where the “expert” or “advisor” does not qualify their statements.
Qualifying something means, the relevance is assessed and explained before something happens. In the case of advice, it means you are made aware of the limits of the advice and possible bad things that may arise from following it.
For example, You take your electric vehicle to your dad’s car mechanic to investigate a rattle. The mechanic works mainly with petrol and diesel vehicles, so on welcoming you to the shop he will say “I have 40 years of experience with petrol and diesel engines, but haven’t worked on these types of cars before. I can have a quick look but you might be better off going to the mechanics that specialize in these electric vehicles.”
As an expert in his field, he knows the limit of his knowledge and expertise and is comfortable saying he doesn’t know something. Before he does anything, he explains his knowledge is limited and offers that others may be better placed to help you. He does this to ensure you make an informed decision.
An informed decision means you have all the information you need, both good and bad, to be able to weigh the pros and cons of the options to qualify the advice before making a decision.
Responsible professionals and experts will generally do this because they want you to have a good outcome and don’t want to give you the wrong advice. The other important reason they do this is because giving advice in an area that they are not experts in, can hurt their business and cause reputational damage. An expert knows that people talk more about poor experiences than good, so they want you to have a good experience with them.
History has many cases where a person took the advice from someone about how to invest their money, only to find that particular investment strategy did not work for them because the advice was not tailored to their situation.
Below are questions you should ask yourself when receiving advice (even from an expert) with reasons why they are important. You may read the information and think, “no one is that mean”, “I trust my work friends and family, this advice is too skeptical” and “surely professionals don’t behave like that” but you should remember that some of those wanting to get ahead in life take the approach that “it’s business, not personal”. These are important questions you should keep in mind when receiving and seeking information to qualify advice.
What is the person’s intention?
If the person is a peer or person working in the same field, you may want to ask if they are giving you advice because they have gone through similar and are protecting you from harm, or if they are telling you not do something because they don’t want you to do it, and are trying to reduce competition.
If you hire an expert but they seem to only offer you options that keep you coming back on a monthly basis, rather than give you the tools to do what you need- you should ask if they are creating a dependence, instead of giving you expert advice that enables you to work independently.
What is their claim of expertise and how long have they been an expert?
Working in product development, I heard many claims of expertise. Many times the person giving the advice or calling themselves an expert had only worked on a component of a product or worked in some part of the product development process but had not developed a commercially viable product end-to-end. There were also “experts” who developed products that were not viable and never sold units, who were selling advice on how to conduct product development…
When faced with experts proposing to give you advice, it’s good to ask details about their expertise. Ask them how long they have worked in the field and how many clients they have had. It’s also okay to ask how many people have succeeded under their guidance.
If they are laying out a path for you, it’s okay to ask why they think this path will work and ask what the other options are.
Here’s another example, a career advisor from a University may say you need to do your honors and masters immediately after your degree, but this path may not be necessary if you want to work in industry. You may also find that work experience gives you a better understanding of what you want to do before choosing your honors project.
In this scenario you should be aware that the establishment wants you to keep studying for as long as possible because it brings in money for them. While their courses will be valuable in different ways, your choice of when and how you take a course should be up to you. You are the one who has to pay the bills and consider reduced employment options while studying full time, so it is important to understand the bigger picture.
Does their expertise relate to the advice given?
In business you see many people claim they have been in business for “X” amount of years, but they seldom tell you what their expertise was. For example, a person who ran a hedge trimming business may be able to give general advice about running a business, but may not be best placed to tell a catering business or hair salon how to run their operations because the regulatory requirements, clients, equipment and other business-related information will be very different. What they can advise on is how to setup billing and payments, suggest legal and accounting services and give other general business advice.
When buying a house, your friends and relatives will have advice based on their own experience. It is valuable to hear how people approached saving, negotiating on sale price and preparing to take a loan. However, they may have had different financial support and other requirements that made them choose the location, price point, size, etc. All of these are reasons why it’s important to filter out what is not relevant to your own situation (i.e. qualify information) when receiving advice.
Have did they advise others? What was the result? If it went poorly, what went wrong and why?
These are my favorite questions to ask because a seasoned, well measured expert will happily tell you when things went wrong, why and how they fixed it. A person who is still learning the ropes, may feel less comfortable sharing their fails because they may still be learning and may not be equipped to troubleshoot.
Working in research and product development, I am quite familiar with the journey of trying different approaches and not always getting the results you want in the early stages. For example, you might want to make a material that is heat resistant but end up making it flexible and stretchy instead.
Without experience, you may look at that result and say it failed and we can’t use it. As an experienced person, I will say let’s write this experiment up and file it away so we can explore the options later. I know from experience that there may be several applications for this discovery and it’s important not to lose the results.
A popular word that has been making the rounds is “pivot”. All it means, is being flexible enough to adapt when things go wrong or the situation changes.
When you hire an expert or receive advice from one, you want to know that they have succeeded in spite of their challenges because of their flexible approach. This means they are open minded, great at problem solving and keep a cool head in a crisis.
Life is constantly bringing challenges and if you don’t have a safety net or are starting from a place of uncertainty, you need the certainty of experience from someone who has met different challenges and is able to advise based on this experience. If they have this, they will qualify their advice by telling you the limits of their knowledge, tailor their advice to your situation and help you troubleshoot when things go wrong.
If your expert isn’t able to answer your questions and feels that you are challenging their knowledge, you should thank them for their time, move away slowly and filter out any advice that was not relevant to your situation.