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5 Ways to Tell If You're Getting Great Advice

When you hear it, advice is just that, advice. You only know if it's great after the fact. Wouldn't it be great if you knew in advance?

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The father of my college girlfriend once told me that digital electronics--semiconductors, to be specific--was going to be huge. That was in 1978. I had nothing better going on at the time so I went back to school, got a masters degree in electrical engineering, got into the high-tech industry, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Great advice can be priceless. The only problem is, when you hear it, it's just plain advice. You only know if it's great after the fact. Sometimes, as in the case of my college story, a very long time after the fact. Wouldn't it be great if you could tell if the advice you're getting is good or not? Well, you can. There are just certain factors I've learned to pay attention to. Some are logical; others are instinctive.

With that in mind, here's my advice for you. Will it be great? I think so. But, as we both know, only time will tell. Here are five factors that will help you determine if the advice you're getting will turn out to be great. They've never failed me yet.

What's your state of mind? This is an internal factor that has nothing to do with the person you're listening to, but it's a critical one, nevertheless. I've gotten what turned out to be life-changing advice a handful of times. And each time, the best way to describe my state of mind was desperate. I believe that's when you're most receptive and open to ideas, to change. That's when advice speaks to you. That, I believe, is also why necessity is the mother of invention.

Listen to your gut. Intuition may sound like a vague concept, but it can be a powerful tool in decision-making. If you can just be in the moment and focus on what the other person is saying without thinking, without judging or filtering it, you can listen with your feelings. If you can't do that in real time, then try to do it after the fact, when you're alone and it's quiet. Yes, I know it sounds like mystical mumbo jumbo. It's not. It's called mindfulness and it's science.

Consider the source. This is where things get a bit more logical. If the other person has a vested interest in the outcome, especially a financial one, forget it. Don't listen. Ever. Also, if he's not a subject matter expert--and clearly successful at it--forget it. My former girlfriend's father was the chairman of a semiconductor company. He was a successful investor with a nice home, a good family, and a Porsche. So I listened.

Can you corroborate it? Indeed, the chairmen of the physics and graduate electrical engineering departments thought I was making a good move. If you can't corroborate the advice, at least apply some reasoning. Does it follow from reasonable data, assumptions, and observations? That carries a lot of weight. If, on the other hand, you're going to apply your gut instinct on top of somebody else's shoot from the hip advice, then you're likely to reach a random conclusion. Not such a good idea.

Consider the risk. What have you got to lose? Back in 1978 I had a physics degree that was worthless, more or less, and few options. The advice looked and felt solid and there wasn't much of a downside, so I took it. All the arrows pointed in the right direction. When that happens, take the risk. Otherwise, assess it as best you can. If you're young and you have time to recover, I would always err on the side of taking risks. That's good advice, for sure.

Last updated: Feb 22, 2013

STEVE TOBAK is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
@SteveTobak




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