Warren Buffett's father told him not to go into securities. Oprah was warned moving to Chicago would destroy her career. Lyft co-founder John Zimmer was advised to give up on the transportation sector.
This isn't just due to ignorance or outdated information, though that's a huge issue. As investor Paul Graham has said, "When experts are wrong, it's often because they're experts on an earlier version of the world."
It's also because of systematic biases in how we ask for and dole out advice. Yale research shows people are more risk averse in their recommendations than in their own actions. Doctors recommend more screenings than they themselves get, and financial advisers are more aggressive on their own behalf than when managing clients' money. Other studies show we often seek out advice from those who are friendliest rather than those who are most competent.
What's the solution to these many issues? In a recent New York Times article, Wharton professor Adam Grant offers a radical if simple prescription -- stop giving advice.
Why you should stop giving advice
Wait, what? Don't collaboration and multiple viewpoints help improve our decisions? Of course they do, but as Grant points out in the piece, giving your input on an issue isn't the same as saying, "You should do this ... "
"When people come to us for advice, we can resist the urge to give them a single recommendation," he, well, advises. "People rarely need to hear our conclusion. They benefit from hearing our thought process and our perspective on the relevant criteria for making the choice. The most useful advice doesn't specify what to do; it helps people see blind spots in their thinking and clarify their priorities."
When someone comes to you for advice, you may want to offer an example from your own life to illustrate your way of thinking, Grant continues, but "make sure to qualify that it may or may not apply to them."
You could argue that this still constitutes "giving advice," but semantics aside Grant makes an important point. Each of us has our own unique set of talents, fears, values, and constraints. When someone comes to you for advice, it's near impossible to get a full picture of theirs. Which means it's near impossible to tell them what they should do. Therefore advice should not mean "telling people what to do."
Instead, provide a framework for making the decision. That way advice seekers can plug their own variables into your system and see what answer it spits out. This also offers them a chance to strengthen their own analytic and decision-making muscles.
Grant's complete article offers a lot more insight into what research has to say about how to both give and receive advice better, but even just this one takeaway could save a lot of heartache. Celebrity bad-advice stories are funny because we know they end well, but much bad advice doesn't. It ends with real regret.
Avoid steering those who ask for your wisdom onto dead-end streets and off on wild goose chases by being more thoughtful and humble in how you dish out guidance. Showing someone how to think through a problem for themselves beats telling them the right answer almost every time.