What makes people give you the advice they give?

I have been thinking about this specific topic I am writing about for a few years now. Over the past few months, as I establish life in a new city+country+journey, I have been personally experiencing it even more.

Understanding the power of context.

We all seek advice from others on some topic at some stage in life. However, the human brain has an incredible (and sometimes dangerous!) ability to selectively focus on certain types of advice. It does so not just on emotionally favourable advice, mind you, but just on certain type of advice.

So, how do we process advice we receive, and, more importantly, the mind’s tendency to latch on to certain types of advice, irrespective of its impact on our actions? In other words, how do we modulate ourselves to prevent extreme unintended repercussions of receiving advice?

Let me get a little more specific.

When you decide you want to buy a house (let us call it your internal input), you go around soliciting advice from parents/friends/mentors (call themexternal inputs) on whether it is a right decision, whether now is the right time, whether where your city is the right city, etc. What you get back is a spectrum of suggestions; some favourable, some not, some pushing you to consider totally different investments (why house? why not land?! I don’t know..you know what I mean!). Assuming that this last option isn’t common, there are two ways soliciting advice can go.

Depending on all of the variables affecting your life at that point in time, your mind will tend to latch onto external inputs that will either:

a) amplify your internal input —   leaving us feeling fantastic, as if bells of agreement are ringing in unison and we must pop our collars and incorporate superior swagger immediately.“Yes, buying a house IS a great idea. Sweet! Bed, Bath, & Beyond here I come!”


b) dampen your internal input — it makes us feel as though we are dumb, inferior creatures doing something so foolish that we should stop immediately, hang our head in shame, and go into temporary hiding.  “What was I thinking?! No house for me; back to that Capital One Savings Account and Fidelity Investments..”.

Bear feeling bad

From buying a house, to starting a company, to deciding which job offer to take, such situations where we solicit external inputs abound on a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly.. basis.

Which option is right? Who should you listen to? How do you know who is “right” and who is “wrong”?

Now, I am not about to tell you that I have the perfect blueprint to always picking the right type of advice that will help you do the right thing. That is both the beauty and the tragedy of the human experience. This post isn’t about the perfect approach to pick the right advice at all times; rather, it is about one important factor that can equip you better when faced with receiving advice.

I believe you can effectively process advice by recognizing and unraveling the context surrounding your advice-giver.  Exploring this can  have a profound impact on how your brain processes external advice.

Back to our house-buying example: when you hear someone tell you it is a bad idea to buy a house, instead of taking that advice at face value and inducing disappointment, try exploring who they are and why they think it is a bad idea. What personal experiences shaped their perspective on home ownership? Were they pleasant or unpleasant? What did we learn from them? Are they generally optimistic or pessimistic? Do they believe that home ownership is generally a bad idea, or that it is just a bad idea for YOU? If the latter, then explore that even further: why do they think it is bad for you, and so on.

This investigative breakdown helps you deconstruct an otherwise sweeping yet uninformative sentence such as “Don’t do it, it is a bad idea”. Once you get answers to these questions, you can start to recognize the true drivers behind that piece of advice. That person perhaps had a bad experience with buying a home at the wrong time or at the wrong price, and lost money. Or the person is generally risk-averse and perhaps doesn’t fully appreciate what a bada$$, entrepreneurial, risk-hungry, intelligent soul you are.

Conversely, you should apply the same reasoning to a favourable piece of advice. “Great idea, definitely buy a house!”, while sounding like advice you want to hear, it may not actually be the advice you need to hear. The advice-giver may have had a fortuitous upswing in finances and so may not have experienced all the troubles of the complex endeavour that is home ownership. Or they have a habit of simplistically encouraging any advice-seeker without challenging their assumptions and providing necessary guidance.

You can only get to unraveling all of this if you don’t take advice at face value. Always wonder:

i) what experiences shaped their perspective on the topic of advice they are providing

ii) why they are saying this to you in particular

This will help you determine the extent to which your approach to the prospective decision at hand, and to more broadly, life in general, aligns with their approach, were they to face the same decision. Once you understand this, the path to a decision will become easier to navigate.

And why am I give you this advice? What are my experiences? Do they align with yours? What weight should you give my advice? I encourage you apply what I said above to figure it out 🙂