“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for one day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Most advice you get is bad because the questions you ask are framed to get a fish, versus learning how to fish.
“How to do X” are the right questions to ask only when you know what to do and why to do it. “How” questions are mostly trivial in the age of the internet, where a Stackoverflow can answer a better range of questions than any experienced programmer sitting with you.
The other problem is people are looking for advice via a generic question. Without providing any significant or in-depth context about yourself, you’ll probably get advice that’s the equivalent of a kids’ candy smartphone that only looks like a smartphone, but does nothing a smartphone does.
Why is context important?
Because for any advice to work, it has to work within the underlying structural alignments and incentive mechanisms that exist. Without knowing that, all advice is akin to building the UI of a Google Search while having none of the backend infrastructure or APIs needed for your search queries to pull up anything meaningful.
And this isn’t just a problem with the ones who are seeking advice but the ones who are dishing it, too.
They suffer from the same first-order mistake. They say what they did that worked. But they don’t elaborate on the underlying structural features of their situation that would need to be true for their advice to be applicable in a new situation.
On the surface, nearly every person is facing the same problems and needs advice around the same things:
- Getting a good job
- Getting a good spouse
- Relationship troubles
- Workplace troubles
- Starting up a business
- Growing a business
But the advice I give to one may be vastly different from the advice I give to another, simply because her underlying structural alignments, priorities and incentives were very different from yours.
“Take a break from work and focus on CAT prep” might work for one student as she has the necessary financial support from her family, but it may not work for another student who doesn’t have the same privileges and needs to keep working in order to put food on the table.
So, when we try to understand systems that worked, we need to also understand why they worked, and also talk more about the systems that supported and enabled them to work. Any mentoring session is incomplete without addressing support systems and safety nets — both financial as well as psychological — available to the mentee.
And if you wish to learn how to fish; if you wish to learn how to become your own advisor; don’t just ask people what to do and how to do it, but more importantly, ask them why they gave you the advice they gave: what were their considerations? If they’re speaking from experience, what were their unique challenges that made them take the course of action they did, and what was the surrounding context that made a decision work for them?
Sometimes, people may give themselves too much credit for something that was enabled in huge part due to the specific privileges they were endowed with. And when you ask them, they might not be willing to credit their success to these privileges, or even luck for that matter.
Consequently, what worked for them may not work for you at all. So, it is up to you to figure out what mental models, principles, and specific knowledge they’re working with that serves as the backend infrastructure and APIs to their Google Search.
Without it, you’ll only have a mock frontend UI, with none of the functionality that helps you be your own advisor and make good decisions down the line.