As I usually do, whenever there’s five seconds, I was reading a blog (in this case, Penelope Trunk’s post about bad career advice) earlier and something made me think: what do I call good advice? And then, of course, I made the knee-jerk move of devoting fifty minutes to watching the Trust Agents keynote at Gnomedex 9 with Julien Smith and Chris Brogan [here] and part of their schtick was advising others and being, as Chris says over and over, at the elbow of every interaction. It made me think of how I teach, when I’m working through training new staffers at work.
Think about every piece of advice you’ve ever given out in your life. What were you telling people they should do? I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that you more often than not give specific instructions for the situation, based on your understanding of it.
Now cut that out!
It’s too much. Details are terrible things, especially when not thought about in a first-hand way. If I ask for advice on what to do for the next fie years, most of the people I know will tell me step-by-step work your way to success junk. How is this useful to me? Well, in certain circumstances, a walkthrough is useful, and if these people are incredibly wise their information may pan out, and if I’m lucky enough I’ll perceive it exactly as intended, and we’ll all win.
That’s a lot of ifs, isn’t it? Ok, come at this from another direction. Imagine yourself as a teenager. Now, better, imaging that you have a child, and they are a teenager, and they are YOU from when you were a teenager. Right down to the plaid shirts and holey jeans, listening to bad grunge music. They’re living through the exact same circumstances you did because, guess what, you’ve time travelled and get to change your own history. Now, you get to give them two pieces of advice that will see them through the rest of their lives. Trust me, you’ll believe you – but only if you give yourself the right piece of the puzzle. What do you think will benefit them the most?
How many of you just told yourself to stop fretting and ask that girl out?
That’s your problem right there. I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I have a two year old son, and I want to make sure I give him the right advice when he is the teenager I was, listening to bad music and brooding over asking someone out. When we give people advice that’s procedural, what we’re doing is taking the burden of work from them. We’re giving them a map, and telling them “Three steps left, dig at the X.” We’re handing them fish.
What we ought to be doing is teaching them to fish for themselves. And it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we worry. Perfect example, the “Go ask the girl out” scenario. If you coach from a perspective of skill, working with confidence of thought and decision, weighing pros against cons, providing a basis on which the decision to “Ask the girl out” can better be made than Gosh She’s Pretty, or She’s So Smart, then whoever you’re coaching will be better off. You haven’t handed them an answer, you’ve taught them to find the answer for themselves. You’re teaching them to fish.
This is important because so much of our interaction – with our friends, with our families, with businesses – is based on Give Me Fish questioning, and Here’s Your Fish answers. It’s counter productive – but it’s fast. Who wants to take the time to teach someone how to use a tool, if after all I already know, and if I know but you don;t, you have to keep coming back to me whenever you need the tool? It’s a basis for commerce, but it’s old hat.
The reality is that no one can learn to do everything. Nobody can be expected to master every situation, conquer every mountain. But if, when asked for help, we give guidance instead of service, then we’ve made ourselves infinitely more valuable as people, to one another. No one can master everything, but if we’re only ever handed answers rather than opportunities to find the limits of our capabilities, how will we ever know who we actually need, rather than who we’re holding onto for the sake of convenience?