How to learn from advice, not just receive it

“It’s better to talk to 2 people ([experts]) than to buy 3 books” said Rytis Vitkauskas, Founder and CEO of YPlan in an interview with Brian Rose on Silicon Real. He’s right. A book may take several hours to read, whilst a 10 minute conversation with the author might teach you their entire concept. However, not every expert gets around to writing a book. People in your everyday life can be mini-experts too. As long as the person you’re talking to has greater expertise and experience than you, you should be able to learn from them.

Getting advice from other people is important for businesses. The leading global startup accelerator programme, Techstars, explain “Mentor Madness” is one of their accelerator’s biggest strengths. In Mentor Madness, startup founders are dumped into dozens of back-to-back meetings with mentors who give them advice on their startup. “Something magical happens when startups are exposed to a big surge in input from helpful individuals” says Keith Hopper, one of the mentors. Techstars has the figures to back this up. The companies they’ve funded are now collectively valued at over $4.4bn. It works.

So it’s really important to get advice. But the biggest challenge is knowing whether it’s good advice or bad advice. When should you take advice on board and when should you ignore it?

Asking for someone’s opinion on something almost always leads to bad advice. Mediocre at best. The problem with opinion is it tends to be vague and diluted in order to soften any harm to your ego. The best advice comes in the form of frameworks and thinking processes. An answer or opinion on something by itself is useless. It may or may not be right, but even if it is right, it only gives you a one-off solution. You haven’t improved your own ability to handle problems like that in future, so the benefit is entirely superficial. There’s that good old proverb:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The problem is, giving good advice is really hard. The brain is a summation of neural networks that we train over time. When we complete an action, for example, hitting a tennis ball with a racket, we build circuitry in our brain that allows us to repeat the action. The more we practice, the better the circuitry and the better we are at completing that action. But neural networks work like a black-box system. Over time, we build a system for handling input stimulus (tennis ball coming your way) to desired output action (hit the tennis ball back with the racket). The process for getting from input to output exists, but we don’t consciously understand it. It’s physically locked into our neurons. This is why it’s so hard to articulate and explain to someone how to hit a ball, without demonstrating the act itself.

It turns out there’s a nifty trick to getting great advice. An advice request is typically structured by explaining the problem you’re having, what your possible options are and asking the advisor which they think is best. You hope that they’ll recall all the similar situations and problems they’ve encountered in the past and somehow use this to give you the most insightful and helpful answer possible. But this is falling into a trap! You’re asking for an opinion and cornering your advisor.

The solution, rather, is to ask as follows: “How would you think about X?”.

For example, let’s say you’re looking to raise investment for your startup and you’re not sure whether you should be raising from angel investors, VCs, raising a seed round, raising a series A, etc.. Rather than specifically asking “should I raise from angel investors or VCs? Should it be seed or series A?”, instead ask “How would you think about raising investment for this business?”. The difference is subtle, but key. I guarantee the answer you get will be 100x more valuable. It’s all in the way you ask.

In this way, rather than going after a fish, you can get an education on how to fish. Unlocking how your advisor thinks, rather than what, is the key to getting outstanding advice that you can learn from. Instead of just solving your problem today, they’ll give you a framework for solving the 10 other similar problems you might face down the road.

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