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36. How Do You Figure Out Who’s Advice To Take Seriously?

Listen to experts.
36. How Do You Figure Out Who’s Advice To Take Seriously?
Photo by Frame Harirak / Unsplash

A piece of advice can be understood as a combination of verifiability and expertise of the advice-giver. In more philosophical terms, it is important to know how good of an epistemological agent someone is. Taking pieces of advice as points, we can project them on a 2D graph where the Y-axis is verifiability and the X-axis is the expertise of the advice-giver:

Some verifiable pieces of advice are:

  • “Don’t touch the stove or you will burn yourself”.
  • “Testing your code may unearth possible bugs”.
  • “You should study for exams to get good grades”

Some less verifiable pieces of advice are:

  • “I think you will waste your time writing”
  • “Being kind and loving to everyone will create miracles” (when said in the religious sense)
  • “I think you should do X”

Verifiable advice has an obvious cause-and-effect structure. Unverifiable advice is, well…oftentimes awkward to receive, and is often from personal, non-reproducible experiences.

Any advice in the upper left quadrant of the graph is worth listening to. This often comes from your senior peers in your job, professors, sound friends and perhaps others. Because the person giving the advice has solid expertise in the field the advice is in, it may absolutely help you.

If a piece of advice falls in the lower left quadrant, it is worth listening to it. These are based on expertise and can be difficult to verify except over a very long time. If you have a lot of trust in the giver, take it into account, but be a Bayesian. That piece of advice is perhaps not universally 100% true, but it may well be personally 60-90% true. The advice may be based on experience that vastly differs from yours, and you carving a different path in the field the advice is in could partially degrade it or completely invalidate it. So embrace it if you choose to, but it may not turn out true for you in the long run.

Advice that falls in the upper right quadrant may be worth listening to if it is sensical. If you’re not yet sure whether a piece of advice is reliable and reproducible, check its claims online, in books, or through other reliable, evidence-based sources. If it turns out to be correct, the person may have a good intuition in that field, or it could be sheer luck. If it turns out incorrect, that non-expert is disillusioned as they believe in something that is demonstrably false. This is where, for example, pseudoscience falls. These quadrants may hold both sweet and rotten apples. Use your critical sense to sort them.

Finally, if a piece of advice falls in the lower right quadrant, there are two ways you can go.

  1. Kindly thank the person and run away from them. To give advice when you have no experience to back it up and it is not evidence-based requires some bravado. This person is likely a crank…or maybe they’re pulling your leg by being convincingly sarcastic?
  2. If you’re up for some entertainment, inquire more about the basis for their advice. The roots are often deeply personal, feeling-based, religious or dogmatic. If the argument carries on for too long, you can still think about politely jogging away. Save your neurons and your oxygen.

In any case, take advice with a grain of salt. It can sometimes be deeply beneficial, especially when coming from experts, but always be critical and investigate it.