A large part of networking is seeking out information and getting advice on how to accomplish your goals. That advice and information can lead you to the opportunities that will help you achieve those goal. That means if you’re doing a lot of networking (which, if you really want to accomplish your goal, you should be), you’re seeking out, and receiving, lots of advice. In order to succeed, you must be able to differentiate “good” advice – which is informed, objective and actionable – from “bad” advice.
What constitutes bad advice? There are two main types of bad advice: uninformed advice and biased advice. Uninformed advice occurs when the person giving advice simply does not know enough about the topic at hand. This is often fairly obvious to spot: if you’re asking someone from the mining sector about launching a high-tech startup, there is a good chance that he or she might not be able to give you the correct advice. Some people will plainly tell you that they are not knowledgeable about a particular field and may even be kind enough to refer you to someone who is. Others, however, may feel that they need to provide guidance even if they are not particularly well versed in the topic at hand. This compromises the quality of the advice, and can have obvious negative consequences. This type of situation is often fairly easily avoided by making sure that that you’ve researched your contact’s background and qualifications in a particular field in advance. It is also possible to cross-reference the information and advice you receive via other sources.
The second type of bad advice, negatively biased advice, is much more harmful and is often difficult to spot. A famous author once said that a book review by an amateur critic often tells you more about the critic than about the book. The same thing can be said about some of the people from whom you might seek guidance. Our own experiences, good or bad, can bias the advice we give to others. Bad experiences that have lead to bitterness or discouragement can be especially toxic. For example, if someone has had several bad experiences unsuccessfully trying to launch a company, and they’ve become discouraged and bitter as a result, the advice they give you will likely reflect those negative feelings. Failure in and of itself can be a great source of learning and inspiration, as long as emotions don’t cloud objectivity. In contrast, good experiences often lead to advice that is positively biased and full of encouragement.
Outside of past experiences, people’s general attitude towards life can also create a negative bias. In general, people will tend to project their inner insecurities and fears on to you. If someone has always wanted to start their own company, but was always too afraid, they will likely project that fear on to others when asked for their opinion or advice. They might tell you that starting a company is a bad idea, and that you should choose a less-risky (and less ambitious) path instead. Often, this is not something they are doing on purpose, but a subconscious message they probably aren’t even aware of. In extreme cases, there might even be subconscious feelings of envy. In contrast, confident, positive people will tend to project that confidence on to you, and their advice will likely be encouraging in nature.
Lastly, good advice is actionable advice. Can you actually take steps to act on it, or is it littered with “if you had this” or “If you could do that” statements? Or is the advice too vague or generic? Providing non-actionable advice can actually be a signal that the person either doesn’t know the subject being discussed, or alternatively, they are biased in their opinion (or both!). Non-actionable advice can discourage you from your goal by placing seemingly insurmountable hurdles in your path.
To determine if the advice you’re receiving is good advice, always evaluate the person giving it. Is this someone you know and trust? What is their background and experience in this space – are they qualified to provide advice, or are they simply guessing? Are they negatively biased? What type of personality do they have? The reality is that no one is going to give you completely unbiased advice – for better or for worse, our experiences color our judgment. However, if you’re trying to accomplish some ambitious goal, negatively biased advice is always more harmful than positively biased advice. Having unrealistically high expectations can be harmful and may lead to failure; however, having unreasonably low expectations can prevent your from even trying, which is far worse than failing.