Matt Stockton
How to hack taking advice

Thoughts on being malleable instead of magnetic

When you step back and look at the concept of advice (particularly unsolicited), it can be a bit unsettling — at the core, advice is someone else telling you what they think you should do.

Does reading the sentence above make you uncomfortable? I know for me it did — it made me feel a bit defensive. When someone gives advice, it’s easy to have a visceral reaction — to decide immediately if the advice is good or bad — to follow it or to not follow it.

But I don’t think advice requires a binary response. If you’re exposed to smart people who are willing to help you by sharing their life experiences, that’s a very fortunate situation. You will miss out on interesting insight if you take their advice run it through your own personal ‘yes or no’ filter without concious reflection.

Too often, the ‘yes or no’ filter boils down to: ‘Does this advice reaffirm or contradict my existing beliefs?’ This filter prevents you from learning about yourself and your belief system. Lately I’ve been trying something new — I’m trying to be malleable instead of magnetic. The idea is, instead of having a polarized personal response, I conciously reflect on the context and motivation for the advice. Then, I reflect on how it overlays on my own context, motivations, and beliefs. I ask myself the following questions:

What is the advisor’s context? - What life-experiences does the person have which could influence the advice they gave to you?

Think of your life as a movie. In your life, you are the director, producer, main character, and audience — basically, you are everything! You are also the only one who will ever see this movie. Everyone else is in their own movie. Sure, some movies have overlapping events, and some overlap more than others (e.g. your spouse’s movie), but it’s your own movie, from your own perspective. When someone gives you advice, it is a projection of their motivations, experiences, and overall belief systems onto you. It’s a projection of their movie onto yours — and it’s up to you to decide if it is relevant. If you try to imagine yourself in their movie, as them, is there additional value or insight you can get from their advice? Does the relevance or irrelevance become more clear?

What is the advisor’s motivation? - By giving you advice, what outcomes might the person be expecting to influence in your life or his/her life? What benefits might the person get from these outcomes?

When someone you are close to gives you advice, often their motivation is simply that they care deeply about you and want to help you. Their motivation is to see you succeed and to be happy. Other times, the motivation is not as clear cut (and can be more focused on them and less focused on you.) Considering the underlying motivation can make you less defensive about advice that, on the surface, may seem strange or foolish to you. By quelling your defenses, you’re more likely to learn something from the advice instead of just discounting it.

I’ve found that my natural reaction is to not think about these questions, so it’s a conscious effort. Consciously thinking about these questions has been an interesting process for me so far. When I consider the context, motivation, and belief system of the advisor, it also forces me to consider my own context, motivation, and belief system. It enables a state of mind where I’m willing to challenge my own assumptions, and to allow dents to be made in my belief system — it makes me malleable instead of magnetic.

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