Advice is worthless, except when it’s not

One of my mentors once gave me a piece of advice on advice (meta-advice. Metavice™.): “My job is to give you lots of advice. Your job is to ignore 95% of it.”

I sat there for a moment, deciding whether or not to point out that he had just given me advice, and if I should ignore 95% of advice, I should probably ignore what he just said. Or something. I decided not to bring it up.

Instead, I asked the obvious question: “How do I decide between what’s in the 95% and what’s in the 5%?”

If you’re doing something interesting, it’s probably really hard. To pull it off, you want to learn from others’ mistakes, and that means getting lots of advice and input. However, you’re probably trying to do something that’s never been done before, and that means ignoring precedent, breaking glass and trying what others have failed to do. Most of all: even smart, well-intended people love pontificating on things they know nothing about. So how do you filter through the noise?

Of course, there’s no one answer to that question. Some things are obvious: during one particularly aggressive brainstorming session, one of our advisors thought it would be a good idea for our personal finance company to build our own phone. Competing with… you know, Apple and such. “It’s a phone that helps you with your money! How cool would that be??” I immediately excused myself to go get a coffee or jump off a bridge.

Others are less apparent: an investor kept telling me that our burn rate was too high for the results we were producing. I thought he was wrong, and I ignored it. Hindsight is 20/20, but in retrospect I really wish I had paid attention.

When thinking about how to separate the signal from the noise, a few things that helped me:

Change how you ask the question

It turns out that getting full, thoughtful advice out of people is hard. I’ve also found that the lower the importance of the decision, the more strongly many people feel about it. When asked whether the company should pivot to a different business, you’ll get a lot of “you’ll need to make your own decision.” But they HATE that shade of orange you chose on the “About Us” section of your website.

To fix that, I tried subtly shifting how I asked for advice. Typically I’d have a decision in front of me, and I’d ask people what they would do in my situation. I realized I didn’t actually want to know how they would act, but rather what their assumptions and considerations were that resulted in how they would act. I wanted to get inside their heads. So instead, I started asking how they would think about a particular decision, rather than what they would do. They’d usually tell me what they would do anyway, but I found I’d get a much more complete and thoughtful answer.

Extract the nuggets

Look at advice as your opportunity to find out which experiments to run. To do that, you need to dig a layer deeper than what’s presented. When we were fundraising for our personal finance app, we were asked by a potential investor “How are you going to allow people to tweet their budgets to their friends?” We just kind of stared at him, thinking that was the more idiotic things we’ve heard. It turns out we had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Had we dug a layer deeper, what he was actually saying was “virality is one of the primary ways companies achieve non-linear growth. How are you going to grow fast without it?” It was a decent point, actually.

There are nuggets of truth in most of the advice given by smart people, but it’s your job to sift through the silt to find them.

Look for patterns

If you’ve surrounded yourself with good people, they’ll collectively be able to point out your blind spots (if you think you don’t have blind spots, maybe blind spots is your blind spot?). If it’s a blind spot, generally more than one person will notice it if you ask. Early on in our company, I got the message from a couple people I trusted that an employee we had hired was bad news. I ignored it, thinking that he was slightly acerbic but very talented, and we needed his contribution. The stream of advice eventually became a chorus, and I finally acted six months too late. Had I been looking for patterns in the advice I got, I would have picked up on an incorrect decision I was making much earlier.

In general, the best advice at the right time can be invaluable, but there’s lot of crap out there. You can’t afford to make all of your own mistakes, but taking too much advice can easily be one of those mistakes. Even if you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by really good people, separating the signal from the noise takes some work. Listen carefully and you might avoid some landmines.