Should You Follow Your Own Advice?

The first answer seems to be yes. If you’re giving advice, you must think it’s good to follow therefore you should too.

I don’t think the answer is obvious. There are situations when you can give advice without following it yourself and still be in a good position.

Unpacking the question of whether you should follow your own advice is valuable in a few ways. The first is that it’s  interesting (to me, at least) and second, it gives us the chance to think about whether the advice we’re giving is useful.

Not following your own advice

There are a number of situations when not following your own advice is perfectly fine or even the right thing to do.

In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford. He said to the students ‘follow your heart’. That advice, as argued by Cal Newport, he didn’t follow. He didn’t seem to be the most passionate about technology or start-ups but ended up becoming a leading influence within technology and his effects are still felt today.

Whether or not this argument is convincing, similar things happen to other people. Leo Babauta recently admitted he’d stopped focusing on single tasks (although he wants to return) and still produces great work every day.

Despite writing Create Without Expectation, I still find it difficult to rid myself of paralysing expectations to do well.

You’ve probably given advice, not followed it, yet still achieved what you want.

In these examples, there are two themes.

In the example of Leo, he’s graduated his advice and can now handle more than the person he’s giving his advice to.

He’s no longer like the person he’s advising.

This doesn’t need to be elitist. When we start learning maths, we’re taught techniques that a teacher would no longer use. The advice is still valuable for the beginner but not for the advanced person.

If a person is sufficiently advanced enough to know the effects of following the advice, they can give advice without following it themselves. For example, fat dietitians or personal trainers can still give useful advice about losing weight and doing proper exercises.

In the example of Steve Jobs, it’s possible that the advice simply isn’t very good, too vague or unrealistic.

Who can give advice?

Anyone.

It’s easy to give advice. There are many people who give relationship advice without ever being in a relationship or people who talk about beating procrastination despite being the worst procrastinators.

The requirement for advice giving is low.

A lot of advice seems to be personal experience with a self-proclaimed detachment from the situation. Personal experience adds credibility because we then know that it’s at least worked for one person and that person has no reason to lie to us (assuming they’re trusted). Objectivity helps because they can analyse the situation a few more ways than you might have yourself.

Following advice, even if it’s good, is harder. The advice giver is nearly in opposition to the person receiving it. They are attached to the situation and the problem becomes very personal to them when the advice giver tends to be very detached.

“When we think about other people, and what might be right for them, it’s a lot easier to see them as the big picture. It’s much harder to apply that big-picture perspective to ourselves.”

Hal Hershfield

It’s when advice giving and advice reception is complementary we make progress. In order to make these two position complementary, I’ve found it helpful to reduce the importance of objectivity and practice more empathy.

How should we give advice?

Advice can still be good without the advice giver following it themselves. Different situations often demand different types of advice.

However, what seems to be more likely is that by giving advice to other people, you’re giving advice to yourself. This means you’re in similar positions. Should you follow your own advice in this situation? Yes, if you have some desire to change.

If you can’t, it might speak to the quality of advice you’re giving. Which brings us to why the question is helpful.

If you can’t follow your own advice yet give it to others, the advice could either be bad, too simplified or irrelevant.

It’s easy to give lazy or ‘just-do-it’ advice.

  • Just start working
  • Just save more
  • Just stop eating so much

Simple advice, right? Sometimes helpful but rarely does it inspire much action. It’s easy to give because it negates the problem and packages it as a helpful answer.  Most importantly, it distances us from the problem – reducing our likelihood of being empathetic when helping others.

We probably don’t aim to be dismissive when giving such advice but I’ve found it’s useful to make a greater effort to refrain from giving dismissive advice.

“Once you understand something, it is difficult to remember what it was like not to understand it”.

Peter Lipton

When we’ve overcome a problem, it’s tough to appreciate how it was to experience it.

If we’ve lost weight, it’s unlikely the only step we followed was to ‘eat less’. It probably involved reducing portion sizes, drinking more water and taking the stairs instead of the lift.

If we’ve improved our grades, it’s unlikely that we just ‘worked more’. It may have involved setting out time for the library, taking more breaks and focusing more in class.

And so on.

This just-do-it advice tends to be a label for more detailed advice that needs to be unpacked rather than the advice to be followed. It’s easy to get the two conflated because we might not even notice the small changes we make in order to achieve the bigger goal.

Not following our own advice when we think we should, helps give an insight into why other people might not either. There’s a large difference between ‘knowing’ you should do something and feeling it. It befalls many of us.

So should you follow your own advice?

Yes, if it’s good and relevant.

By asking this question we’ve discovered that good advice can be difficult to give. It requires empathy and an effort to be attentive to the problem rather than dismissive. Thankfully, asking whether we would actually follow it can be a signal towards whether it will be helpful.

It’s a good thing to try being helpful (I wouldn’t write this blog otherwise) and trying to improve how helpful you are is another goal worthy of attention.

No, if you don’t need it (or want it).

We don’t always have to follow our advice just because we’ve given it to someone else. Sometimes we don’t need it as it’s become irrelevant to our own needs or we know it’s proven to work and don’t need to apply it to our own lives.

There’s a bigger discussion about what good advice is and how to give it but I won’t start that here. I don’t know a definite answer to any of those questions.

Do you follow your own advice? Do you think you should?


 

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Further Reading:

Why don’t we take our own advice?

Your Own Advice is the Hardest Pill to Swallow

Why Is It So Hard To Take Your Own Advice?

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