How to Distinguish Between Bad and Good Advice

Everyone likes getting advice. Some people go to their friends or family, some go to their mentors, others turn to TV talk shows or self-help books. Desperation can be a factor on how likely you are to believe a piece of advice you’re given, or to accept bad advice, but almost all bad advice is avoidable with some simple techniques.

True, it would be easier if we had time machines, or at least crystal balls, so that every time we’re considering taking someone’s advice we could magically jump five years to see how it works out. However, as this is real life and not television, that’s not how it works - not that that stops us from learning from our favourite fictional characters. The good news is that there are several ways to distinguish between good and bad advice. The bad news is that nothing is foolproof and the only real way to tell is by following it.

So, what are the best ways to test a piece of advice?

1. Good Advice is Detailed

Have you noticed that this article has steps? I didn’t just write a one-sentence article saying "you can tell good advice from bad advice just by carefully thinking about it and weeding out the bad advice", because that would be both bad advice and not helpful. It might be true, but good advice does more than just telling you what to do; it should come with some form of instructions on how to get from point A to point B.

  • You: "what career should I choose?"
  • Bad career advisor: "the one that will make you happy."
  • Good career advisor: "start by thinking about the things you like doing, and research the jobs that exist in that area - you might even find things you didn’t know existed as paid work. Then take a serious look at what a career would be like in that industry, and decide which one is the best match."

You should also be cautious of what kind of details they’re focusing on; if you’re talking to a career coach who was a great career coach ten years ago, why aren’t they great today? Have they kept up with the times? If they start giving you advice that has become obsolete - the type of paper your resume is printed on is irrelevant now - consider looking for someone who knows it’s 2015.

2. Platitudes are not Advice

Before you click away to Google a definition, these are platitudes:

  • "You can do it!"
  • "Anything is possible!"
  • "Just try harder!"
  • "Follow your passion!"

They’re often given in place of advice, designed to encourage you to keep trying and not to give up. As far as being helpful is concerned, though, they’re a little... lacking. If you really need to be told to try harder, then it isn’t advice you’re looking for, but someone to constantly be on your back pushing you.

While "anything" might be possible and you might theoretically be able to do something, if you have your sights set on something that is, for whatever reason, ridiculous (last I checked, men still can’t give birth, even if they can "experience" it) then people giving you this advice are hurting more than helping. A person interested in giving you good advice would actually tell you how you can do it.

3. Good Role Models Don't Necessarily Give Good Advice

Probably if you have a particular industry you want to get into, or a certain person you aspire to be like, you’ve read a lot about how they got to where they are and the path they took. It’s possible that they got a degree, a first job, and worked their way up the ladder like you intend to, but it’s just as likely that their success lies in an unconventional path and their advice contains the line "well, that’s what worked for me." Additionally, they might not really be able to explain how it happened... there were just a series of lucky moments that lead to success.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have good advice and you should write it off. What it means is that they took such a specific, personal path that you might not necessarily be able to follow it simply because you’re not them and you don’t have the same opportunities. A way to check is to get a second opinion, just like you do when your doctor tells you something; if someone’s trying to advise you to go into something, make sure that others in the industry agree that it’s a good move and your advisor isn’t telling you something because they have something to gain from pointing you in a particular direction.

4. Good Advice Can Withstand Deliberation

Never write off a piece of advice simply because of the person giving that advice, the situation it’s being given in, or because it doesn’t agree with what you want them to be saying. When you’re waiting for someone to say what you’re thinking you’re no longer objectively looking for advice, but are suffering from confirmation bias; you’re not interested in hearing the truth or any facts, you already have your strong opinion in mind and you’re looking for someone to agree with it.

Instead, you should be open minded: listen to what they have to say, be polite in letting them know that you were listening and you’ve taken it on board, and walk away to think about it. Then find a quiet place to sit and think about what they said: does it make sense? If it goes against what you originally thought, have they corrected you and stopped you from taking the wrong path? Is it more generic than exactly what happened to them and something that’s actually of use to you?

5. Good Advice Should be Specific to You

Just like a good resume, good advice should be tailored to your situation. Horoscopes work because they’re generic and everyone can find a way to apply them to themselves, but someone giving you advice should not be giving you the same advice they gave the last three people who asked; they should be asking you questions to identify your specific situation, and altering their advice accordingly.

If, as the conversation progresses, you realize they’re simply repeating the same piece of advice despite you having pointed out that it’s useless to you, it’s time to politely nod and make a mental note not to ask that person for advice ever again. It might be great advice, for them and for someone else, but if you know - you know, and it isn’t just confirmation bias - that it won’t work for you, then you shouldn’t feel pressured to accept it.

6. You Instinctively Know When You're Hearing Good Advice

I know. "Trust your instincts" is another platitude; what if your instincts are rubbish? What if listening to your gut when it told you to spend ten years becoming fluent in Klingon is exactly why you’re in trouble in the first place?

However, this is the same gut and the same instincts that stop you from doing other kinds of stupid and life-threatening things, like jumping into a swimming pool from a high surface that would probably break your legs. Every time you’re given a piece of advice, your brain and your gut react to it, and both of them have equally valid opinions; your brain is working out whether or not it’s logical, while your gut is deciding if it terrifies you, excites you, or would lead you on a path to doom.

Your brain is more likely to think something risky is illogical and encourage you not to do it; if your gut disagrees, then consider finding a different way of going about it that satisfies that gut feeling. At the same time, however, spontaneity sometimes backfires - just because your gut thinks something is brilliant, you shouldn’t necessarily rush into anything and should always consult your brain. When you’re being given advice, listen with your feelings.

Unfortunately, we’re not robots, and we don’t live in a world where our brains can literally flag up a warning that someone is talking nonsense. What we can do is remember that we’re the ones asking for advice, and we should at least hear the person out; even if we don’t think we agree with what they’re saying, we should listen and give it some thought in case they surprise us. 

At the same time, if their advice sounds brilliant, we shouldn’t automatically run with it in case it falls apart under closer scrutiny: your mother always means well too, but that doesn’t mean she knows the best move to make in an industry that didn’t even exist when she was starting out.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given? The worst? Let us know your tips on how to tell the difference in the comments section below.