Educate, don’t advise

Last week I posted about the dangers of giving advice. I’ll say flat out that I’m not a fan of advice, even though people ask for it all the time. As an alternative, I would recommend education.

The other day a client who’s building an application in Rails sort of apologized for using Subversion for version control and said they were looking at migrating to Git. Other Rails developers had apparently asked why they weren’t using Git, and he seemed a bit abashed by it. I could have advised him to migrate to Git, or that he should stick with Subversion, but instead I explained how Git differs from Subversion, and what people like about it. Given a better understanding of how they differ, he was able to make his own decision. (He stuck with Subversion.) In the end, it was consideration of his own circumstances that led to what was probably a good decision. Some people working on the project use Windows, and aren’t interested in the headaches of using Git on that platform.

To be honest, I only realized that I prefer educating to giving advice recently, but I have been explaining why I’m against giving advice for a long time now. Advice is cheap and rarely productive, and nobody ought to be taking it without understanding the thought process of the person giving it. That’s particularly important because for all the value of an independent perspective, the other side is that advice givers often lack key pieces of information. The reasoning behind the advice is where the value is, because it enables you to see how the advice may apply to your specific circumstances.

I suspect the motives of people who give advice. Nearly all advice boils down to “be more like me,” and many advice givers are interested in the ego boost that comes from having people listen to the advice they’re giving. Hearing the words, “If I were you,” I generally want to flee.

6 thoughts on “Educate, don’t advise

  1. Good advice… ;-) The upshot, of course, is that education is rarely a one-way street. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve worked with someone to figure out an answer only to learn a thing or two myself. That is a very different outcome from “do it this way.”

    Good post, .

  2. Interesting, I had never thought about that distinction, but I guess I also lean towards education a lot more heavily than simply giving advice. I noticed when a couple friends that usually ask for technical advice (for personal as well as professional endavours) were joking that I would always give very long winded answers to (seemingly) simple requests for advice, which they filed under passion for the topic at hand.

    And it’s true that my answers often becomes quite long, because I will either give a quick historical background, or describe the different widely held postions on a topic, or define the criteria and preferences and/or trade-offs involved in making that decision.

    Of course sometimes all they really want to hear is a yes/no or the answer to a “multiplce choice question”, so now I’ll ask them if they want the long or the short answer. Or given that I usually know them well enough, I’ll start with “if I told you the long answer, you’d probably lean towards… X”. ;)

    I’ve also found that working as a consultant, clients often pay you because they don’t want to deal with the complexities in the details, or sometimes even the burden of making certain calls. So you as a consultant make those decisions or strong recommendations and carry all the related responsibilities if the results (for whatever reason) take unexpected turns. Especially with certain types of larger clients (read: layers and layers of hierarchies), the ability to deflect blame becomes a very attractive reason to involve consultants in certain projects.

  3. If you have never checked out the Tao you would probably get a kick out it. The section on advice is very close to what your post is about.

    I like this version because its pocket sized and distilled down from a literal translation. Tao Te Ching: The New Translation from Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition (Tarcher Cornerstone Editions) (Paperback) by Lao Tzu (Author), Jonathan Star (Translator)

  4. clicking on the tags doesn’t lead to any of your previous discussions. are the tags new? too bad not to be able to view everything at once…

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