I have found that the best way to manage myself is by asking for a lot of help. The question is, how do you know who to take advice from?
The answer is not always intuitive. For example, you’d think that if Bill Gates wants to give you career advice, you should take it, right? I mean, the guy's had a pretty decent career. The problem is that if he doesn't care about your career, he's going to give you generic advice.
Here are five other counter-intuitive principles I have used to figure out who to listen to when it comes to my own career:
People ask me all the time how I put up with the level of criticism this blog draws. The interesting thing about taking advice from people who don’t like me is that sometimes, they’ll say things that other people wouldn’t say because it would hurt me. I rely on my gut in terms of whose criticism comes from caring and understanding and whose criticism comes from an obsessive need to take me down, but after I figure that out, I still pay attention to my critics.
The most important piece of self-knowledge is that our problems are not unique. If you had problems no one else has, then no one will understand you enough to help you. But the truth is that it's pretty easy to see what someone else should be doing if you have distance from a problem. So don't be a snob about who to take advice from. You don't need a “career expert.” You don't have the world's most sophisticated problems. If you are articulate about framing your problem, most of your friends can give articulate, useful guidance for solving the problem.
When it comes to finding a mentor, the most effective mentors are 3-5 years ahead of you in the workplace. Those are the people who have the best memory of what it was like to be where you are. In today’s workplace this is especially true. The rules are changing so quickly, that many times someone who has a lot more experience than you do will also be out of touch with what the workplace is like today. I find that this is a big problem when people rely on their parents for advice.
Happiness researchers have known for a long time that if you ask people directly if they are happy in their career, most of the time they'll lie. This makes sense because if someone has invested tons of time in getting to where they are, it's a really tough thing to say they're unhappy; then they'd have to take action to change. So you're often better off just watching people. Many people hide their lives — they want you to think things are going perfectly, and they're always making great decisions, so they don't tell you the parts that are a mess. But sometimes, you come across people who are willing to show you the messy parts, and you can learn the most from these people. This is why I like reading about celebrities. They can't hide as much as non-celebrities, so I can learn more about what works and what doesn't.
If you’re getting advice from someone who has never steered you wrong, then you’re not asking this person enough questions. After a while, someone who has given you a lot of advice will falter. Because no one is perfect, and no one can do as well at running your life as you can. So if you find someone who is giving good advice, push harder, until you get to their limit. Everyone gives bad advice sometimes, even me.
In some respects, bad advice might be better than good advice. Because what you really want is advice that makes you think in new ways about possibilities for yourself. So when it comes to taking advice, you still have to have your inner compass. You can't blame anyone else for where you end up. But, in a way, that's good news. Because if you are responsible for where you are, if you don't like it, you can get yourself to a new spot. This means that you should gather lots of advice, but be aware that sometimes, you need to ignore it. After all, what is the fun of life if we can't make our own mistakes?