Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ali Hale.
Good advice can ruin your project, your relationships, and even your life.
Just think of the times when you tried a piece of advice which actually made things worse.
Perhaps you followed some financial guru’s recommendation, only to lose money and end up even more in debt.
Maybe you listened to your best friend’s views on child discipline (even though he doesn’t have any kids of his own), and it led to a massive screaming match before school.
Or – most common of all – you took advice from your parents, careers counsellor and teachers, and studied Law, even though you hated it and really wanted to major in English Literature.
Even when it’s not disastrous, good advice can be a huge waste of time. Here’s how to sort the “good” from the really good.
Test #1: Is It Aimed at You?
Some advice is perfectly sound, but it’s not aimed at you.
Traditional time management advice, for instance, isn’t generally aimed at creatives. Most systems don’t acknowledge that you have regular peaks and troughs of creative energy. They don’t take into account inspiration and motivation.
If your to-do list system just isn’t working for you, there’s probably nothing wrong with you or the system. It just wasn’t created with you in mind.
Don’t be afraid to ditch advice that’s aimed at someone else. Tips aimed at stay-at-home moms won’t help if you’re a single, self-employed freelancer. Tried-and-tested methods for executives who spent all their time on the phone won’t help you manage your inbox.
Test #2: Will it Work For You?
Last Spring, my creative writing teacher Pam Johnson was encouraging our class to try out writing for 20 minutes every day, to get into a strong writing habit.
While I could certainly find 20 minutes every day to write, I knew I wouldn’t find it a helpful practice. In our group email, I wrote:
I’m resistant to [writing daily], because I tried it last year and wrote 500, religiously, every single day, from 1st January through till late March. (It was a new years’ resolution…) I stopped because I was losing the joy of writing and it felt like yet another item on my to-do list. I found that it took me most of those 500 words just to really “be there” (which I was calling “flow” or “the zone” before). So now I write two or three times a week for much longer, usually 3000-4000 words, and that seems to suit me best.
I do think about my novel every day! 😉
It took guts for me to write that (I like Pam and learnt a huge amount from her) – but I knew that, while “write daily” was good advice and aimed squarely at student writers, it wasn’t right for me.
How do you know if advice will work for you? If you’re not sure, I’d say try it out. But if you’ve tried something similar in the past and it didn’t work, it’s probably a piece of advice you can safely ignore.
Test #3: Is the Source Reliable?
Lots of people will jump at the chance to give you good advice. They’re usually well-meaning. The problem is, they’re not necessarily well-informed.
My mother still tells the story about going to a “how to parent” talk at a Christian conference. At the time, she had three small children, and was interested to pick up some new ideas.
The speaker had no kids of his own (and no particular experience in looking after them).
My siblings and I grew up just fine, and my mother has always been a fantastic influence in my life – quite possibly despite the “good advice” she was given.
There’s no one measure of a reliable source, but you can check out:
- Their credentials. These might be experiential (“I’ve brought up five kids”) rather than academic (“I have a degree in child psychology), but they should exist.
- What other people say. Ask friends, or look for testimonials or reviews from others.
- Their success. What Darren Rowse says about blogging is worth listening to, but you can probably ignore Joe Newbie (whose blog is read by his dad and his cat).
Test #4: Is it Flexible?
Truly great advice rarely requires you to follow an exact procedure to the letter. Great advice still has room for you.
Some techniques are, obviously, more open to modification than others – but any advice you’re going to use should allow you space to tweak it to suit you.
One of the best ways to implement good advice is to draw on lots of different sources. Pick various people’s brains. Read several books by several authors. Put together a solution which is as unique as you are.
There Are People Who Do Offer Genuinely Good Advice
Thursday rightly emphasized that no two creatives have quite the same process, and we came up with the “Toolbox” name to show that we were offering lots of different tools, not one rigid method.
Well-meaning people give “good advice” all the time, but the difference between genuinely good advice and well-meaning advice is whether the advice helps you do what you’re trying to do. If some “good advice” isn’t working for you, it’s not good advice.
What “good advice” have you tried to follow in the past? How did it work out?