Dreams, Goals, & the Secret Saboteur

Or, dreaming big and ignoring bad advice.

I spend much of my life avoiding other people's advice. A contrarian by nature, I have learned to apply reason and logic to decision making, not just pride and self will. Because my first impulse is to contravene authority, or even common sense when it's pointed out to me, I take care not to hear it. Unfortunately, people are generally all too willing to share their opinions and advice, whether we want to hear it, or not.

The answer, of course, is to be an island, unfettered by the ideals and opinions of other humans. Impervious to the winds of fate that would blow us every which way. Or is that not a practical way to live?

If you're anything like me, we usually manage to achieve a better balance as we get older; we hear without listening. We see without imitating. But some things are hard not to internalize, especially when they come from someone we respect or admire. And when it comes to our big dreams--the plans we've been making in secret since we were ten, the goals that could derail our whole career and set us on a high risk path to ultimate fulfillment or abject failure--we may want the support of our friends and family. Those same friends and family may think we need their particular brand of advice. And if it's bad advice it could send us in the wrong direction and undermine everything we're working for.

What constitutes good advice?

Is there a universal criteria by which advice givers should be judged to determine the value of what they say? In seeking advice about advice, I came across some gems. Douglas Adams said,

“The quality of any advice anybody has to offer has to be judged against the quality of life they actually lead.”

I have little context for the life of this notorious author. I like his work, but does the quality of his life support the quality of his advice? Is "he's famous" a good enough reason to internalize his words and act on them? According to this statement we should only listen to people who's lives are "better" than ours. Do they have to be wealthier, healthier, better traveled, more successful in business, or better educated? Since the criteria for "better" is subjective, that means we're aiming for a moving target.

Professional consultation services are a huge industry right now. People like Marie Forleo, Jim Kwik, Brene Brown, and hundreds more write books, create vlogs, and tour the country sharing their professional advice about how to create the life we want. Some of these people are professionals, with accreditation, research, years of experience, and professional colleagues to support their claims. Even more simply share their own observations and tweetable nuggets of wisdom, backed only by brand name sponsors and their own forceful personality. I'm not saying that famous people have no valuable counsel to offer, but are we more willing to give credence to someone simply because they've gone viral?

And then there's the other side of the coin: People who learn from their mistakes may have the most insight into how to avoid them. Should we be listening more closely to those who's lives do not reflect the full measure of their experience? These are the people who have struggled to reach their dreams, and failed for whatever reason. As we will discuss later on, regret is a teacher who's still allowed to beat you with a stick. Sometimes, all we learn from failure is that we have failed. How do we know that this person has learned from their mistakes and has value to offer?

Some people have learned from experience and hard lessons. Others have been researching and experimenting with theory their whole lives. Both probably consider themselves experts on something, or many things. They might be, but that doesn't mean their advice is good for everyone. Whether they're a professional or a loved layman, we need a quick system for determining who is worth listening to, and who should be ignored.

1. Is cynicism an automated response?

Have you ever met anyone whose every opinion seems to contradict yours? At first you tell yourself it's good to have a friend who disagrees with you--they broaden your horizons and make you look outside yourself for truth instead of reinforcing your biases. But then you realize they don't voice an opinion unless you express yours first. And when you tell them about the Big Plans you're implementing this year all they can see is the probable disaster.

Most of us know one or two people like this; why do we keep them around? They're relationships we're unwilling to sever entirely, probably for good reasons, but we've learned to keep them at a distance. We don't willingly share our dreams and goals with them, but they're around enough to have heard it from someone else that you're planning to drop everything for a six month research cruise to Antarctica, and they feel duty bound to tell you all the Things That Will Go Wrong. Whether it's your Aunt Agatha, your brother, or a distant friend, some people can't help but express their misgivings.

The trouble with the Automated Cynic is that, whether they realize it or not, their advice is to doubt yourself.

The Automated Cynic is all too willing to remind you that you are a person, and people are not trustworthy. But if you're talking about your goals you've already weighed the risks. You've done the math, and made your pro vs. con lists. You've measured the possibilities against the probabilities and decided that it's worth it.

Doubt your doubts.

Recognize that your doubts are not more objective than your dreams. We have a tendency to believe that cynicism equals realism; at least, that's what the cynics would have us believe. But cynics are just disappointed idealists. Research shows that optimism is an important evolutionary part of survival. In his book Optimism: The Biology of Hope, Lionel Tiger (1979) argued that it is one of our most defining and adaptive characteristics.

"Optimism is correlated with many positive life outcomes including increased life expectancy, general health, better mental health, increased success in sports and work, and better coping strategies when faced with adversity."

In short, optimism allows us to imagine what is possible, and motivates us to work for it.

This does not mean that we should demonize pessimism or cynicism. They are coping mechanisms that enable risk assessment when weighing potential consequences or deciding who to trust. Decision making is a delicate balancing act between dreams and reality, hope and despair, faith and fear. Optimism and pessimism are tools we use to manage our expectations. But once you make your decision, overthinking it becomes a tool for procrastination; the time for thinking is past--now is the time for action.

2. Do they contradict their own experiences?

What about the people who ruminate about regret? They are the Wallowers, whose dreams remain in the background, just waiting to be called up in a moment of wistfulness. Given their experiences, some of them might be entirely supportive if their "path not taken" has something in common with your "road less traveled." But it's just as likely that the Wallowers will discourage as encourage. Either way, you probably want to take their advice with a grain of salt. The problem is, of course, that the Wallower isn't really talking to you; they're talking to a past self.

Wallowers have spent so much time chewing over their mistakes and missed opportunities that they know just how they will act Next Time. By the time you come along with your all-too-similar circumstances, a Wallower is thrilled to have the chance to share what they've learned through life's hard lessons. And share they will, ad nauseam.

Beware the Hypocrite.

This is the person who supports your dreams of travel, but sends you brochures about the Alps, because that's where they wanted to go, when you've already decided on an African safari. This type of person will express continued interest in your plans, and probably be disappointed if you act contrary to their advice. When it becomes clear you didn't listen, instead of letting it go they might even spend a great deal of time trying to convince you that they're right.

“In the short term, people regret their actions more than inactions. But in the long term, the inaction regrets stick around longer.” - Thomas Gilovich

Everyone has made mistakes, and most of us would jump at having a chance to correct them. When a Wallower gives advice they are projecting their idealized self onto a handy avatar; this might provide a sense of self-satisfaction but it doesn't actually change anything about their circumstances, so it doesn't last. They're the person who very sensibly chose school over taking a gap year, or stayed in a stable but boring job instead of branching out, because they wanted security for their family. There's nothing wrong with their choices, or their reasons for making them, but they've spent years imagining alternatives, and giving advice gives them a handy outlet for the dreams they're not yet ready to explore.

3. What are the alternatives?

Then there's the Explorator. This individual will get excited about your goals, and probably dive into the research to help you pursue them, but they lack the focus that comes of knowing what you want. They're not in your head, and they don't have your experience, so they think being helpful means exploring every possibility. They will orate on the options, expound on their experiences, and pontificate on their perceptions.

The Explorator has two motivations, although they might be unaware of them. They can be an aggressive procrastinator, whether out of boredom or a genuine interest in your plans, the Explorator takes your goal and turns it into their passion, however temporary. Eventually, their efforts at research become peripheral at best, and you have to combat temptation, overwhelm, or both. The other motivation can be true for any of the personalities we've discussed: They very simply believe that they know better than you.

Stand your ground.

Knowing your options is good, but in order to reach our goals we eventually need to narrow our focus. We have to stop exploring the possibilities and aim for a single target. It's easy to become overwhelmed by everything we could be doing, which leads to procrastination and losing interest.

Defeating them means carefully considering your own mind, and refusing to be derailed. It takes real thought because you have to know what you want in order to see through the maze of information from other sources. It is generally important to have a firm vision of what you want, but it can be especially challenging when someone you love is pushing their ideas about your future.

So what's the right way?

There's nothing wrong with having a conversation about your plans and dreams. It can be inspirational, motivational, and enlightening, as well as providing a source of accountability. And, if you're perceptive enough, you can probably learn from the bad advice, too. Identifying poor advice is just one step. The other is actually hearing the good advice.

Some people are generally positive, thoughtful, and focused on your needs, the advice they give may be good, but the delivery needs work. What most people don't realize is that advice does no good unless it's been internalized. The research shows that achieving our goals is much more likely if we've done the emotional labor to prepare for success. This involves several steps: 1. internalize the lesson 2. adapt it to our circumstances 3. test the theory, and 4. analyse the outcome. All of this takes time, and may be frustrating to those who are watching the process, but it is integral to implementing real change.

"Most inspired ideas come from discussions, not lectures. In order to inspire others, we need to understand their concerns, frustrations and passions. This understanding comes from leaders who listen much more than they talk."

We like to think that the people giving us advice are well intentioned. Indeed, when asked, a group of leaders who self-identified as preferring to give advice versus preferring to allow others to experience independent discovery, said that their main reasons for giving advice were, among others, "I wanted to show the person I truly cared." "I was trying to improve their ideas by giving them another perspective." And "I hoped I could inspire and motivate this person." But in a column by Joseph Folkman, Forbes did a study demonstrating that advice most often has the opposite effect to the ones intended.

Out of 577 leaders, Forbes identified 133 who had a strong preference for giving advice versus 123 who preferred allowing others to experience independent discovery. Forbes then collected effectiveness ratings on all these leaders, including evaluations from managers, peers, and direct reports.

Despite their intentions, advice giving was "perceived by others as an attempt by leaders to prove their intelligence and experience or require things be done 'their way,' rather than a demonstration of interest and concern for others."In addition, the research showed that advice givers were not perceived as encouraging, or open to new options. Instead, their advice seemed to discourage experimentation and personal growth because those who gave advice were more interested in their own ideas than those of others.

Most advice is only tolerated. In a lecture the listeners are passive, and probably only politely interested. "Discussion inspires ideas, and in order to motivate others we need to understand their concerns, frustrations, and passions. True understanding comes when we listen much more than we talk." The best advice givers are those who give little, or none at all. They are the people who let us talk through our problems, ask questions to clarify, and let us draw our own conclusions.

Whether you're working on improving your own advice-giving game, or navigating the morass of suggestions from others, trust yourself. In the end, this author thinks it is better practice to avoid all advice than to get too caught up in what other people think. And when optimism is exhausted and motivation fails you; when family and friends don't care or can't summon the enthusiasm to support you, achieving your goals will be the result of work, diligence, and tenacity.

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