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How to tell when you’re getting good advice

Overwhelmed by too much guidance from all directions? This should help.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Few people’s job description includes doling out wisdom to strangers on the internet. John Paul Brammer’s does. His column, ¡Hola Papi!, is billed as “What if Dear Abby was a gay Mexican man on Grindr?” Readers have sought Brammer’s guidance on matters of the heart (like whether to let go of a decent, if not thrilling, relationship) and platonic issues alike (such as whether to ghost an exhausting writing group). Recently, a reader sent a letter to Brammer asking for advice on how to ask out a crush. Brammer’s suggestions were measured and actionable: “Express interest. Avoid desperation.” Every once in a while, Brammer will receive an update from one of those inquiring minds.

“He sent me a letter back saying, ‘Hey, so I did ask that guy out and we went on a date, and even though it didn’t really go anywhere, I felt more confident I can do that again now,’” Brammer says.

Humankind has long sought crowd-sourced answers to problems. From the 300-year history of the advice column to the plethora of advisers at our employ — spiritual, political, financial, emotional, professional, legal — people are inclined to make better choices when those actions have been guided by another. “We all have biases,” says Lyn Van Swol, a professor of communication science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “and if you can meld your perspective with another good source of information, you’re starting to cancel out some of your biases.”

Advice is ubiquitous and virtually no topic is off-limits. People seek counsel about the mundane — what TV show to watch, where to go to dinner — to the consequential — how to invest money, where to send kids to school. Those whom we typically seek advice from are people we know and who are easily accessible, people we like, and people we believe to be experts, says Erina Farrell, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University.

But not all advice is welcome. Well-meaning loved ones or clueless outsiders offer their unsolicited guidance in Instagram comments and the grocery store check-out line alike; in the age of TikTok life hacks, no one is immune to passive consumption of advice. The sheer volume of advice available can make it difficult to discern valuable intel from bogus verbal snake oil.

When advice is everywhere — from the therapy room to our phones — how can we parse the reasonable from the absurd? What we consider effective counsel has more to do with our own preferences than it does with the quality of the information provided by our advisers (though that definitely matters, too). Here are some alternative ways of distilling and implementing advice.

Do you actually want advice?

Most often, advice is sought and utilized when we haven’t thought through solutions on our own. In these moments adrift, it can be tempting to get swept up in the deluge of guidance, both online and off. Friends and family are inclined to fix our problems by offering advice when, perhaps in reality, all we want is to vent. The myriad tips that populate our social feeds may influence us to make changes we never considered before. We’re notoriously bad at taking advice, even if we’ve solicited it ourselves, Van Swol says, but the more we’re exposed to certain messages — for example, TikTok tips about how to wake up earlier — the more we start to consider the suggestion.

To determine whether advice is what we’re after, we need to consider whether the subject matter at hand is something we’ve previously thought about independently, and not because a friend or a piece of content on the internet brought it to our attention. Because we usually solicit advice with a specific goal in mind — like improving a relationship or making more money — absorbing ambient advice requires us to think about what we actually want, instead of what outsiders say we should want, says Michael Schaerer, an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resources at Singapore Management University. “Maybe your goal is not to get up at 6 am and start running around like a crazy person. But instead, maybe your goal is to have a more healthy sleep cycle and be able to stay in bed a bit longer and to reduce your stress from the previous day,” he says. “When you get bombarded with advice, you should always try and filter it through these criteria to figure out [if] this is actually something that concerns me and [if] it will be helpful to me.”

Does the advice align with your life?

People take advice when the suggestion addresses a problem or concern, is feasible to achieve, and doesn’t have any major consequences or “side effects,” Farrell says. A friend might propose you buy a car to solve your issues of transportation, but maybe the cost of the purchase makes the advice unfeasible — and carries the added consequence of going into debt.

Alternatively, some advice is too generic and superficial, Schaerer says, and therefore provides no realistic roadmap toward implementation. Platitudes like “stop worrying” and “follow your heart” don’t concretely apply to anyone’s life.

When weighing advice, think about the realities of your life and your preferences. Taking an online stranger’s advice to limit kids’ screen time may not be sage wisdom if plopping your toddler in front of an iPad allows you time to tend to chores and help your older child with homework. “If the advice just does not gel with your lifestyle, if it’s not practical, it can be good advice for someone but not for you,” Brammer says. What works for one person and their lifestyle may not be as effective for another.

Who is giving the advice?

The source of advice is as important as the content of the advice. Trustworthy advisers have some amount of expertise in the specific domain they’re discussing, like a lawyer giving legal advice or a person who is married doling out marriage lessons. However, someone who’s experienced a challenge or who is still in the “messy middle” may provide alternative viewpoints. “When you fail, or something doesn’t work out for you, you actually think about it much more deeply than when everything’s going smoothly,” says Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. This may prove helpful when considering advice.

Just because someone has experienced something (successfully or not) does not make them the definitive source of wisdom. We tend to favor advisers who are more confident, but their guidance may not always be accurate.

Differing and diverse points of view can help us make better decisions because the advice is “coming from someone who has had different experiences,” Van Swol says. “Their advice is going to be able to account for some blind spots you might have.” The more open-minded we are to advisers who differ from us, the greater number of alternative options we can weigh before making a decision. The more people we solicit advice from also leads to better decisions overall, Van Swol says, since we can meld together aspects of all of the advice or one course of action stands out as the most recommended from the panel of advisers.

When it comes to online advice, take time to consider the source. Does the person have expertise in the subject matter or are they just a person on the internet? Are they impartial or are they being paid to offer a specific view? Are they looking to stoke controversy by peddling potentially dangerous advice? Is the person doling out advice actually taking their own advice? “You have to ask yourself why you trust them,” says money coach Nicole Victoria, who shares financial wisdom with an audience of over 1.6 million followers on TikTok. “Do you trust them because you have information that will lead you to know that they are a trustworthy source? … Because anybody can create content. And it’s not always good.”

What emotional reaction does the advice garner?

Emotions can be a good barometer for whether we should take advice — but they’re not the only metric. We may initially bristle at a therapist’s suggestion to ditch a time-suck of a side hustle, but after further reflection, come to realize how much life would improve without the extra responsibility. Good advice can also come in a terrible package: sage life lessons delivered condescendingly from a parent, for instance. “That doesn’t always necessarily mean the advice, that the thing that’s being advised, is a bad thing to do,” Farrell says. “It’s your gut reaction to being told what to do.”

Pause and examine the emotional reaction to the advice, Farrell says, and reflect on whether the guidance is actually incompatible with your life and circumstances or if it’s simply uncomfortable to hear, is difficult — but not impossible — to achieve, or a different message than expected.

For Brammer’s letter-writer, asking someone out on a date was anxiety-inducing and put them in a position to be rejected — but it was the right advice.

“Good advice tells you what that change looks like,” Brammer says, “and reminds you that there is something waiting for you on the other side.”

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