when good advice is wrong

The unfortunate thing about advice is that when you are in the position of needing it, you are probably least able to ascertain whether it has any value. More than once I’ve been on the receiving end of good advice that is clearly from someone wise and experienced. Yet somehow in my gut, I feel resistance to it, and then I feel strong cognitive dissonance because it might be advice I should be taking. It only occurred to me recently that even good advice could be wrong.

As I find myself more frequently writing advice-y posts, I have been thinking for a long time about how to tell when good advice is the right advice.

Whenever I go through one of my periodic existential crises (or, “freelancer’s vacations”) I start questioning my indirect career path. This is when I am most hungry for direction. Inevitably I begin to wonder if I’m doing it all wrong – there is very little information out there specific to fashion illustrators. Still, there is a heck of a lot of advice out there – in uncertain times, people deeply crave being told what to do. How to sort through it all? When is good advice the wrong advice?

when it is good advice at the wrong time.

The more practical advice is, the more perishable it is. Most business advice that is out there for illustrators is 20th century advice.  Because advice is almost always based on other people’s experiences, advice has a tendency to lag. So much of the available recommendations for illustrators were formed within systems created to support the demands of publishing. One of the wrongest pieces of well-intentioned advice I ever got was to avoid posting my work on the internet. It came from one of my favourite professors, someone I respect and admire, and it was an epiphanic moment for me when I realized even the best teachers could be wrong.

Another time-sensitive issue that will affect the usefulness of counsel is whether you are ready for it or not. Good advice for a novice won’t also be good advice for an established professional, or vice versa.

Sometimes taking instruction takes a while to practice – for instance, its takes me a decade to “get” watercolour illustration techniques I’d been taught as a teenager.

when it is good advice for everybody.

The traditional route for illustrators suggests direct mail to art directors, getting an agent, doing gallery shows. When I consider or make moves to pursue these routes, I feel frustrated. Why? I think because they are crowded channels. I become just another illustrator in someone’s full inbox. Sometimes I need to remind myself that doing what I’m doing – blogging as well as illustrating, and inhabiting the fashion industry rather than the publishing industry – has brought me everything I have so far. My situation is quite different than the art school graduates who are the main audience for the usual illustration career tips.

Which brings up the other problem with good, sensible advice, which is its tendency to become common sense. When you’re in a vast lecture hall or reading a bestselling book, the practical advice you’re receiving is a carbon copy, and won’t fit you any better than ready-to-wear. Worse, if you follow that advice closely, you are among a cohort following the same advice, which automatically diminishes the effectiveness of any action you take.

choosing the right advice for you.

So how to sort through advice, find what fits, figure out what to ignore and what to pursue? If you feel resistance, be wary. If it is standard advice, take the intended audience into account. Be aware of who is delivering the advice and whether their experiences echo your own. When it comes to practical stuff, the best advice is custom tailored just for you, and currency counts.

Above all, your own intuition will accept the right advice for you, at the right time for you.

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2 thoughts on “when good advice is wrong”

  1. Excellent thoughts here, Danielle. I’ve struggled with these ideas for the last couple of years as I work to figure out the online biz and blogging thing. There’s so much advice out there, and not all of it is for everyone. I eventually had to stop spazzing about doing it the way I was told and just start figuring it out for myself. (Thanks in no small part to your own admonishments to do just that.)

    Now, I find that I’m running into a different train of thought along the same track as I try to get started with a dream business that is solely wrapped around the idea of giving advice to others. How dare I do that, you know? But the more I thought about it, the more often I came down to your final point: people must use their intuition to sort it out. In my ideal business world, I’m giving support, options, and help where I can and as best I can, all the while reminding people that they have to trust their own guts. Take things under advisement; don’t just do it because I said.

  2. Thanks Ellie. It certainly is a pretty solid business plan. Look at how many blogs out there are pitching the self-development trip – and how many of them are solid moneymakers. Like I said, people desperately crave being told what to do. It’s a need that is never fully satisfied.

    I didn’t go into how to tell the difference between bad advice and good advice (right and wrong being a somewhat more subtle distinction). I think that the easy money is in the business of selling certainty – the more nuanced version of it “trust your intuition” isn’t as reassuring, and is harder to sell, even if it is more true. That’s why there is so much truly BAD, extremist advice out there which people buy into, even though it doesn’t work. It’s basically capitalism filling in the certainty gap left by religion. Most people desperately want to be lied to, if the lie is that they can know the unknowable.

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