One of my design students has been working on a paper products business. We’ve talked about her ideas in class and she has modified her aesthetic to suit the venture, nailed down a target audience, and quietly refined a sales plan. Her day job as a graphic designer in a corporate law firm makes it possible for her to squirrel away cash. This corporate job was the best she could find after graduation, a way to to save a little money while she worked on developing her business idea, her goal has been to do something that was more aligned with her own values.
I heard from her recently. She called to talk and “report” on how things were going. She's on track financially, the design work is coming along fine—she'd worked on some new ideas since the last time we talked, all decent enough to put toward the trial-launch of her new venture, to see what her audiences might buy.
But on this call, something isn’t right, there is something she is not telling me—which is fine since I don’t get into the personal lives of students if I can help it. At the end of the conversation, however, she pauses and asks, “Hey, can I get some advice from you about something?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
For the next ten minutes I hear a side of her I had never heard before. Apparently she had opened up to her mother a couple of days earlier about her business idea, and received what sounds like a mountain of discouragement, delivered in the form of unsolicited, well-meaning but cautious advice. The gist of it was “stick to what you know, play it safe.” Her interpretation was “your creativity doesn't matter, paying the bills is the only thing that matters, you should keep the corporate job even though it is not spiritually fulfilling because that’s life. This other thing is just a hobby.”
A young woman who always appeared calm and focused was now panicking, in tears and a little embarrassed. “I know logically what I should do, I should just continue. But mentally now I feel a bit of doubt. What If I do fail? I kinda feel internally conflicted.”
She had hit a wall—or had been shoved into it.
It's not the first time I have been on the listening end of this kind of situation. It has happened with students, friends, relatives, even seasoned professionals. I had to cool her out and gently walk her through some of the lessons I’ve picked up the hard way, things that work for me.
I started with the reminder that bad advice often comes from good intention. It's common for well-meaning people to project their own apprehensions in an effort to “help.” But everyone's a little fractured, a little flawed. We're all guilty of it. But I’ve worked to become better at getting away from the good-intentions people who ultimately wind up causing harm because those conversations can affect my productivity and well-being in a real way. I came to that realization only after it had already started to silently take its toll on me.
There are a number of things I ask myself when people decide to tell me how I should do things. Do they work with a similar business, if not in the same business? Have they done their homework on the subject? Are their values aligned with mine? Do they understand—genuinely—what I’m trying to accomplish both in the short and long term. Or do they see my business through their filter and their own ambitions for me? In other words, when dealing with people who mean well but cause harm, it becomes important to qualify them immediately: does their advice actually apply to me?
When it doesn't, I let them know unambiguously, but politely, that I'm not interested in discussing the topic, I switch to something more harmless or generic. If they persist, I exit the conversation. It's important to apply this kind of speed and agility to people who can't seem to respect boundaries. Ignoring the behavior has a psychological price: stress, self-doubt and the triggering of unproductive self-talk. So it's up to me to protect myself.
If you spend time around people who give well-meaning but terrible, unsolicited advice, how do you manage it? Because ultimately it’s your responsibility what goes in your mind, which then affects what comes out of it. It’s your responsibility to filter out those people who don't have usable ideas from those that do—and when their ideas are relevant. And it's also up to you to select those people and ideas that have something you might use years from now, when you're more ready for it, things that may entirely contradict where you find yourself right now. The bottom line is that you're ultimately responsible: to be prudent, to collect this material, use it and file it—to figure out when is the best time and occasion for it.
Paradoxically, it's also true that people who do care, know me well, and are generally smart people, will occasionally give me advice that reaches down and triggers some deep-seated fear in me. My very natural reaction might be reflexive at first—I might “reach for the button” to disqualify them. But I resist that temptation because this is probably precisely when I should pay attention. It becomes very easy to brush aside the things you don’t want to hear, especially things that trigger a particularly acute response. There's no reliable formula about qualifying or listening to people and advice except to pay attention to context. Because people and circumstances change. And further downrange, context and nuance become more important.
There’s a clever saying I picked up from a cognitive science article: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, habitual exposure to the same kind of situations will produce increasingly permanent patterns in the brain. This is a desired outcome when you're trying to learn a new language or dance moves. By exposing yourself to the same things over and over again, you create the seemingly automatic response of recalling the right things naturally. But if you're continually being treated badly by a co-worker, boss, spouse or friend and have to train yourself to “bottle it up”, or shrink in the face of these situations for fear of retaliation, that changes you too. What starts out as dismissing “harmless” bad behavior eventually becomes a habit of internalizing the trauma, shrinking from society. And conversations where you are asked to imagine worst-case outcomes over and over will prime you for hesitation, not for success.
After that last conversation with my student, she decided maybe it was time to push the envelope a little, and double down on her talent. She decided to start making some changes in the schedule and direction of her business. But the episode made me wonder about the people like her who do seem to recover from these conversations. How much do they heal? There’s something magical about there relationship between pain and growth. You move into another realm entirely when you commit to growth. You realize you have to bring enough stubbornness to outlast the stamina of your naysayers, whether they are people or just voices in your head. You have to defeat your impulse for safety and quietly move forward in the direction of your values.