One of my design students, let’s call her Kate, wants to start a paper products business. We’ve talked about her ideas in class. Since then she has streamlined her aesthetic for the venture, nailed down a target audience, and quietly been working on a plan for sales. She’s kept a day gig as a graphic designer in a corporate law firm, and is squirreling away cash to do something that was more aligned with her values. This corporate job was the best she could find after graduation, and the gig with which she could manage to save a little money while she worked on developing her business idea.
I heard from her recently, out of the blue. She called to talk and “report” on how things were going. And apparently she's on track. Cash-wise she’s on track. Product design-wise she’s on track. She had 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 audience might enjoy.
Everything seems fine on the call but something isn’t right. There’s 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. But there’s little surprise at the end of the conversation, when she pauses and asks, “Hey can I get some advice from you about something?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
For the next 7-10 minutes I heard a side of my once-student 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, cautious advice. The gist of it was “stick to what you know, play it very safe” with an uncomfortable main course of “your creativity doesn't matter, paying the bills are the only thing that ever matter,”and a side helping of “suck it up and keep the corporate job even though it is not spiritually fulfilling because that’s life”.
And here was Kate, who always appeared calm and focused, 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.
It's not the first time I have been on the listening end of this kind of conversation. It has happened with students, friends, even relatives. I had to cool her out and gently walk her through some of the lessons I’ve picked up the hard way.
I started with the reminder that bad advice often comes from good intention. So there are a number of things I ask myself when people want to tell me how I should do things. Do they work with a similar business model, if not in the same business? Have they done their homework on the subject that they wish to pontificate about? Are their values aligned with mine? Do they understand, genuinely understand, 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?
I’ve become insanely better at getting away from the good-intentions people who ultimately wind up causing harm—insanely better because those conversations are dumpster fires for your brain, and I realized it after it had already started to silently take its toll and turn good parts of me black. There’s a clever saying I picked up from a cognitive science article: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Simply put, it means that habitual exposure to the same kind of situations will produce increasingly permanent patterns in the brain. This is a good thing when you're trying to learn a new language by exposing yourself to the same words over and over—you create the seemingly automatic response of recalling the right words naturally. It's a terrible thing, however, if you're continually being treated badly by a co-worker, boss, spouse or friend and you train yourself to bottle it up, for fear of retaliation. What starts out as dismissing bad behavior as a harmless thing eventually becomes a habit of internalizing the disturbance by not responding to the person by demanding they stop. Similarly, being pulled into conversations where you are asked to imagine worst-case outcomes repeatedly won't exactly put you in the best state to pursue success, without reservation or hesitation.
It’s not unusual for people to project their own apprehensions and hesitations in their effort to “help.” Everyone's a little fractured. We're all guilty of it.
There are other factors too. Consider that people will be offering advice that may sound good at the time, but have a different perspective attached to them. You may not share the same advantages, so you have different priorities because of it. For example, you may have a different socio-economic position that doesn’t give you the resources to market test your idea in the same way as someone else, or get advice from the absolute A-players in your field because you don't have that kind of access. Which means you’ll have to improvise, find workarounds and generally just work harder than them. That’s OK, that’s where being stubborn can be an asset, and there's much respect to be seen in determination.
But, when dealing with people who mean well but cause harm, I've found it becomes important for me to qualify them. And once I've done that, if they don’t make the cut— because either they just don't know what they're talking about, or they feel comfortable enough to show me their "tough love" side, or play devil's advocate about my idea when I didn't ask for it—most people know pretty fast that I'm not interested in it: I let them know unambiguously, but politely, that I'm not interested in discussing it. I drop the topic and switch to something more harmless or generic. If they persist, I get away from them. Eventually, after enough warning, I'd cut them off.
I apply this kind of speed and agility to toxic people in general, who disrespect boundaries when they talk to me about business, relationships, friendships, mental health, physical health or whatever. I have an almost religious zeal about mental toxicity because I have seen from the evidence around me in friends and family what a toll it can take to ignore, show sympathy to, or otherwise allow that kind of personality to continue to be a presence in one's life. It's become abundantly clear that it’s up to me to protect myself.
If you spend time around people who give well-meaning terrible, unsolicited advice, how do you manage it? Because ultimately it’s your responsibility what goes in your head, which then affects what comes out of it. It’s your responsibility to filter out those people who don't have usable feedback from those that do—and when the people in that latter set do and when they don't. And it's up to you to select those who have something you might use a few years from now, when you're ready for it—and these are things that may entirely contradict where you are right now. But you're ultimately responsible : it’s your job to be prudent, to collect this material and file it, to figure out when to come back to it.
Lastly, I have found interesting paradox and this happens sometimes. It turns out that people who do care, know me well, and are generally smart people, will occasionally give me advice that reaches down and pinches some deep-seated fear in me. My very natural reaction might be reflexive in the beginning—I might reach for the button to disqualify them. But I stop short because I have learned that this is precisely when I should pay attention. It becomes very easy to brush aside the things you don’t want to hear, especially those that trigger a particularly acute response like that. The lesson for me here is that I can never rely on any formula about qualifying or listening to people, and that I should pay attention to all contexts very thoroughly. People change—their qualifications change, their outlook, methods and quality of insights change. And further downrange, context becomes more important—it becomes more than one half of useful advice.
In that last conversation with Kate, she eventually decided maybe it was getting close to the time where she should double down—carefully—on her talent. She decided to start making some changes in the direction of her business.
But the episode made me wonder about the people who recover from these conversations. Honestly, I sometimes wonder how much people heal, or even whether they truly do. For me there’s something very magical about knowing that a certain tolerance for pain is required for one to advance in anything. That capacity for endurance is necessary to risk doing things you’ve never done before, to go the distance, and run past your peers.
You move into another area entirely when you commit to the sacrifice. You realize that you've brought enough stubbornness to outlast all of your best ideas. And you take responsibility for the ones that fail spectacularly as much as the ones that keep you on the road in one piece.