Time to eat humble pie. But more often than we expect, the best advice comes not from experts or our friends but from humbler sources. We just have to be willing to hear them.
The funny thing about advice: We so often take it from the wrong people. That is, we overvalue the advice of credentialed experts while undervaluing the input of regular folk. Wade Leblanc bucked that trend big-time, and he reaped the benefits.
One reason taking advice is problematic for many of us is that status matters—a lot. A cognitive quirk called optimism bias endows most of us with a general hopefulness that things will work out even when the odds suggest otherwise. And optimism bias gets ratcheted up, researchers have found, when the person offering advice is seen as an expert. The expert’s bona fides boost the expectation of success if we listen to them—even though our confidence often proves wrong.
“Expert advisers often make surprisingly inaccurate predictions about the future, yet people heed their suggestions nonetheless,” concluded Stanford University psychologists in a study published last year.
Now, not everyone heeds experts’ advice. The more successful people become, the smaller the pool of advisers they trust. Participants in positions of power ignored almost two thirds of the advice they received, according to one Harvard University study. Other participants—the control and lowpower groups—ignored advice about half as often.
A couple of years ago, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan found himself in a similar spot as Leblanc—and likewise benefited from advice from a humble source. This time it wasn’t a taxi driver, but a movie critic.
After the huge commercial and critical success of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s fortunes had grown cloudier. Box office for his later movies was decent, but the critics had turned on him. One likened his psychological thriller The Village to an episode of Scooby-doo. Instead of shrugging off this critic, Shyamalan wondered whether there might be something to the pan.
His signature as a filmmaker was a kind of genre-bending twist: You think you’re watching one kind of film, and then it morphs into something different. A drama becomes a psychological thriller. A psychological thriller goes supernatural. Each transition shifts the intensity. But for the technique to work, the intensity must escalate. In The Village, it didn’t.
Shyamalan shelved his ego and took the criticism to heart. “Don’t pretend you’re not hurt by what that dude just said” was what Shyamalan took away from the experience. Instead, he decided to go with it.
The director doubled down on his signature shape-shifting style for his next film, Split, which told the story of a man with 24 personalities. His own agent didn’t think he could sell it, so Shyamalan financed the $9 million film himself. It made more than $270 million and became one of the most profitable pictures of 2017. It also won back his critics.
Most of us aren’t much good at taking advice from anyone. We tend to put more stock in our own opinions than the opinions of others, owing to yet another cognitive blind spot called egocentric bias. It’s frankly easier to believe that our critics are too thick to grasp our genius, or are jealous, or have some kind of agenda, than to allow that they may be right.
The required leap of humility is a big ask. One useful trick comes from Eastern philosophy. According to the Korean Zen monk Haemin Sunim, when someone’s coming at you with reproval, that’s when you need to lower your defenses, not raise them. “Those who give you a hard time, they are your teachers in disguise.”
Well, here’s something for you try that works for me. Try asking questions instead. If you’re giving advice, leverage questions instead of just telling them what to do. What’s particularly interesting to me here, is that I just read an article that also concluded that people inherently resist advice because change is pain and people don’t like to be told what to do. The bottom line was that if you’re the one giving advice, it’s more effective to ask questions and have people reflect than it is to just give advice. The key though is intent. If you are manipulative rather than helpful, people see through and you lose rapport.
Check out my related post: Do you ask for advice?