The Difference Between Good and Bad Advice

Be careful giving advice that's based solely on your personal experience, and always be very specific about exactly what needs to be done differently -- the specific behaviors the person should or shouldn't engage in.
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Most advice is terrible. Whether you get it from a bestselling author, your boss or your neighbor, nine times out of 10 it's about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. And yet most advice -- at least the kind you take seriously -- comes from people who are in their own way very accomplished. So it presents something of a paradox: successful people who can't seem to effectively articulate how they became so successful.

It doesn't stop them from trying. And you can't blame them, because each of us feels like we understand the causes of our own past successes and failures. We tell stories to ourselves, about ourselves, that seem to make sense. Why not tell the story to others so that they, too, can benefit from it?

Well, for starters, many of the stories we tell about ourselves are wrong. Decades of research paint a pretty poor picture of human beings' ability to accurately identify the causes of our own behavior, and the reasons why we succeed or fail. Very successful people may do the right things, but they aren't necessarily any better at figuring out what exactly they did right.

For the record, before I started studying motivation and achievement for a living, my intuitions were no better than anyone else's. I thought I got As in school and was a disaster in every sport was because I was born that way. Years later I learned that no one is born that way. It forced me to rethink the story I had been telling myself all my life.

When I decided to get into the advice-giving business and write my book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals," I thought a lot about what makes advice useful. Recently, I was struck once again by the clear difference between useful and useless advice while reading Guy Kawasaki's new book "Enchantment." It reminded me that good advice has two distinct qualities. And since it would be pretty obnoxious of me to use my own book as an illustration of great advice-giving (though it is tempting), I'm going to use Kawasaki's instead.

"Enchantment" is a step-by-step guide to becoming the kind of person who enchants, which in turn allows you to create the kind of business that enchants, too. One of the things I love about this book is that Kawasaki isn't afraid to set himself an incredibly ambitious goal. He's not content to show you how to be more effective or make more money; he wants to show you how to be extraordinary. In terms of gutsiness, this is like teaching an art class at your local community college and promising students that they won't just learn to paint a cow that looks like a cow, but they'll learn to paint cows like Picasso. (I'm not sure if Picasso ever painted cows, but you get my point.)

The thing is, Kawasaki pulls it off. He has written a book that gives useful advice on achieving a particularly big, hairy and audacious goal: becoming the kind of person who changes the "heart, mind, and actions" of others. And he succeeds because his advice embodies these two principles:

1) Good advice is true.

This sounds obvious, and yet a staggering amount of the advice you'll read on how to do just about anything is simply not true. There is, for instance, absolutely zero evidence that if you imagine yourself getting everything you want effortlessly, it will somehow magically happen -- and plenty of evidence that this kind of thinking actually undermines your success. This is good advice to give only if you are trying to sabotage the recipient.

Kawasaki's advice is true because he is wise enough to not simply rely on his own experiences, despite having more than enough of those to draw on to fill many books. He casts a much wider net and incorporates the experiences of countless other individuals and businesses, along with relevant scientific research, into his analysis of enchantment and its root causes. By taking a more objective view, "Enchantment" becomes not just a story of why Kawasaki is successful, but of how each of us can be as well.

2) Good advice is concrete; it has steps.

This is the principle that advice-givers nearly always violate. "Be positive!" they tell you. Gee, thanks. "Take action!" Oh, I need to take action? Silly me, I had no idea.

We all know we need to do these things to be successful; the problem is that we don't know how to do them. We need steps. We need specificity. We need someone to tell us where to start. Advice that tells you what to do without bothering to tell you how to do it is utterly pointless.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about "Enchantment": It takes a concept as elusive and difficult-to-define as "enchantment," defines it, and then tells you exactly what you need to do to get your hands on it.

It doesn't just say "Be likeable"; it actually spells out how to become more likeable in terms of concrete behaviors: what to do more of (e.g., find commonalities), what to do less of (e.g., using 25-cent words when a 10-cent word will do) and what to do only under the right circumstances (e.g., swear). Kawasaki's advice is just as specific when it comes to cultivating authenticity, overcoming resistance and making enchantment last.

So what's the lesson here? It's simply this: be careful giving advice that's based solely on your personal experience, and always be very specific about exactly what needs to be done differently -- the specific behaviors the person should or shouldn't engage in. Bad advice can leave the recipient frustrated, confused or headed down the wrong path. When they just can't seem to "be positive" and "take action," they might feel that the fault lies with them.

If you are an advice-giver (and that category includes managers, parents, teachers and friends), you have a responsibility to do right by those who come to you for help. Keep these two principles in mind and you can make the most of the wisdom you have to offer.