“You know, Stan,” Steve said, “I’ve lived six plus decades. I’ve worked since I was 12. I’ve made a ton of mistakes and I’ve learned some things that stay true even when the world changes.
“But I can’t get my 26-year-old staff member to take my advice.”
“Is it the way you deliver the advice?” I asked. This is the most common reason why good advice is not taken, in my experience.
Steve thought a moment. “Well, I try to acknowledge Rob’s intelligence and abilities. I compliment him on his logical thought. I try to explain that the reason I’m giving him the advice I am is because I’ve seen from personal experience how it makes sense. I explain the problems I’ve faced when I didn’t apply the same advice I’m giving him. I don’t think I’m preaching, just trying of help him avoid some pain and suffering.”
“It must feel frustrating,” I sympathized.
“It really is!” Steve said. “I’ve come to think that the culmination of living long enough to have something of value to teach others is that no one will listen to anything you have to say!”
A perfect irony, I thought. Like a master violinist washing up on a remote island after a shipwreck with his violin. And the natives are all deaf.
I wound back my own clock to the same age range, and I remembered something that could help explain Steve’s experience. I think I was about 24 years old. I had worked a long, hard summer in the Alaska salmon industry, saved up a bunch of money, had a year before my admission to grad school and decided to blow it all on travel for the next seven months. I planned to go through Central America and then spend a few months traveling around Europe.
My roommate, Stosh, had done the Europe-with-a-backpack trip himself a couple of years prior. He was still freshly imprinted with the experiences. When he found out that I was going to do the same thing, he wanted to tell me tips to overcome the rigors of such travel.
He wanted to show me what to avoid and where to go. He wanted to pull out his pack list so that I wouldn’t have to figure out all the essentials I should bring. His eyes shown bright with happiness that his long journey would be useful to someone else, and he was being a true friend to help me out.
Except I didn’t want to hear any of it. I didn’t ask for help, and I didn’t want the information. Each time he would try to begin the subject and gently deliver a bit of advice, I would change the subject. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore.
“What’s wrong with you?” Stosh blurted. “Do you want to have a miserable time or something?!”
“Maybe,” I said. “When you went, did anyone give you the benefit of their experience?”
“No,” Stosh said.
“Did you have a rotten time?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I had a phenomenal experience that I will never forget.”
“Why? You must have been uncomfortable and exhausted a number of times,” I said.
“Yes, that’s true…” Stosh said. After a few moments of thought, he said, “I think each moment was being created new for me. The adventure of not knowing and figuring it out along the way was exhilarating. I couldn’t predict what would happen next. Ever.”
And that was exactly why I didn’t want any advice or preconceptions. I wanted to land in Luxembourg, step onto European ground with no biases, no knowledge, no advice. I wanted to experience it freshly, immediately. I wanted to figure it out along the way, by myself.
I never regretted that decision to avoid advice. The mistakes I made and the decisions I made and the incredible experiences I had are still fresh in my mind. I have no trouble bringing up those images and people and places. To this day, the smell of diesel in freezing winter air brings me right back to Paris in December 1976, climbing up the drain spout on the youth hostel building so I could get to my bed long after curfew.
Young people who have a deep desire to create their own lives don’t want much, if any, advice. They want to blow it, to experience the consequences and the rewards of being completely, totally responsible for finding out, making decisions, and seeing what comes.
Smart youths will also keep their eyes open for what does or doesn’t work for others, however. They are happy to watch what people decide to do and borrow the learning indirectly. That way, it’s their decision what to observe, and what to learn.
“Steve, I think I know how you can get Rob to take your well-intentioned advice” I said. “You have to let him see you screw up.
“Show him that experienced, knowledgeable masters of their own fate can blow it. And pick something you want him to learn. But whatever you do, don’t try to tell him anything!”
Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org