Levels of Advice, and Understanding When It’s Not Needed

When you know what you want and have a good plan of how you want to achieve it, be careful before you blindly follow more general advice.

After my last post on reputation, I read an interesting Guardian piece on whether students should be encouraged to set their sights on Russell Group universities:

“…teachers now have an explicit incentive to focus on the “big brand” universities, following a controversial decision in the Department for Education last summer to collect data on how many pupils each school was sending to Russell Group universities. At a roundtable in the department this month, leading figures from outside the group will fight to derail this new measure – which has sparked a fierce row behind the scenes.”

The article mentions Sophie Cousens, who has been interested in marine biology since she was a child. Her main focus was to study the subject at Plymouth University. Cousens explains that she researched beforehand and was careful about making the right decision for her.

What interests you (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

What interests you? Where are you headed? (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

However, the Guardian reports that Cousens felt pressured to apply to a Russell Group university. The advice was seemingly for her own good, but she had already done the necessary research. Cousens had looked at Russell Group universities and found they either did not provide a marine biology course or that the course did not appeal.

Teachers had an incentive, as well as a piece of general advice which Cousens appears to have long surpassed. That advice may have been useful to some, but not to a person with clear plans. Unsurprisingly, there was a conflict of interests here. I doubt the pressure Cousens faced was spiteful. However, it does highlight that advice works on different levels.

When you have a detailed understanding of your aims, you’re in a good position. General aims are more likely, if not finding you draw a blank completely. None of this is to be ashamed of.

What’s important is to be aware of where you stand one way or the other.

Sophie Cousens knew what she wanted. General advice wasn’t helpful in this situation. Consider this point made by the Russell Group’s director, Wendy Piatt:

“All Russell Group universities demonstrate excellence and critical mass in research as well as a first-class educational experience, and excellence in enterprise and innovation.”

And the following comment from Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith (Exeter being a member of the Russell Group):

“It does matter which institution you go to. The evidence is clear that it does affect your future, and we should encourage students to go to the best institution they can.”

Both Piatt and Smith provide a general argument to the situation. Whether or not ‘the evidence is clear’, this is different to Cousens’ individual research. These two perspectives view reputation in very different ways. In both cases, reputation has legs. There is no right or wrong.

As general advice, a push toward a Russell Group university may help a student with good grades and few plans ahead of them. I’m not saying the advice is correct, but it is one way to help someone think about the future, consider what they can achieve, and focus on a specific set of universities so they’re not overwhelmed. The question is, how many people are best served with this level of advice?

Cousens didn’t need pushing in that direction. As Steve Smith explains:

“I think it is a mistake to assume that everyone should aspire to go to a Russell Group university…There are other good institutions doing different things, and some great subjects that aren’t offered at Russell Group institutions.”

So where do you stand?

  • For students with a bold plan, advice should be about giving them the best chance of reaching that goal;
  • For students with a vague plan, advice needs to be tailored carefully to help them build something more concrete;
  • For students with good grades but poor plans, more general advice may be reasonable. Not everybody knows what they want, but that doesn’t make them a lost cause. At the same time, general advice should still be varied and not based on pressure toward a single goal, such as attending a Russell Group institution.

Excellence is apparent in different ways, just like reputation. Whatever level of advice you need, find what seems most useful to you and act on it accordingly, because that’s what matters.

“People always talk about, reputation...

Too much advice and not enough productivity?

Simple advice can usually be taken the opposite way.

  • Want to achieve your goals?  Make them public!  No, keep them private!
  • Want to focus better on revision?  Listen to music while you work!  No, sit in silence!
  • Want to save money on your shopping bill?  Make a list!  No, shop less strictly to bag the bargains!

You may have heard me say that one person’s poison is another person’s potion.  When it comes to uncomplicated suggestions from a friend, or a blog post with some quick tips, the advice won’t necessarily work for you.


photo by RobeRt Vega

photo by RobeRt Vega

If there was a single answer, we’d all take that route and we’d all love the success it brought.  Nobody would have to worry.  But, naturally, life isn’t like that.

The same goes for if a selection of answers all produced the same, successful, result.  Suggestions are great, but you have to make them your own before they’ll work.  Even then they may not yield the fruit you were expecting.

Yes, it’s frustrating, but life isn’t simple.  That’s why so many people are hooked on finding a quick fix or an astounding life hack.

Whenever you stumble upon something great, let’s call it ‘lucky’.  Without seeking any advice, you won’t be as lucky as one who does the searching.  You do have to ‘create your own luck‘ to an extent.  However, there is a saturation point where even the one who searches is wasting their time.

After all, there are so many blogs devoted to study tips and life hacks that it’s easy to spend too much time reading themDo you really want to save time, or do you want to procrastinate? At some point, you need to act on the advice you already have.

Darren Rowse of ProBlogger made some great points over Twitter about all the supposedly time-saving advice out there:

“Problem with productivity techniques: so many focus upon how we can stuff more into life – which just sets us up for heart attacks later.  Not sure what the answer is but it strikes me that a better approach to productivity would be becoming focused and doing less things better.  Or maybe thinking about all this productivity stuff is just a distraction from being productive.”

Darren was inspired to make those comments because of this video:

We do face distractions.  They won’t go away.  Neither should we be forced to rid ourselves of all disruption.

However, the idea of ‘doing less things better’ is important.  Doing more isn’t automatically more impressive.  A limited number of key pursuits can be more convincing.  You may find that, in the transition, you focus on more demanding work within the deliberately limited scope.  The good news is that hard work under these conditions is often more satisfying.

I’m not trying to suggest that general productivity hacks and tips are useless.  Far from it.  Much of the advice I give on this blog is general.

I see the difficulties of taking advice working in two ways:

  1. Specific advice is easy to action because there is little need to interpret.  Just follow step by step.  However, it is less likely to yield as much success as the person who achieved it and advised in the first place;
  2. General advice is harder to action, because you have to take responsibility for making it your own.  You may develop the approach wonderfully, you may reach a dead end and seek out different advice, or you may find it too hard to take on that responsibility at all.

Advice, no matter how specific, should be examined and considered, but at no point should you expect an automatic win.  Even if you’re persuaded it’s a no-brainer.

It’s great to take a punt and win.  It’s hell to expect the best and lose.

The advice I give is based on my own experience and those of others.  I sometimes advise stuff that doesn’t (or hasn’t yet) worked for me.  Why?  Because I know many others who have been successful using those methods.

We may not be the same, but we share many similar features and goals and thought processes.  It would be insane if nobody listened to others for advice.  It would be equally insane if you took everything they said as the truth. The only person who can find your truth is you.  And it’s not an easy road.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.  Have a nice trip.  And don’t make *too* many stops on the way for advice.  You can’t refuel if you’ve not started using your own resource tank yet.

Want to hear more? Just before I went to publish this, Darren Rowse put up his own video on whether productivity systems really work.  I’ll leave you with that: