With Pith

Ethan Petuchowski

Asking for Advice

There are many circumstances in life during which one may feel the need to ask for advice. For example, when evaluating a significant decision, or when dealing with an emotionally stressful circumstance. Here, I will discuss advice about significant decisions.

In giving advice, everyone has a different approach. I generally try to follow a line I heard in a rap song by The Streets, “If you never tell a lie to her, you don’t have to remember anything.” In other words, lying will only complicate your life because you have to remember the lies you made up. (Caveat: this may not always the best way to go for emotionally complex issues.) I also enjoy helping people rationally and realistically evaluate their options for significant decisions, and surely if someone recalls that your input was helpful in the past, they will be more likely to ask you in the future.

Most people I know don’t seem to like giving useful advice. It seems they either are (1) too afraid that their honesty will lead you to dislike them, or (2) they feel so stressed with their own issues that taking on yours for a few minutes would be overwhelming, or (3) they find your problem uninteresting and simply have better things to do.

But some people are the opposite. They will patiently listen to your question and give what they feel to be an honest evaluation of where you stand and what you should do. The advice of people in this category will often be heavily and obviously biased by their own experience and ideology. This is simply a symptom of “being honest”.

So if you want good advice, it would be ideal to find someone who is honest, not stressed about a similar problem to yours, as well as interested in and knowledgeable of the subject; they should generally also be disinterested in your particular problem. However, this ideal candidate is not always available.

In that case one can obviously try the timeless “pros vs cons” list, which doesn’t necessarily rely on external sources of wisdom, but often external sources of wisdom are critical. One can ask unideal candidates for advice, and maybe they’ll at least have some curt nugget that has some use. That’s what I usually do, and it is generally not effective at all, but occasionaly that curt nugget is exactly the required pithy jewel.

One can consult the Internet, but I kind of assumed that if you needed advice, you already checked the Internet for answers. But to go one step further you can ask the Internet, treating it like this all knowing Oracle. This will work to varying degrees depending on your problem. If your problem is one that everyone and their mother has an opinion on, you will end up sifting through junk answers, and may or may not get anything useful. In that case, the more details you can reveal, the more benefit you will obtain. Of course where you ask matters: for example Quora will be more effective than Yahoo Answers. If your problem is esoteric, find the people who are into that thing.

For example, I have noticed to my surprise that StackOverflow/StackExchange is not always the best place for all programming-related questions, because if your question is esoteric to one technological ecosystem, the question- answering population on StackOverflow won’t necessarily have the flag-bearers of the cause of that particular ecosystem. But if it really is an ecosystem, it will have a place where the flag-bearers dwell, so find it and they will probably help. In my experience, IRC channels tend to be empty; Gitter channels may be well-attended; Github issues get a lot of flak for being a mess, but are often effective if you’re sure your question isn’t stupid; mailing lists can be high-latency but that’s often where the true experts of super-technical projects converse. Following good forum-question-asking practices is crucial in any of these environments, and it can be trickier to do that than it sounds. The better you phrase your question, the more appealing it is to answer in the eyes of a high-quality potential source of advice.

Sometimes the advice you receive from multiple sources will be in direct conflict with each other. I have been having this issue a lot lately. Let’s say one person suggested I do A, and another suggested I do not A. I have decided this pair of suggestions implies that either decision is just fine, which is basically the ideal outcome; viz. my so-called “significant decision” was not so significant after all and doesn’t not need to be balanced carefully.

Just some biased thoughts from my experience; take some, leave some, etc.