Saturday, July 23, 2011

Whose advice do you trust?

One of the most difficult things about parenting (and pre-parenting) is knowing whose advice to trust. As a parent, many things are completely new and it is difficult to know the right way to do something. Many people offer to give advice, and while people are well-intentioned, their method might not work for you. The central problem is: whose advice do you trust?

After listening to conflicting advice from many people, I have a reliable method of determining whose advice to trust:
Trust the advice of people with many friends from diverse backgrounds.

I arrived at this idea after looking at the people who have given us good advice in different scenarios. It seemed that the people with the best advice also had many diverse friends.

Why? When a person has many diverse friends, it displays two qualities:
  1. Access to a wider variety of human experience.
  2. An ability to handle criticism and a difference of opinion. Being able to hear someone out is good, but being able to patiently hear why you are wrong is a true skill. Being thin-skinned about a topic usually cuts short the conversation before you can see an alternative solution to a problem.
My friend calls this the "Pagerank" of human advice. While I had not thought of it in those terms, it makes complete sense. People are knowledgeable because of whom they know, not just what they know. When people have a lot of diverse friends, the increase in knowledge is not just linear. It is exponential, as they can relate to how Mary had a similar problem that Bob is talking about, even though Mary and Bob have completely different backgrounds. This allows them to identify patterns of problems and patterns of solutions, which is more valuable than knowing a single solution for a single problem. Also, having a wider set of friends allows you to learn from others' mistakes before you face the same situation.

Low sensitivity to criticism helps in accepting alternate methods of solving the same problem. Being receptive to new ideas allows us to identify new methods rather than being stuck in a rigidly defined solution. You can measure the receptivity of a person when you decline their suggestion. A person who takes offence when you decline their suggestion has low levels of receptivity. Such people also have the poorest suggestions. The best advice is given by people whose interest is piqued when you say you are going to do things differently. They don't feel offended when someone declines their advice. Indeed, they want to know the alternatives because they actively seek other ways of solving the problem.

My friend also pointed out that the two qualities listed above might be present in a person lacking diversity among their friends. This could happen when a person has lived in a homogeneous society and does not have access to people of diverse backgrounds. I suspect that in such cases, the people will form lasting friendships with diverse people if they get a chance. I know some people who have grown up in homogeneous societies, and they still have a diverse group of friends for their limited surroundings. Their group might be homogeneous by some respects (ethnic background, religion, etc) but will be completely diverse in others (education, parenting, occupation, age...)