Good Advice, Bad Advice

Good advice? In the first few weeks of my first real job, I was heading out to cover a student demonstration in Mexico City when my then boss, the bureau manager of UPI in Mexico City, told me: “Come back with the story, or not at all. If you don’t get the story, don’t tell me the reason why not.”

Bad advice? That’s harder, isn’t it? Don’t you have to be somewhat vindictive to remember bad advice?

More good advice (this one is a quote): “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”

And this one, from David Kreps, who taught decision science at the time: “you have to know what knobs you have to turn.”

And Hector Saldana, my favorite client during my middle career in consulting: “90 percent of success is just showing up.” That wasn’t his originally, but he used it often. He also told me once “good management is nothing more or less than knowing when and how to say no.”

Fortune has a feature called The best advice I ever got. Twenty-five well-known people with a picture and a paragraph each. Chairmen and CEOs and celebrities and politicians. There’s a comment area for the rest of us. Here are some quotes from some of them, (unattached from the people, by the way; that seems like a less distracting way to compile advice):

  • I’ve observed many CEOs, heads of state, and others in positions of great authority. I’ve noticed that some of the most effective leaders don’t make themselves the center of attention. They are respectful. They listen. This is an appealing personal quality, but it’s also an effective leadership attribute. Their selflessness makes the people around them comfortable. People open up, speak up, contribute. They give those leaders their very best.
  • Here is something to remember for the rest of your life: Don’t spend your time on things you can’t control. Instead, spend your time thinking about what you can.
  • Always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.
  • If you have something good to say, say it in writing. If you have something bad to say, you should tell the person to his or her face.

As soon as I saw it I started musing about bad advice. What was the worst advice you ever got? That would also seem interesting to me. And then, lo and behold, one woman included did in fact go for the worst advice instead of the best advice. Here’s what she said:

The worst advice I ever got was, “Don’t work with your husband [Pan Shiyi]. Marriage and business don’t mix.” You can’t imagine how many people told me this. But it’s such a narrow view of relationships. In our case I think our [real estate] business success springs from our friendship.

When you have two people trying to figure out problems together, one brings out new things in the other and vice versa. Aren’t human beings meant to be inspired in this way? With us, Pan works in a very intuitive way–even though he’s the man. I believe in women’s intuition, but I am also a product of my Western training [Cambridge, Goldman Sachs]. And so we approach decisions in very different ways and play different roles. He tends to come up with big ideas–then I’m the one who goes around trying to test them. He’s brilliant at sales. I worry about construction.

If the business fails, well, that puts a strain on the marriage. But what if it succeeds? That can enhance the marriage. When it comes to business and relationships, I don’t buy this idea of diversification. It neglects comparative advantage. The best way to lower risk is to specialize: Put the things that you love into one portfolio.

What about you? Could you name the best advice you ever got? How about the best you ever listened to? The worst advice?


  • David Mackey says:

    Yeah, its funny how some advice like "Don't work with your spouse" gets around…I guess a few people have really bad experiences and it becomes a rule.

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