A Simple Guide To Deciding If Advice Is Good

There has to be a way to decide if the advice people offer so freely is any good or not.

When I asked readers last week what blogging voices we should trust, at least one of you said we shouldn’t trust anyone, instead reading posts only for inspiration.

That’s good, uh, advice, actually. Listen to lots of people and trust no one. Then, you won’t be damaged or disappointed if the advice or the source goes bad. Seeing advice as inspiration also allows us to mull over the concepts and come up with a set of actions that are uniquely our own.

Sometimes, however, I’d like some advice. I’d like to know if an educated observer sees flaws in a plan or if someone has experience in an area that proves or disproves my assumptions.

But how can we decide if the advice on offer is good advice or ill-advised?

Here’s are three advice tests I think might work.

1. The Source Test

By far the least reliable of the three advice tests because even good sources sometimes offer bad advice, the Source Test still has great value.

To determine if a source is reliable — and therefore if the advice might be good — consider the source’s

  • education, experience and credentials on the subject at hand
  • general reliability and trustworthiness as a person and on other subjects
  • own success with the concept

For example, I have education, experience and credentials in journalism, including a degree in Communication with a sequence in Broadcast Management. I also hope I’ve proved myself to be a trustworthy source of information on some topics. I even interned at a small TV station in Dallas.

But I’ve never been employed full-time at a TV station. So I don’t completely pass the Source Test for advice on breaking into television news, despite the fact that I have some knowledge and opinions on the topic.

2. The Evidence Test

Advice without evidence is simply an unsubstantiated opinion.

To really trust someone’s advice, you have to consider the evidence they offer and that you find in your own research along with the advice itself.

How much evidence you need to be confident about whether to accept a piece of advice depends on how important the decision is.

In the American legal system, low-stakes civil cases often require proving only by a so-called “preponderance of the evidence”. Simply put, it must be more likely than not that a circumstance is as stated.

When the case is criminal and the stakes involved are higher, so is the legal burden of proof. Criminal cases must often be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”.

It is never necessary in the American legal system to prove a case “beyond a shadow of a doubt” — although the term is often used. The reason this standard isn’t used is simple: There’s never a time when all doubt can be removed.

How important is it that the advice you’re considering is accurate? The answer to that question determines how far you must take the Evidence Test.

3. The Smell Test

The final test is the least objective of the three, but it is also probably the truest indicator of the quality of any piece of advice.

The Smell Test is simply whether something seem right to you. Sometimes, this test is called a “gut feeling”.

My college philosophy teacher put it yet another way: Does the item in question have the ring of truth?

How much of the advice you hear today really has the ring of truth? When you take everything you already know into consideration and also take under advisement the new information and opinions, does everything add up? Or does something smell funny?

The Smell Test is a powerful tool, but it’s often disregarded.

They Work Together

When you combine your knowledge of a source with the available evidence, you get a good idea about whether a piece of advice is worth taking in. Add in your own intuition, then you’ll be as sure as you can be.

If something feels wrong, it’s likely wrong for you even if the advice is sound.

While some advice is based on flawed assumptions and some comes from uninformed sources, a few pieces of advice hit like a ton of very well-timed and useful bricks. Those are the ones worth taking.

Take my advice: Check any advice you get today against these three criteria before you accept or reject it. Doesn’t that seem right to you?

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  1. I agree, with the qualifier that if something smells funny and there are any real stakes at all, the advice should probably be investigated – not tossed aside.

    I like how the emphasis here is on the combination of the three, and not the “gut reaction” to the exclusion of the other two.

    There are plenty of people out there who make intuition-based decisions based on their own delusions – and wind up being very, very wrong.

    Great post Gip!

    1. I think some people are just more in touch with themselves and more intuitive than others. Even things that you feel certain about deserve some investigation, though.


  2. Advice on evaluating advice, huh? But you are right; we are constantly bombarded with unsolicited advice, and even that which we seek is often worth exactly what we’ve paid for it.

    This is a great guide for evaluating advice. One thing to add, possibly under #1, along with credentials and such, would be reputation. Not necessarily someone’s professional reputation, but more like what that person’s track record has been. Has his or her prior advice been sound? What opinion do other people you trust have of this person’s advice?

    1. I think it’s amazing that people turn on their TVs looking for random advice. A host asks if you know how to make the perfect chocolate cake, and the person stays around to watch even though they weren’t planning to make a chocolate cake. Amazing.

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