What you need to hear

The Philosopher Developer

July 29, 2023

A few years ago I wrote a piece called Advice vs. guidelines because I wanted to distinguish between times when I'm just trying to be helpful to someone given the state of the world, versus other times when I have an opinion about what the state of the world "should" be.

There is another distinction I often find myself making, which is not about the world as a whole but rather who we are in the world. That is, who I am, and who my audience is—whether the reader I have in mind for a piece of writing, the viewer for a video (I often record videos to share with my teams at work), or simply the person I'm speaking with in reality. The myth of the "general audience" is that a piece of communication may be suitable for everyone; but I find this is rarely the case. Even when I think what I'm saying is general, inevitably someone has a reaction to what I say that surprises me and shows me that what I have to say isn't as universal as I thought.

In truth, I am skeptical that there is any form of advice that would be valuable to all people. We all come from different backgrounds, face different challenges, and are the result of a unique combination of countless variables that collectively made us who and what we are.

This is an imperfect analogy, but it is a bit like every human has an internal set of metaphorical locks, and advice is like a key. Many keys fit locks that are common to many of us. Some keys only fit locks that are shared by a small few. There is no lock that everyone has, and therefore no key that works for everyone.

For example, in my career, I have advised many individuals with something along the lines of "It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission"—a well-known adage, but certainly not a message I believe everyone needs to hear. Some people are bullies, or reckless, or have very poor judgment. A lot of these folks probably need to hear the opposite advice. But there are a lot of smart, capable people who usually know what needs to be done, but their deference to authority or their reliance on achieving consensus slows them (and their teams) down. These are the people who, in my opinion, often need to hear this advice.

Sometimes, what you need to hear is "Believe in yourself; you can do this!" But not everyone has a confidence problem. Some people have an arrogance problem. These people might need to hear "Get off your high horse for a minute and actually listen to what people are trying to tell you."

Sometimes, what you need to hear is "A penny saved is a penny earned". But not everyone is too short-sighted to plan for the future. Some people have a bigger problem living in the moment and enjoying life. These people might need to hear "Live today like it's your last."

Sometimes, what you need to hear is "The squeaky wheel gets the grease". But not everyone has a hard time speaking up, voicing their problems, seeking attention or asking for help. Some people are constantly complaining or declaring that the sky is falling. These people might need to hear the story of the boy who cried wolf.

I have to remind myself of this sometimes, not only when I give someone else advice but also when I hear advice that doesn't resonate for me. My knee-jerk reaction is often That sounds completely wrong! But then I realize: maybe it just isn't what I need to hear. It could be exactly what someone else needs to hear.

Let others hear what they need to hear, and keep your ears open for the keys that will unlock something in you.