Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Bear, The Squirrel, and The Eagle

Who do you turn to for advice?

Take a moment and think about it.

This will be a touchy subject I think, as I am going to suggest that your primary source of advice should be yourself and the secondary source probably ought to be anyone but a friend or relative.

Now, before anyone criticizes this stance, read on and let me clarify what I mean.  You best know both your capabilities and your limitations and, so long as you are honest with yourself about each, you should know better than anyone else what your path in life should be.  

I do not mean to say that you should blindly ignore statements of wisdom from others in favor of your own perspective, and especially not in those instances when it clashes with your own views.  These competing ideas can add tremendously to your knowledge of a subject and allow you to make far better informed decisions.  

Rather, I mean that you should have confidence in your perspectives because they have been formed by your own experience and learning and tempered by the ideas of others.  Scrutinize everything and then arrive at your own conclusions.

Unfortunately, this does not always happen.  The problem, as I see it, is that when people ask for advice, they are usually:

  • asking for the wrong reasons
  • asking the wrong people

In my experience, when someone asks for advice, they have already made a decision and, not entirely confident in themselves, are simply seeking validation of that choice.  In fact, when confronted by any  contrary perspectives, they sometimes become defensive and rationalize, rather than scrutinize and internalize, the ideas shared.  

That leads us to the second point, which is that in any situation, unless the person you are seeking advice from is qualified, experienced and versed in that topic, the advice you will get will be largely shaped by their limited experience in that field - which, because they lack the proper training, will most likely be negative and highly cautionary.  And, if this the case, the seeker of advice may very well be put off by the words of caution that they received.

Now, I am decidedly NOT saying here that people should not seek advice or be open to criticism of their plans.  

But I am saying that if you ever want to make meaningful change or progress in your life, you need to do your own research, reach your own conclusions, create your own plan, and then subject it to a qualified mentor for review and aid.  

Too many people seek advice from close friends or relatives, who lack knowledge of the subject matter placed at their feet and therefore are averse to the risk it represents.  They will therefore either suggest avoiding the proposed endeavor entirely, or will take the role of a supportive cheerleader and give you the approval you seek, but may not be capable of providing the guidance required to help ensure the success of the plan.

The result is that people try and subsequently fail, and then learn to avoid taking any risks whatsoever.  This leads to a dull and unfulfilled life, one in which a person fails to reach their potential and one which they ultimately come to regret.

Perhaps an allegory will help to illustrate my point:

Imagine that you are a bear, and that you are friends with a squirrel and an eagle.  Having spent your entire life on one side of a river, you have, after some years of considering the proposition, decided to cross it.  You approach the squirrel with this plan.  His opinion of the project is highly derogatory:

"You must be mad.  That water is cold!  You will freeze before you reach the other side!  The current is too quick, and you will be carried away to your death!  The water is too deep, and you will drown."

Worried about the dangers the squirrel outlined, you seek the opinion of the eagle, who loves his freedom and has a few areas across the river that he particularly enjoys.  His opinion of the project is quite encouraging:

"Yes, it is the easiest thing in the world to cross the river!  You will love what you find on the other side, and there are so many places to go and to see!  I can't wait for you to join me there!  So long as you have a good wind, you will be fine!"

This perspective clashes distinctly with that shared by the squirrel.  Troubled, you ponder what to do.  

The advice offered by each of your friends was so decidedly contrary to one another that you don't know who is correct.  And then you realize - for each of them, the opinion shared was entirely correct.  

The squirrel says the water is deep.  It is for him - he is only a few inches tall.  But you are much taller. The squirrel says the water is fast running.  Again, if you are the size of a squirrel, it would sweep you away without difficulty.  The squirrel says that the water is too cold.  He does not have the nice layer of thick and insulating fat and fur that you do.

The eagle says that all you need is fine weather and the crossing is easy.  But he can fly over it.  He does not have to deal with the current and the rocks.  

After some thought, you realize that for the advice to fit your situation, you need to find another bear, one who has crossed this river, and ask their opinion of your plan.  After some little effort, you do so.

"I want to cross," you begin, "at the rocks by the beaver dam.  I have thought about it and the water is slower there, and there is some structure there.  I am not a good swimmer yet, so I think that here I could make the crossing safely and stay, for the most part, out of the water."

After some discussion back and forth with your new friend, you find that your plan is sound, and that they often take that route as well.  You also find out that that spot is plentiful in fish and other food, and further benefit from their hard-earned wisdom.

The point of the story above was that the bear had a plan, informed by his own knowledge of himself and his strengths and flaws, and that only by seeking someone who was a good fit for the circumstances did the advice given have meaning.  

And, as it happened, because the bear had studied his approach and knew himself and his strengths and weaknesses, the plan was the right one for him.  The advice he got improved the plan, and everything worked to his advantage.

I guess the point here is that while the advice of the squirrel and eagle may make sense for each of them, and may be very vocally and adamantly offered, have confidence of your inner bear and, in case of doubt, be sure that you are listening to the right woodland creature before you abandon your plans.

...And, after some review, I think that might just be the strangest sentence I've ever written.

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