Seek advice and learn to ignore it

Lenny Teytelman Oct 08, 2014

There is an excellent research article "Smart People Ask for (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence" on seeking advice, its benefits, why people avoid it, and the good impression asking for advice leaves in others (Scientific American post on it here).

Every time I give a talk to students/postdocs in academia or budding entrepreneurs, I emphasize just how crucial seeking advice is for the research career or the success of their startup. I have written on Thespectroscope on the impact of choosing a good mentor when joining a research lab ("Your mentor can make or brake your academic career").

But there is a flip side to seeking advice. If you do it enough, a lot of it is going to be wrong. Learning when to trust your own expertise and instinct is as critical as finding good advisors. This is part of growing up as a scientist (as in my experience with my most important research paper "It’s great when experts disagree."). It's part of becoming a successful entrepreneur. So, seek advice and learn which of it to ignore! 

I have also written recently on the parallels of academia and startups, and I devote a whole section there exactly to this:

Your PI, thesis committee, and the startup advisory board

When I give talks and advice on founding a startup, I think my most valuable suggestion is to get good advisors. Don’t worry, there is plenty of trial and error and you definitely will learn from your mistakes. But if you don’t get advice and try to make all the mistakes you are fated to make, instead of learning, you’ll just fail. Similarly, the role of the PI and the thesis committee and your labmates is to limit the number of mistakes you make, so that you graduate in 6 instead of 66 years. That is also why I have always stressed to students picking a graduate or postdoc lab not to underestimate the importance of a good advisor (see my recent "Your mentor can make or brake your academic career").
The second-most valuable suggestion I offer is to learn when to ignore the advice. Part of maturing as a PhD student involves becoming the expert on your thesis project. And at some point, instead of asking for guidance from your advisor, your job becomes guiding your advisor to understand and support your experiments and plans. As important as good mentors are to your success, it is equally important to learn that advisors like to advise and a huge portion of the advice they give you is wrong. At some point in your startup, you suddenly start drowning in conflicting advice from your investors, directors, advisors, friends, and users. If you listen to everything, you’ll just fail. Again, filtering this is an art that you pick up with time, and academia provides you with plenty of time and opportunity to become a master at this.
[For startup founders, I also want to note that you will occasionally engage with a bad advisor. The person may be well-intentioned, but something doesn't fit. He or she discourages you. The advice coming from this person irritates you and the interaction ruins your day. At the same time, the same exact advice from other people makes you act and solve problems. Get rid of such advisors. It's painful to tell a person you no longer want their help and no longer want them on your board of directors or advisors. However, not parting ways is going to be much more damaging and excruciating down the road. Just make sure you are not surrounding yourself with people who agree. There is a difference between bad advisors and advice you disagree with. If you surround yourself with advisors or founders who always agree, that defeats the point of the co-founder and seeking advice.]