A Better Way to Ask for Advice

When we’re unsure of the path to a goal, we often seek directions from an expert guide. It’s a familiar mantra: if you want to be great, learn from the best. Take a master class in cooking from a top chef. Sign your kids up for a tennis lesson with a pro. Convince the biggest star in your field to be your mentor and learn how to follow in their footsteps. What could be better than taking your first physics class with Einstein?

Quite a bit. In a clever study, economists wanted to find out whether students really learn more from experts. They collected data on every freshman at Northwestern University from 2001 to 2008. They investigated whether freshmen did better in their second course in a subject if their introductory class was taught by more qualified instructors.

You might assume that students would be better off learning the basics from an expert (a tenure‑track or tenured professor) than a nonexpert (a lecturer with less specialized knowledge). But the data showed the opposite: students who took their initial class with an expert ended up with poorer grades in the next class.

The pattern was robust across fields: students learned less from introductory classes taught by experts in every subject. It held across years—with over 15,000 students—and in courses with tougher as well as easier grading. And the experts were especially bad at teaching students who were less academically prepared.

It turns out that if you’re taking a new road, the best experts are often the worst guides. There are at least two reasons why experts struggle to give good directions to beginners. One is the distance they’ve traveled—they’ve come too far to remember what it’s like being in your shoes. It’s called the curse of knowledge: the more you know, the harder it is for you to fathom what it’s like to not know. As cognitive scientist Sian Beilock summarizes it, “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”

If you’re taking a new road, the best experts are often the worst guides.

That was Einstein’s curse in the classroom. He knew too much, and his students knew too little. He had so many ideas swirling in his head that he had a hard time keeping his lectures organized—let alone explaining to a beginner how gravity bends light. When he made his teaching debut in a thermodynamics course, despite being a rising star in physics, his lackluster teaching attracted only three students. His material was often over their heads, and after he failed to draw a larger group the following semester, Einstein canceled the class. Several years down the road, he was nearly denied another faculty position because the university president was underwhelmed by his teaching skills.

It’s often said that those who can’t do, teach. It would be more accurate to say that those who can do, can’t teach the basics. A great deal of expert knowledge is tacit—it’s implicit, not explicit. The further you progress toward mastery, the less conscious awareness you often have of the fundamentals. Experiments show that skilled golfers and wine aficionados have a hard time describing their putting and tasting techniques—even asking them to explain their approaches is enough to interfere with their performance, so they often stay on autopilot. When I first saw an elite diver do four and a half somersaults, I asked how he managed to spin so fast. His answer: “Just go up in a ball.” Experts often have an intuitive understanding of a route, but they struggle to articulate all the steps to take. Their brain dump is partially filled with garbage.

Even if your chosen expert can walk you through their route, when you ask for directions on yours, you’ll run into a second challenge. You don’t share the same strengths and weaknesses—their hills and valleys aren’t the same as yours. You might be heading for the same destination, but you’re starting far from their position. This makes your path as unfamiliar to them as theirs is to you.

Experts often have an intuitive understanding of a route, but they struggle to articulate all the steps to take.

Of course, you’ll get more personalized advice from a guide who knows you well. But as tempting as it is to turn to a trusted mentor for sage advice, no individual will have all the right directions. You can see this in a study of lawyers navigating the path to partner. Guidance from a single mentor didn’t make a difference in promotions. There were other upsides: lawyers who had a supportive mentor were more satisfied and committed than their peers who lacked one. But when it came to getting promoted to partner, what mattered was being guided by multiple mentors. Different mentors were able to share different tidbits on how to advance. It didn’t take a village, though—all it took was two or three mentors to help lawyers make the climb to partner rather than seeing their careers stall.

No one else knows your exact journey. But if you collect directions from multiple guides, they can sometimes combine to reveal routes you didn’t see. The more uncertain the path and the higher the peak, the greater the range of guides you’ll need. The challenge is to piece the various tips together into a route that works for you.

Learning from multiple guides is an iterative, interactive process. It’s not as simple as going to people and asking, “Can I pick your brain?” (Also, the image of picking a brain is gross.) The information isn’t just sitting there, waiting to be extracted. We don’t live in the Matrix. Guides can’t simply upload their insights for us to download.

The point of engaging guides isn’t to blindly follow their leads … The goal is to get your guides to drop pins—the key landmarks and turning points from their climbs.

The point of engaging guides isn’t to blindly follow their leads. It’s to chart possible paths to explore together. To do that, you have to make their implicit knowledge explicit. Instead of asking to pick their brain, you ask them to retrace their route.

The goal is to get your guides to drop pins—the key landmarks and turning points from their climbs. To jog their memories of paths long forgotten, you might inquire about the crossroads they faced. Those could be skills they sought out, advice they took or ignored, or changes they made. It can also help to tell them about the roads you’ve taken so far. As they learn about your prior paths and current location, they may begin to notice avenues for progress that they didn’t think to point out originally.

The pins you gather won’t form an accurate map. Some won’t apply to you—one pin might lead you across a stream, and your bicycle makes for a terrible boat. Some may no longer apply at all—they’ll take you to a road that’s closed. You may end up doing plenty of loops before you find the right path. And your guides are likely to be unaware of bridges that have only recently been built. The good news is that to start moving, you don’t actually need an exact map. All you need is a compass to gauge whether you’re heading in the right direction.

From Hidden Potential by Adam Grant, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Adam Grant.

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