We are always taught to listen to and respect the opinions and perspectives of others.  On the whole, we take others’ opinions and perspectives very seriously, especially when making major decisions.  And often times, those perspectives are negative ones, or ones that cause us to doubt our goals.

But what are other people’s opinions actually worth?  Why do you care what other people think? Or, do you just feel uncomfortable or nervous about your goal or pursuit, and want to gain the validation of others?

How do you know the people you ask for advice actually know what they are talking about?

You’ve decided you want to live an interesting, fulfilling and strenuous life.  That’s why you’re reading this blog.  Your goal is to figure out how to accomplish an exciting goal, like “how can I start a business?”, or “how do I do unique and interesting things while I am in college?”.

But how many other people have even stopped for a second and tried to figure out how to do things like what you want to do?  How many people can actually relate to wanting to start a business, wanting to study abroad in college, or the concept of monetizing your passions rather than just “getting a job” that pays well?  I guarantee you, they are few and far between.

Would you take authoritative and expert advice on how to buy a grand piano from someone who sells copy machines for a living?  I hope not.  So why would you want to take advice from someone who can’t even relate to what you’re trying to do, or has no expertise in the area?

That’s not to say all opinions are bad.  In fact, below I will offer guidance on identifying the type of people whose advice can really help you.  What you need to understand here is: many people ask others for their opinions (“will this business idea work?”  ”will I be successful by majoring in x?”) because of their own insecurity and lack of knowledge without paying any thought to the other person’s biases, experience or expertise.

It can be hard to distinguish who has expertise and who doesn’t.  For example, many college students are keen on asking their professors or the school’s career counselors for advice.  You think “well gosh, these people are all really smart people at this big and prestigious school”, and you take their advice without thinking much about it.  I’ve been to a lot of these meetings with career counselors in my day.   The advice I got?  Worthless.  ”Just keep looking for internships and you’ll find something eventually”  ”If you want a job that makes $55,000 right out of school, check out this company”.  Why nothing like “consider starting your own small business?” or “work with entrepreneurs” or “send out tons of e-mails to people on LinkedIn and network your way into a job?”  Since I’ve been at it for a while, I can look back and recognize that their advice was silly and narrowly constructed.  But imagine someone, not as far along but who is interesting in entrepreneurship, stepping into their office and seeing no resources available to help them accomplish their goal, and the counselors have nothing to say about entrepreneurship (or actually discourage it)?  I think someone could be very affected by that, especially since it comes from an “authority” figure that we are inclined to “trust”.

The problem is that all of this bad advice is discouraging.  It stifles innovative zest in all except the most brazen and stubborn people.  It leads us to unfounded and incorrect conclusions.  Believing “I will never be able to make this work” is essentially a guarantee that it will, in fact not work.

So why do so many people give bad, useless, incorrect, or uninformed advice?

The problem is that other people’s opinions are inherently constricted and defined by their own biases and experience.  They are not driven by seeing things from “both points-of-view” and giving you “well-rounded advice”.

And how could they give you any other type of advice?  Someone who has been a lifelong employee won’t have any valid perspective to tell you how to be an entrepreneur.  So the onus is on you to assess the value and understand the biases implicit with any advice given.

How do you do that?

My time toying around with this question left me with an extremely simple answer.   In the course of your entire life, with respect to assessing the values and biases of those giving you advice, there are two types of people: no more, no less.

2 types of people:

1. “Oh” people.

2. “I see!” people.

You find out what type of person you are talking to by telling them what you want to do, and judging their reaction immediately after you tell them.  It’s important to size them up before they give you your opinion; just because someone has an opinion on something doesn’t mean it’s an educated opinion.  Think of all of the people who adamantly back a certain candidate for office: how many of them that you talk to have well-developed reasons for doing so?

For example, you say: “I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and don’t want to work in a large company.  My goal after graduation is to work with some start ups and gain relevant experience, and work on a few ventures of my own in the meantime.  I’d might as well get some of the failure out of the way now so I can be better prepared for bigger ventures in the future”.

What’s the response?

“Oh” people:

“Oh”.  ”That’s cool”.  ”That sounds like fun”.  Or nothing.  Or hesitation.  Or hesitation, followed by a look of confusion, shock or disapproval.  Maybe they look like they think you are weird.

So their reaction is a combination of deer-in-the-headlights with confusion, shock, or something that indicates they’ve never thought about what you have to say.

I feel like this is most people I talk to.  It’s not that they’re bad people; they just haven’t thought about the things I am interested in.  But that usually doesn’t stop them from giving opinions.  Maybe they say “go do it, I know you can!”.  Maybe they say “aren’t you worried about losing all of your money?”.  Regardless of what end of the spectrum the comment is on, if this person has demonstrated that they really don’t know what they are talking about, why would you listen to what they have to say?

I see” people:

“Oh wow!”.  ”That reminds me of something a friend of mine did”.  ”It’s great to see more people interested in entrepreneurship”.  Or a smile.  Or a look that says “this kid’s got something good here”.

The “I see” people are the select few that get what you are trying to do, and have thought about similar things in the past.  Their reaction says I’ve thought about this before, this sounds really interesting, and most importantly, I have some sort of expertise in this area, because I have thought about it and considered it before.  It is the kind of reaction you want to see, because it indicates a higher propensity that their advice is actually valuable, and should be heeded.  So even if what they say isn’t different from an “oh” person (if they say “go get it!” or “don’t do it”), at least you can be more confident that an “I see” person’s opinion comes from a more solid and rigorous perspective.

So your goal should be to take advice from the “I see” people, and not think that the “oh” people will have the answers you need to be successful.  Those that are “oh” people will only serve to discourage you by telling you your idea is bad (even though they know nothing about it), or bolster it with no basis (since they don’t know what they’re talking about).  But the “I see” people understand where you are coming from, and can help you with realistic, useful and practical feedback and insight.