Imagine you’re at a family gathering. You’re catching up with your aunt and a few cousins when you look over to see your three-year-old grab a toy away from another child and then smack her playmate on the arm. After you send your toddler off for a time-out, your cousin Betty pulls you aside and says, “You know, I think you could have handled that better.” She goes on to give you a lesson in disciplining children. How would you feel? Odds are, you wouldn’t be particularly grateful for the pro tip. You’d probably be demoralized or annoyed or both. No one likes to be lectured.
What’s ironic is that even though we can all see that receiving this kind of unsolicited advice is a giant downer, most of us have followed Cousin Betty’s script at one point or another. It’s common to give out advice when we see someone struggling to achieve a goal. We often think guidance is just the thing they’re looking for, whether they ask for it or not.
Lauren Eskreis-Winkler was a graduate student when I met her a few years ago. She had a hunch that we’d gotten the formula backward. She had always been a high achiever and found it baffling that so many of her talented peers struggled to meet their goals. As a Ph.D. student in psychology, she wanted to understand what separates top performers from the rest of us, so she began collecting data. She surveyed Americans struggling to save more money, to lose weight, to control their tempers, and to find employment. She also interviewed salespeople at Aflac (the insurer best known for its quirky commercials featuring a talking duck) as well as high school students in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and even Macedonia. She asked everyone what might motivate them to be more successful at work, at home, and in their academic pursuits.
And as she sifted through her data, Lauren made a surprising discovery: When it came to being more successful, people had plenty of good ideas for how to do it. Even underperforming salespeople, C students, unemployed job seekers, and spendthrifts struggling to save consistently offered smart strategies for improving their circumstances.
Students made suggestions ranging from the mundane (“Turn off your phone when you’re studying”) to the creative (“Put candy at the bottom of a worksheet, and when you finish, you can eat it”). People with money problems advised “Don’t pay with a credit card.” Job seekers suggested keeping résumés up to date and carrying them at all times. Almost everyone knew what to do to overcome their problems; they just weren’t doing it.
Lauren began to suspect that this failure to act wasn’t related to a lack of knowledge, but rather to self-doubt — what the legendary Stanford psychologist Al Bandura has called “a lack of self-efficacy.” Self-efficacy is a person’s confidence in their ability to control their own behavior, motivation, and social circumstances. Lacking this can prevent us from setting goals in the first place.
You can probably think of examples from your own moments when you (or someone you know) didn’t achieve full potential because the task at hand seemed too daunting. Maybe you’re a long-distance runner who’s never attempted a marathon because you don’t think you’re quite athletic enough to cover 26.2 miles. Maybe you have a coworker who doesn’t speak at meetings because she doesn’t think people will value what she has to say.
Research confirms the obvious: When we don’t believe we have the capacity to change, we don’t make as much progress changing. One study demonstrated that when trying to lose weight, people who report more confidence in their ability to change their eating and exercise habits are more successful. Another study similarly showed that science and engineering undergraduates with higher self-efficacy earn higher grades and are less likely to drop out of their majors.
Of course, some aspirations really are out of reach for most people, such as becoming the next Toni Morrison, Marie Curie, or Bill Gates. But many of us stumble in pursuit of far more realistic goals, such as learning a foreign language or getting in shape. Understanding what gives us the confidence to push forward in the face of discouragement, and how we can instill that confidence in other people, can be important for anyone hoping to change and help others do the same.
Recognizing this gave Lauren a creative idea. Too often, we assume that the obstacle to change in others is ignorance, and so we offer advice to mend that gap. But what if the problem isn’t ignorance but confidence — and our unsolicited wisdom isn’t making things better but worse?
As a psychologist, Lauren knew that people are quick to infer implicit messages in the actions of others, even when no such message is intended. She realized that in giving advice, we might be inadvertently conveying to people that we don’t think they can succeed on their own — implying that we view them as so hopeless that two minutes of advice will be worth more than all they’ve learned from attempting to solve their own problems. So she wondered: What if we flipped the script?
If giving advice can destroy confidence, then asking people who are struggling to be advisers instead of advisees might be a better approach. Encouraging someone to share their wisdom conveys that they’re intelligent, capable of helping others, a good role model, and the kind of person who succeeds. It shows that we believe in them. In theory, being asked to write just a few words of guidance to someone else might give people the confidence to achieve their own objectives.
Lauren ran survey after survey of Americans with unmet goals. Some were striving to save more, others to control their tempers, get fit, or find new jobs. Time and again, she found two things. First, when asked directly, most people predicted that receiving advice would be more motivating than giving it, which explains why we’re all the targets of so much unsolicited advice. But when she examined the accuracy of this belief, using controlled experiments, she found that it was wrong. Just as she’d come to suspect, prompting goal seekers to offer advice led them to feel more motivated than when they were given the very same caliber of advice.
Of course, motivation is a far cry from behavior change. It was possible that Lauren’s idea wouldn’t really help people reach their goals. But it seemed promising enough to warrant a larger test. So, in the winter of 2018, I teamed up with Lauren, Angela Duckworth, and Dena Gromet on a massive experiment aimed at helping students achieve their academic goals.
On the day of the experiment, shortly after the start of a new school term, nearly two thousand students across seven Florida high schools walked into a computer lab with their teachers. Some simply filled out a few short digital questionnaires. But others were invited to do something quite out of the ordinary. All their lives, these students, like all students, had been given advice in school — “stay focused in class,” “do more practice problems before tests,” and “always turn your homework in on time.” Today would be different. This time, they were being asked for their advice.
This lucky group of students was invited to offer guidance to their younger peers through a 10-minute online survey. They were peppered with questions such as “What helps you avoid procrastinating?” “Where do you go to do focused studying?” and “What general tips would you give someone hoping to do better in school?”
After completing these surveys, students were left to their own devices for the remainder of the academic term. Then, at the end of the marking period, we downloaded their grades in the class they’d told us was most important to them as well as their grades in math (according to Angela, kids say they prefer eating broccoli to doing their math homework!). Lo and behold, our strategy had worked.
The students who had given just a few minutes of advice performed better in these classes than other students. To be clear, giving a handful of study tips to other kids didn’t turn C students into valedictorians, but it did boost performance for high schoolers from every walk of life. Strong students, weak students, students in the free lunch program, and students from wealthier families all saw small improvements in their grades after advising peers.
And anecdotally, we also heard that giving advice seemed to bring students joy. High schoolers in our study told their teachers they’d never been asked for their insights before and loved having the chance to share. “Could we do this again soon?” they prodded hopefully.
The more Lauren reflected on her research on the power of advice-giving, the more it made sense. She recognized that being asked to give advice conveyed to people that more was expected of them, boosting their confidence. And based on the interviews she’d conducted, Lauren also knew that even on the spot — with no time to think hard about it — people were capable of producing useful insights about how to better tackle the same goals they themselves struggled with. This is a key reason why giving advice to others tends to help us.
Another is that we tend to tailor the advice we give based on personal experience. If asked for dieting suggestions, a vegan will offer plant-based tips. If asked about staying in shape, a busy executive will recommend an efficient exercise regimen. In short, when someone asks for guidance, we tell them to do what we would find useful.
And after offering that advice to others, we feel hypocritical if we don’t try it ourselves. In psychology, there’s something called the “saying-is-believing effect.” Thanks to cognitive dissonance, after you say something to someone else, you’re more likely to believe it yourself.
Here’s a question you might have: What if no one ever asks you for advice? How can you use Lauren’s insight to help yourself succeed when it depends on something out of your control — namely, the solicitousness of others? One simple suggestion is to turn advice-giving inside out when you’re facing a challenge. Ask yourself: “If a friend or colleague were struggling with the same problem, what advice would I offer?” Taking this perspective can help you approach the same problem with greater confidence and insight.
This idea that giving advice can be more important to your success than receiving it was echoed by the legendary drummer Mike Mangini. He told me about how he developed the confidence he needed to rise to stardom. Now the lead drummer for world-famous heavy metal band Dream Theater, Mike took a path to the top that was anything but straight. He spent the 1980s as a software engineer, practicing incessantly on the drums at night and on the weekends, daydreaming a big career in music with little hope of achieving his goal.
Then something changed. When drummers in a shared practice space unexpectedly began knocking on Mike’s door and asking him to give them lessons, the requests gave Mike a newfound confidence. If so many people thought he had a special talent, maybe he did. Mike quit his job and devoted himself full-time to drumming. Today, he’s one of the best-known drummers in the business. He attributes his success, in no small part, to being asked to give other people advice.
Giving people unsolicited advice can undermine their confidence. But asking them to give advice builds confidence and helps them think through strategies for achieving their goals.
Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She writes about behavioral science for major media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Economist. For more, visit katymilkman.com.
This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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