‘Figure it out’ … more Bad Advice

By | April 20, 2020

[April 20, 2020]  We have all received bad advice from time to time.  But it is our responsibility to either accept it, or not.  When my friend Wilson was growing up with me, he asked our second-grade teacher what he should create for the upcoming annual science fair.  The teacher told him to just ‘figure it out.’  That comment was, for a second-grader, a devastating piece of bad advice.

Wilson was really into “science” and would read books about how to build and repair cars and other mechanical devices.  He wanted to be either an auto mechanic or an engineer (we did have diverse dreams).  Unbeknownst to most of us, Wilson’s dad was an alcoholic and would hide or destroy his books anytime he found them.

Wilson’s dad wanted Wilson to be a great baseball player.  Both of us played on a Little League Team.1  He was an excellent baseball player (I was not very good), but Wilson was not a great player.  Tension developed between Wilson and his dad over the idea that Wilson would be great at baseball and bring the family recognition in our community.  When Wilson asked his teacher what to do, she said: ‘figure it out.’

I’m sensitive to this advice.  Figure it out is not something I would ever advise soldiers, and it derives from my witness to Wilson’s struggles and the wrong information given to him in a time of need. There are times when we need to tell a child or adult to figure things out for themselves.  When we are sure they know the way, giving them this advice might be helpful.  As a military leader, I would ensure anyone getting such advice would have an experienced overwatch mentor.

Why do we give people the advice to figure it out?  There are several reasons this might be the case:

  1. Intellectual laziness: They just don’t want to take the time to work with us on a solution.
  2. They don’t know the answer. By saying figure it out, they obscure their lack of a solution.
  3. Avoiding future shame: They fear being judged wrong.
  4. Nothing is in it for them. It won’t provide any gain for them.
  5. You may know more than the person you’re asking advice from (being older doesn’t mean wiser).

I like to think my teacher that year was good for us.  Yes, I was scared of her, and so was Wilson.  She provided an overall education that was tough but balanced.  We were more than prepared for third grade.  And I still never give that as bad advice.


  1. Wilson is in the thumbnail photo for an article I published a few years ago. The link is here: https://www.theleadermaker.com/its-what-a-leader-does-after-the-victory/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “‘Figure it out’ … more Bad Advice

  1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    I enjoyed our article today, Gen. Satterfield, so thanks.

  2. Joe Omerrod

    Wow, have I gotten some bad advice in my lifetime? Good thing I was independent thinking, or I’d be in a real hell hole by now if I’d followed their advice. The worst was my Uncle from Arkansas. Man, he was a trip. He had been a WWII vet in Europe and fought with Patton’s army during the Battle of the Bulge. He would always give advice and you couldn’t disagree with him or you were in real trouble. I just nodded my head and did my best. Oh, all the best to everyone who are sticking out this pandemic.

    1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      Thanks, Joe. We all appreciate your concern. Yes, I think we’ve all had this kind of uncle or relative who doled out the advice like medicine to a sick person. Hope you and your family are well during this trying time.

    2. Yusaf from Texas

      Joe, I know you work in a hospital. How are things going for you and your staff? Also, thanks for what you’re doing.

      1. Joe Omerrod

        Yusaf, yes we are very busy, but thank God we never got overwhelmed with patients due to this virus pandemic. Our hospital community took the advice (good advice) from the President’s COVID-19 Task Force, and took certain measures. Those have paid off and we didn’t lose any of our staff of doctors, nurses, and other workers. Thanks for asking.

  3. Dennis Mathes

    Gen. Satterfield asked the question, “Why do we give people the advice to figure it out? ” He gave some great reasons. But I will add that these are why we give bad advice in general, not just for “figure it out.” I see this all the time at work. I have a team leader who thinks he’s a hotshot but when it comes to helping others, it’s all about himself. Thus, when we ask for his advice, all we get is garbage advice.

    1. Karl J.

      I know the feeling Dennis. Same at my workplace. Fortunately, I don’t have to listen to any of them since I’ve been laid off from work. That is why I’m really a fan of this leadership blog and Gen. Satterfield when he gives us some great and entertaining stories. This is my go-to website. This forum is also great.

  4. Eric Coda

    For those new to Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. This “bad advice” column is one of many. He has several. Just use the search feature to find them. Good hunting!

  5. Harry Donner

    I like JT’s comment below but I would also like to add that anybody who takes advice from a politician needs to have their head examined. My grandmother used to say that take any advice with “a grain of salt.” That meant to be skeptical. If not, you remain responsible for your actions.

  6. JT Patterson

    I was just thinking of all the bad advice we’ve recently been given by so many medical ‘experts’ on how to behave during this coronavirus pandemic. First, we were told not to wear masks, then do wear them. Second, we were told not to socialize around others, then well maybe that’s okay. Third, we were told there would be millions of deaths if we didn’t do certain things, and now maybe that number was too big. What are we to think when politicians give us advice…. it is probably bad advice.

  7. Max Foster

    Good blog post today. Yes, we do have a long list of pieces of bad advice from our teachers in kindergarten to our post graduate days in college. Being thinking humans, it is our daily task to sort thru that bad advice and to reject those we believe to be most harmful. Sometimes we adhere to the bad advice unknowingly or because we don’t want to disappoint the other person.

    1. Greg Heyman

      I agree Max. We are thinkers. That is why we must develop our intellect in many ways as well as our physical bodies. Balance and harmony is the way (someone probably said that long ago).

      1. the ace

        Thinkers …. yes. Followers … yes. But we need to know when to take which role and what advice to follow or not.

    2. Kenny Foster

      It wasn’t that long ago that we kids highly respected our teachers and took their advice – good or bad – at face value and followed it. If things went wrong, it must have been our own fault and not the advice of the teacher. Of course, now that we are grown, we know better. Maturity brings many benefits. Unfortunately, our society today encourages us NOT to develop the maturity required to be successful or satisfied with our lives.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        Kids today don’t respect anybody. Just take a look at the increased violence in public schools. Mostly this occurs in big cities.

  8. Doug Smith

    There is a boatload of bad advice out there. Just walk along the shoreline and you will find it in the sand.

      1. Eva Easterbrook

        You beat me to the comment Walter. Loving you Doug. Keep it up. I like these comments that make me laugh.

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