[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:
- Intellectual laziness: They just don’t want to take the time to work with us on a solution.
- They don’t know the answer. By saying figure it out, they obscure their lack of a solution.
- Avoiding future shame: They fear being judged wrong.
- Nothing is in it for them. It won’t provide any gain for them.
- 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.
- 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/