Ennobling Advice

Several years ago — before The Great Debate on Leaning (In vs. Out), I was reading the cover article of Business Week on a flight from NYC back to ATX. The feature, starring Sheryl Sandberg in her early-ish days at Facebook explained,

“Every few weeks a few dozen Silicon Value women- doctors, teachers, and techies- head to the seven-bedroom Atherton (Calif.) mansion Sandberg shares with her husband, Dave Goldberg, chief executive of Web startup SurveyMonkey, and their two kids. The group sits on foldout chairs in the living room and holds plates of catered food on their laps as they listen to a guest speaker. Over the years, Sandberg has lured such luminaries as Geena Davis, Billie Jean King, Rupert Murdoch, Meg Whitman, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).”

Inspired, I copied it into an open email to 12 or so friends under the title, “The Inspiration.” Just below, I swapped out her name and details with my own comically less impressive ones under the title “The Plan.” I added a date for the first meeting and titled the email “On Being Sheryl Sandberg.” I then giddily skipped down the aisle of the plane and passed my laptop with the email displayed to a colleague sitting in another row.

We would host a salon — in a much more modest setting, with much more modest but no less worthy people.

We would include friends with all sorts of permutations of relationships with work and kids. Eventually we would lure our own ‘luminaries’ to join. But for the first meeting, we would simply congregate.

At the time I was working at a well-funded startup, managing a team of wide-eyed people ready to change the world with technology, or at least the way companies strategized their social media marketing. We were aggressively acquiring companies which introduced a fair share of politics and identity struggles — lots of good stories to share, not only about celebrations of small company victories in Las Vegas. I was tethered to email, which in retrospect gave me a false sense of usefulness and connectedness.

I had been running in the early mornings with a friend who heartily craved being back at work. She had been doing various things here and there over the course of 10 years while raising four children, but was not committed to a specific career. The idea of being at an office, talking to adults, learning new skills, applying her talents, having broader horizons spoke to her. She was proud of the work she had done with her children and although this made her feel useful and connected, she was ready to refocus herself professionally.

I was also becoming closer to another friend who had quit her creative executive job to freelance. Fed up with corporate politics, dissatisfied with time away from her growing kids, and resentful of the sacrifices she had made, she wanted to do a few projects, have more time to workout, make dinner for her family, be home when her kids got off the bus and not cater to merciless client whimsy on a daily basis. She wanted to be able to toggle between being useful at work and home, connected to each place separately.

Each of us had a mutual fascination with each other’s worklives. We romanticized life on the other side(s). We envied various nuances that each other took as normal — from the mundane (e.g. what we packed our kids for lunch) to the exceptional (e.g. international travel). We were each “the mystical creatures known as Cool Moms” to each other.

Perhaps culturally, perhaps developmentally (albeit across a 10+ year span), we had each reached a point in our lives characterized by an enhanced awareness of different versions of life, a profound curiosity for more details, and a strong desire to optimize for the best version. Although unarticulated and measured idiosyncratically, it was as if we each envied each other’s usefulness and connectedness — or rather, our perceptions and imagined amounts of those things.

After about a month of logistics, Being Sheryl Sandberg Salon #1 convened. Of the twelve women there, no two had the same complexion of work, romance, family. We had anywhere from 1–4 children; freelance/startup/executive/liminal professional roles; satisfied and dissatisfied dispositions; and miscarriages, promotions, divorce, negotiations, home-buying, new businesses and more on our minds.

One woman had the same job for 11 years and was displeased with the salary inequities between her and her male colleagues. Another had recently received a promotion to a level she knew was beyond her experience, but was fighting to maintain her stature amid resistance from peers. Yet another was interested in going back to work after 4 years of raising children and was full of fear that her technology acumen had atrophied.

We shared our stories, we disclosed our insecurities, we proclaimed our strengths. We connected, supported, validated, recommended, and left with intentions to take action. From the body language alone, you could read the engagement, the hunger. We had tapped in to something people were craving: an opportunity to articulate what lies just beneath the surface of our everyday rhythms. Things we feel but don’t usually articulate. The salon was satisfying our basic needs for belonging and activating our debatedly equal fundamental need for mastery.

It was provocative to witness so many different versions of the human condition, unifying in that we each admitted to wanting some change (from a modicum to a revamp) and constructive in that everyone had varied perspectives on helping each other figure out how to make/be the change.

What happened that evening was what I now refer to as Advice.

I know, when you think of advice, you think of someone telling you what to do. You think it’s the last thing you want. You might think you give great advice, but don’t need it.

Maybe you conjure up the addictive style of Dear Sugar and profess your love of advice, but maintain your ironic distance. Regardless, you probably don’t have the warm, comfortable, empowering connotations that, if effective, my description of our evening of support and perspective produced.

The word advice scares people away. Conventional wisdom is that asking advice makes us look incompetent.

I want to change your perceptions of this. I want to ennoble Advice.

Allison Wood Brooks and colleagues’ research stands conventional wisdom on its head. They find seeking advice leads to judgments of increased competence.

Seeking advice isn’t about asking a specific question. It’s about detailing a situation.

Advice isn’t unsolicited. It’s a controlled interaction in which you ask for action, perspective, or validation. You retain agency.

Advice isn’t what you already knew but simply needed to hear from someone else. It’s often surprising when others reveal our blindspots.

Advice isn’t the same as therapy. Advice isn’t feedback. Advice isn’t help.

Advice empowers you to navigate complicated situations and make future decisions. It connects you to the people who offer perspective; it makes them feel useful. Advice, as I found that evening, and now time and again in having built a product to replicate the essence of that evening, fulfills the developmental hunger I have and see in my peers. Advice will help you take the necessary actions to maintain *your* perceptions of usefulness and connectedness.

If you try it, let me know what it’s like for you.

This post is also published on Medium.