Circle of Competence

Unsolicited Opinions and Advice

In this day and age, we have an opinion about everything. One minute, we’re debating the legalization of drugs. The next minute, we’re defending abortion. And then, we’re criticizing a celebrity’s wardrobe choices. “It’s my right to have an opinion,” people argue. Yes, that’s true. But let’s be honest, are we really distinguishing fact from opinion? Don’t our opinions sound a little dogmatic at times?

Everyone is a critic. We all seem to have the ability to judge other people’s level of skill; and we feel justified in spouting our own biased preferences. Even my grandmother lectures me on fashion. So many people sound so confident in giving their opinions, so sure that they understand how the world works and what other people should be doing. This certainty is terrifying. I tend to belong to the school of thought that injects more randomness and uncertainty into our worldviews. Influenced by multidisciplinary thinking, I find it difficult to reach the truth or a single solution. Problems may be viewed from a wide range of perspectives and have multiple solutions. Each solution may give birth to new, unintended problems. My knowledge of the world is never fully entrenched, always open to reinterpretation. I question everything every day. I live in a state of permanent limbo.

The other day, a 19-year old girl sang in front of a small audience. Her grandfather had asked her to showcase her talents. Her desire to please him was stronger than her fear of embarrassment. And I admired her courage – her mastery over fear. Even though she was unprepared, she bravely walked towards the center of the living room. He made the announcement, and family and friends curiously gathered around her. She sat on a stool and timidly played with her fingers. Her pacifying behavior clearly displayed her anxiety. At first, she sheepishly said, “I don’t have the lyrics.” Her grandfather dismissed her concern by gesturing that it didn’t matter. She took a few deep breaths, cleared her throat, and began singing. Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” I’m no singing teacher, but I was in awe of her passion. Even though I couldn’t understand the lyrics, I could feel her emotions. I felt a deep gratitude for this unexpected performance. After singing three songs, her grandfather, in a serious demeanor, advised: “Look up. Stand straight. You need to expand your body.” I saw the sparkle in her eyes disappear. Family members sat in silence, one by one their emotions evaporating into thin air. Were they used to this kind of treatment? Had they grown numb towards unsolicited feedback from people with little credibility? To cut the tension, I introduced a little sarcasm, “So, grandpa is a singing teacher? Huh?” Grandpa smiled at me, and the girl sang one more song.

Why do people give advice or share their opinion on matters outside their circle of competence? And why is this advice, so often, critical and destructive? I’m equally guilty of the same behavior. But as I get older and, hopefully, a little wiser, I have learned to shut my mouth when it comes to matters outside of my knowledge or experience. I fight my tendency to comment or give advice on everything. What do I know? Why am I so sure that I have the right answers? Since when did I become an all-seeing omniscient guru?

Whenever someone gives me advice, I use a mental checklist to see if I should listen to the feedback. Do I trust this person? If this is not someone who has my best interests at heart, I remain skeptical of his or her motives. Does this person have credibility? Is the opinion backed up by experience and expertise, or is he or she just a know-it-all charlatan? When a spiritual guru starts talking about quantum mechanics, cover your ears: impostor alert! Finally, what’s the domain? Is the environment rule-based or probabilistic? Is it a kind or wicked learning environment? Expertise is a multifaceted and nuanced subject. Experts build their knowledge through learning and applying (decisions, choice, actions). With time, feedback and self-reflection, they build mental models and identify patterns intuitively. However, the value of expertise depends on the domain. Expertise is much more valuable in kind environments where patterns are repeated and rule-based; feedback is accurate, frequent, and immediate; and outcomes are limited. Domains such as accounting, (simple) surgery, firefighting, sports (chess, darts, bowling, poker, golf, tennis), language learning, classical music, and task management. In contrast, expertise is less valuable in wicked learning environments, which have inconsistent, lengthy, and contradictory feedback. Each problem is unique without any stopping rule or “right” answer. And each solution might create unintended consequences. Wicked domains include business strategy, financial markets, public policy, environment policy, human nature, social relationships, education, jazz music, and hiring decisions. Expert agreement is low in wicked environments because problems are more complex and multivariate.

The next time people give their opinion or share their advice, ask them about their experience, ask them technical questions to test their knowledge, ask them to be very specific with their advice—hold them accountable for using jargon— and ask them if they understand the limits of expertise.