in a world like this, you pay it forward, ’cause more than likely you didn’t deserve it when you got it the first time

It’s around the end of the semester, so we’re filling out a lot of course feedback reviews, many of which ask for advice about things to improve. This made me think of two things, one more commonly accepted than the other.

The first is that, as is so commonly said as to be mocked, feedback is a gift, especially in this setting, where the quality of the feedback doesn’t benefit the person who gives the feedback at all. We’ve already taken the course; any amount of time we contribute to delivering good feedback is a gift for future students. Because of this, I think it’s difficult to see the relevance of the exercise. This is a reflection of the fact that most acts of unkindness in this world aren’t acts of cruelty but rather acts of omission. I would argue, though, that we can be selfishly motivated to provide feedback for, essentially, the betterment of the school, because as long as this brand is associated with us, it is in our best interest to help it thrive.

The second thing that comes to mind is something I try to be as conscious about (and often fail at) as I can — good advice is very hard to give. And yet so many people are so fond of giving advice (myself included), usually as an assertion of ego behind a shoddily made veil of generosity, so bad advice is also, unfortunately, very often given. It’s hard to give advice that is not autobiographical and the way to do it requires listening first, empathizing second, and speaking last. This takes both time and intensive effort and if ever I’m in a situation when I can’t devote that time and energy, I prefer to just tell the person that, rather than give misleading advice — that my advice is biased and irrelevant because I can’t identify with your unique situation enough to be insightful, but there is a person who might have more applicable advice…let me introduce you to…

For the above reason, unfortunately, the advice receiver needs to spend some effort in discerning the quality of the advice. It’s not ideal because between the two, the one with more experience should shoulder this burden. It’s interesting that often the advice people give is one of the clearest windows into that person’s fears, regrets, and values. The only way I can think of remedying this as an advice receiver besides being intensely sensitive to bias and understanding the advice giver’s context (which is good practice but maybe not something you care to get really good at), is to force the advice giver to lay out his or her assumptions. Then you can assess where your assumptions deviate and guide the conversation or discard the advice.

in a world like this, you pay it forward, ’cause more than likely you didn’t deserve it when you got it the first time