Choosing Context — Knowing Which Advice To Apply

How do you know which advice given to you is worth trying? Do you try everything? Do you assume it will always work if it worked for someone else? Today I want to talk about context, mostly as it relates to your current situation and any advice you might apply to your situation.

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The idea came from a short video I watched a few weeks ago in which Laura Kalbag was interviewed about a workshop she’s giving at the Interlink Conference.

The video doesn’t have anything to do with this topic of advice and context, but when introducing herself, Laura mentioned that she serves “little clients” in the sense of number of employees and the size of the business. Laura serves small and micro businesses and startups.

Instantly I noted the connection to my own clients and thought “here’s someone who probably knows something about my clients and consequently my business.” Any advice she offers about running a business likely pertains to me and is something I should pay attention to. Our business share certain characteristics, because their contexts overlap.

By the same logic if you have similar clients than anything you read here probably applies more directly to you than if it came from a corporate site. If I share a story about a client it probably resonates with you. We share that context.

This all made me think about advice in general and everything that we might take in. It made me wonder how much of the advice we receive actually applies to our situation when receiving it.

I’m wondering how often your context is similar enough to another’s that the advice applies and how often it’s different enough that the advice, while clearly successful, doesn’t work for you. Despite it being good advice and working for some, it doesn’t work for your situation, because the context in which the advice was given differs so much from the context in which it’s received.

A Story About Context

Let me share a story about context and advice. Many years ago I was driving from Long Island, where my family lived, to Buffalo where I was going to school. It’s been awhile, but it was likely a Sunday after a long weekend or maybe a full vacation away from classes.

Five or so hours into the drive I was making good time and about to drive through Syracuse (about 2 hours from Buffalo). It started snowing and then my windshield wipers stopped working. I pulled off the highway, found a station, and got a price to fix the wiper motor.

I gave my dad a call. He owned an auto shop and I figured he’d be able to tell me if I was getting a good price. He (in Brooklyn) wondered why it was a big deal as it wasn’t snowing.

Me, a few hundred miles away and on the other side of the state tried to convince him it was indeed snowing where I was and my wipers not working was something that needed fixing right away.

It’s a humorous story that comes down to our contexts being different. For one of us it was snowing and for one of us it wasn’t. Think about the different advice you might give someone in my situation depending on the weather where you happened to be or what you perceived it to be elsewhere.

What is Context?

By context I really mean the sum of everything you are and want and everything that’s led you to being where you are at any given point in time. I also mean the various parts of one context; it’s different sub-contexts, and how those sub contexts might overlap.

You’re unique. I’m unique. No one is exactly like either of us. We all have a different context, a different voice to express. We might share similarities, but we’re ultimately unique and see the world in unique ways.

It’s both an empowering and terrifying thought. It’s empowering because it means you always have control over your life and success. It’s not about whether other people have succeeded or failed or how they did it. It’s about knowing no one else’s situation applies exactly to you so you can always try to find a way that works for your context.

It’s terrifying for the same reasons. Because no one can tell you exactly how to succeed you can’t follow a recipe. You have to figure it our for yourself. You have control over your success, but you also have the responsibility for getting there.

Like many people starting out in business, I didn’t know much about how to start and run a business. I turned to the internet to do research and found some people who appeared successful and seemed trustworthy. I listened as they shared experience and insight.

Some of what they shared was universal. It would work regardless of any differences in our situations. Some of what they shared was specific. It might have been good advice, but it didn’t apply to me at that specific point in time so I didn’t follow the advice.

It needed to be applied within the same context to work. Sometimes I could replicate the specific advice near exact, but still it wouldn’t work. My business was at a different stage than the business of the advice giver.

Take the same article and place it on a site like Smashing Magazine or one of the Tuts+ sites and it’ll likely generate more discussion and traffic than if that same article was on your site or my site. Granted I don’t know your site, but assuming it’s like mine, it doesn’t have nearly the same size audience as the Tuts+ and Smashing Mags of the world.

Someone writing for those sites might offer the advice to create great content and you’re done. It won’t work though (at least to the same degree) unless you have a similar sized audience

There are plenty of reasons why one business might not be able to apply advice from another business.

  • They serve different industries
  • The strengths and weaknesses of the individuals involved is different
  • They serve different size markets (fortune 500 vs micro business)
  • Work done in the past and not included in the advice is paying off now in combination with the suggested advice
  • Your budget might allow you to implement most of the advice, but it doesn’t allow the key to the advice working
  • Advice is usually given under ideal conditions, but it isn’t realistic to apply that ideal to the practical.

Of course the more similarities you share, the more likely any advice being given in a similar context. This is especially true if you can distill the advice into component parts (sub-contexts) that are similar to parts of your overall context.

I think this all suggests we have 2 responsibilities when it comes to deciding which advice to follow. We need to be responsible for guiding our own context and we need to be responsible for choosing the appropriate contexts we let shape ours.

You Choose Your Context

Some of what becomes your context happens without your conscious control or even awareness. Things like your genetics; where you were born or grew up; what specifically occurs in any environment you place yourself in.

Much, however, is within your control. You may not be able to control what you find down the path you’re walking, but you do get to choose which path you walk down. You can choose to leave that path and find another whenever you want.

You decide what interests you. You decide what to pay more attention to. You decide what to deeply study, which clients to serve, and so many other things. You follow a path because it aligns with your strengths or because the potential reward is worth the risk. Ultimately the direction you want to go is up to you.

The path you choose presents things which further shape your context and shape the type of information you take in, observe, and pay attention to, which further shapes your context and the cycle continues.

You choose your path. Your path becomes your context and shapes it with what you find and how you interpret it. Ultimately your context is unique to you and any information you take in should be uniquely tailored to you, your path, and the specific moment you’re living.

Choose the Context You Want to Listen to

Making conscious choices about your own context and the direction you want to travel should suggest what other contexts you want to let in to shape yours.

You should listen to most everything and everyone even if you don’t think your contexts overlap. You don’t really know and so it’s worth listening. When trusting what to apply you should be more discerning.

Try to understand the context in which any advice is given. Know that the article you want to publish will have different levels of success depending on where it’s published, it’s context for being consumed.

Look at the advice giver and think if your goals match. Will your strengths and weaknesses allow you to implement the suggested solution? Is the advice right for you at this moment? Do you have the same motivation to solve the problem as the advice giver.

Advice givers offer advice based on what’s worked for them. The implication is that it will work for you as well, but that really depends on how much your contexts overlap.

Learn to see beyond the entirety of the advice giver’s context and learn to see the different parts within. Learn to see the sub-contexts. You might be very different overall than the advice giver, but you might share similarities when it comes to the specifics of the advice.

Think too if you’d be willing to change your context to suit the advice. Maybe you serve small business clients, but want to serve Fortune 500 clients instead. In that case listening to the advice of someone who does serve Fortune 500 clients makes sense, even though your current contexts are completely different.

Advice isn’t given or taken in a vacuum. There’s a context in which it’s given and a context with which it’s received. There needs to be some overlap between the giver and receiver’s context (at least around the specifics of the advice) in order for that advice to apply.

Sometimes there’s so much overlap that most anything the giver says applies to the receiver. When you find people who have contexts similar to your own, pay attention to learn from them.

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