On Decision-Making and Advice from Mentors

I have been thinking a lot recently about the decisions I make, and the process I take for making them: Decisions about how I spend my time, who I spend time with and about what I want to do with my life.

I am aware of the finitude of life, and how important it is to ‘live consciously’ before our time is up. For me, this involves spending as much time as I can doing things that are personally fulfilling and which positively contribute to others.

But when trying to maximise this time, difficult decisions must be made.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself: Should I focus exclusively on my studies, hoping to use deep knowledge to create something new? Should I focus on sharing my journey and creating content that people may find useful? Is there a middle-path, and if so what does that look like?

Ultimately, it is the decisions, such as these, that we make each moment which determine what happens in our lives.

So what is the best approach for making these decisions?

Advice from Mentors

I often find it useful to ask people for advice. I have a collection of people who’s opinions I value on particular subjects, and depending on the domain of the decision I will talk to the relevant people.

However, I believe there is a limit to how useful the advice of a ‘mentor’ can be when making a personal decision, for the following reasons:

1. Your personal situation is idiosyncratic

All the explanation in the world won’t bridge the inevitable gap which is: Only you best understand your personal inclinations, strengths, weaknesses and the nuance of your current situation and decision.

I’ve noticed this personally, when giving advice to others. I’m often asked by medical students and doctors how to get involved with medtech and machine learning, and whether/when they should “leave medicine”. I always try my best to understand the person’s situation and give the best advice that I can, but there’s only so much you can tailor the advice for someone that you only interact with relatively briefly.

I’ve heard that people tend to give the advice that they would have given to their past selves, and I believe there is truth in that. This doesn’t mean it’s not valuable advice, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

2. They don’t have ‘skin in the game’

People giving advice don’t have as much to gain or lose from your decision as you do. They can say “if I were you, I’d do X and Y”, but ultimately you will be the one doing it. No matter how well-meaning they are, they will not be thinking as hard about your situation as they would about their own.

(as an aside, this is one of my reservations about generic self-improvement advice, such as “you should definitely do X!”)

Having final say

For these reasons, I think it’s important that we work hard to make our own decisions. I think it’s fine to ask people for advice, but that we should always give ourselves the final say.

I don’t always find this easy. One thing I’ve noticed myself doing in the past is to ask for advice from many people that I respect, and then essentially going with the aggregate of their opinions without too much additional thought.

Sometimes I question my own decision-making process, and project a perception of superior wisdom onto those giving me advice.

However, I think that to do so is doing ourselves a disservice.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on whether taking time out of medicine to do a master’s in machine learning was the right thing. A lot of people I respect gave advice in both directions. Empirically, it may not be the ‘best’ decision from the point of view of career progression, making money, etc, but ultimately, after pro-active reflection, I’m confident that it was the right decision for me.

[**How to ask your mentors for help Derek Sivers**](https://sivers.org/ment?utm_campaign=Chris%20Lovejoy&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Revue%20newsletter)

I could talk more about how I foster a pro-active decision-making process, but I’ll save that for perhaps a future post.

However, here is a fantastic short article from Derek Sivers with thoughts about asking mentors for help.