Beware of Advice (Even Mine)

There isn’t a person out there right now who isn’t dying to give you their opinion. Some will charge you for it. Most will just give it to you for free. 

Your inbox is teeming with bits of advice, expertise—from your boss, your business partner, that guy you met at a networking event (who opted you into his list WITHOUT asking, thank you very much).

It’s not that we shouldn’t ask for, and pay for, the advice we need, when we need it. 

But. 

There are times when seeking or accepting advice is a good idea, and times when it’s a cop out, or worse, keeps you from learning what you most need to.  

Last week I shared with you a great scene from The Agony and The Ecstasy. Well, there’s lots of great scenes and the book is very long. I’m reading it slowly, and so now, you are too.  

This scene is what inspired this idea. Here it is: 

Michelangelo finds a piece of his beloved Carrera marble, and it’s flawless. He doesn’t just bring it home. He spends the night with it, so he can see it in the first light. It’s flawless. 

“You are a noble block,” he says. 

He rushes it back to the garden like a new bride (yes, this sounds creepy, but this is the analogy the author uses!). 

Bertoldo, his teacher, comes over to Michelangelo and asks why he’s out here working alone, and not in the casino with the others. 

“Because I would like to work in quiet,” he says. 

Bertoldo contests this idea; he should be with the others are working, so that he can advise him. 

“Bertoldo, I feel the need to be solitary, to work beyond all eyes; even yours.” 

“You will make mistakes that way,” Bertoldo warns. 

“Isn’t that the best way to learn? To carry one’s mistakes to their logical conclusion?”

“A word of advice can save you time,” says Bertoldo. 

“I have time,” he responds. 

Seconds later, his friend Torrigiani, comes by. 

Now, Torrigiani is very popular and super hot. Michelangelo used to dote on him, couldn’t get enough Torrigiani, but now that he’s living large in the Medici palace and is more obsessed with marble. 

And Torrigiani has noticed. “Oh you’re too good for me, now?” Torrigiani says (I’m paraphrasing). “Mr. Hot Shit Medici Palace, can’t even work near me anymore? WTF?!”  And then: “I can help you! What, you afraid I’ll steal your secrets?” He’s really spiralling.

“I want to make my mistakes by myself,” Michelangelo says. 

Michelangelo’s teacher and his good friend ostensibly have his best interests at heart. But. Realize what they are most triggered by: Not that he’ll make a mistake, but that he doesn’t need them. 

Working in solitude, on your own, and being open and willing to make mistakes is the only way to learn. 

Michelangelo had Bertoldo and a small cadre of the greatest Renaissance minds at his disposal. We have the internet. 

It’s very easy to rely on others’ advice, thinking that it will always save you time, is always smarter, and is always better than you taking the time to learn. 

What I love about Michelangelo is that he’s hungry for knowledge, yes—but he knows when to shut it down and focus. 

Every day of our lives starts as a flawless piece of Carrera marble. We really can carve it however we want. And we will mess things up. That’s a given. 

But the fact is, you don’t learn from doing something right. You learn from doing it wrong. 

You cannot and will not do your best work by committee. There is no substitute for solitary work. 

All the teachers and well-meaning friends in the world could not have made Michelangelo better at what he does. And not one of them can lay singular claim to his genius. Only he can. 

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