So, I decided to do an exploration of the nature of 'developmental advice' (any advice that is intended to improve the effectiveness of someone at the workplace or in life in general) and the assumptions underlying most of the developmental advice. This developmental advice can be provided by anyone (e.g. managers, mentors, colleagues, team members, coaches, teachers, parents, elders etc. and sometimes, they are represented by the generic term 'teacher' in this post).
The first thing that I realized was that we need to differentiate between two types of developmental advice - one that is more 'information oriented' and one that is more 'wisdom oriented'.
Information-oriented development advice is more like development feedback - it provides a piece of information that the person receiving the advice was not aware of. It can be internal (e.g. 'pointing out a blind-spot' that the person was not aware of) or external (e.g. related to a developmental option that the person was not aware of) in nature. This kind of advice, so long as it is factually correct, is indeed helpful for a person to get started on a development journey though it might not have any influence on how much progress the person is able to make on the journey.
Wisdom-oriented development advice is deeper and more complex. Process of gaining wisdom often involves struggling with (and some times even unsuccessfully struggling with) the complexities in life.
When it comes to wisdom-oriented developmental advice, the basic assumptions are
that the person giving the advice has gained a higher degree of wisdom (regarding the particular aspect covered in the advice) through his/her life experience
that this wisdom can be communicated and
that the receiver is able to 'absorb' the wisdom and is also able to act on the wisdom
To me, the problem is mainly with assumptions 2 and 3. In general, wisdom is much more difficult to communicate as compared to information. Also, without going through the corresponding life experience, this wisdom, even though it is 'true', might not make sense to the receiver. There is a huge difference between knowing something philosophically and arriving at the same knowledge through experience!
This brings to mind a Zen story that I came across in one of the books of Osho. It is about the so called 'first principle of Zen'. The concept is that once you know the first principle of Zen, you become enlightened. The story is as follows:
Once, a beginner asked a Zen master, "Master, What is the first principle?". "If I were to tell you, it would become the second principle", replied the Zen master.
Probably, it is this point (that wisdom can neither be 'stored' nor be 'communicated', in the normal sense of those words) is what limits the usefulness of most of the self-help books. Of course, self-helps books are often useful in providing hope (that there is light at the end of the tunnel) and encouragement. It is also said that the meaning that one derives from a great book often runs in parallel with or is even independent of what is written. May be, that holds true for all forms of developmental advice that we have been exploring in this post! It also makes me wonder if the 'wisdom-level consulting', that I was so keen to do, would really work (even if somehow I manage to 'become wise' in the future)! It is not that I haven't come across HR consultants who are truly wise (See 'Truth and Beauty : Motivations and Elegance in HR' for an account of my interaction with one such gentleman). My concern is more about to the extent to which the clients would be able to 'absorb' and 'apply' that wisdom. While wisdom can't be communicated, it can indeed be hinted at. While wisdom can't be given, it can be acquired. A wise teacher (or a wise coach or a wise manager) can 'create a field' or 'hold a space' that maximizes the possibility that the learner is able to derive more understanding or even wisdom from the learner's own experiences (See 'Remarkable Encounters - Part 1: Teacher' for an example from my personal experience). Of course, we can't assume that the person giving the development advice is always correct or that the advice is the right one at the right right for the learner. This highlights the need for the learner to be discerning when it comes to accepting and absorbing developmental advice. This is a bit tricky as this discernment needs some kind of wisdom! It is interesting to speculate what happens to this 'teacher-student' relationship (that is so essential for the the above 'learning space' to materialize) when the teachers (or coaches) become (highly-paid/expensive) 'service providers' instead of being 'gurus'! Can the learners (especially when they are paying for it) hold the teachers/coaches accountable for results, and if yes, would that make the outcome (or Key Performance Indicators) move away from 'wisdom' towards 'information and skills'? Can this also lead to conflicts of interest between the teacher/coach and the learner? While one can learn from the experiences of others, wisdom requires additional work in terms of 'personalization' before it can be absorbed and integrated. Yes, a certain degree of 'readiness' on the part of the student is required for welcoming the wisdom. If 'the teacher appears before the student is ready' the teaching (or coaching) is unlikely to work! When the learner is ready, wisdom might even appear unaided, like the proverbial butterfly that comes on its own and sits softly on one's shoulder. Now, developing this readiness is probably not just a matter of effort (and there is no algorithm for it), and, may be, some sort of 'grace' is involved in this process. Again, wisdom is more a matter of 'being wise in the moment' as compared to that of 'becoming wise for good'!
Note: It can be argued that there is another category of developmental advice called 'knowledge-oriented developmental advice' that comes somewhere in between the 'information-oriented developmental advice' and the 'wisdom-oriented developmental advice. This depends on how exactly do we define these three terms (e.g. information as 'processed data', knowledge as 'useful information gained through learning and experience' and wisdom as 'the discernment to apply the appropriate knowledge to a particular situation'). Even if we bring in this additional category, it can be said that 'knowledge is useful only in those situations where it is almost superfluous'! Please see 'Driven to insights!' for more details.