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Beware the Power of Bad Advice: A Lesson in Life and Plumbing

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Holly Finch founded the LightBox Collaborative, a San Francisco-based consultancy for non-profits. Lightbox has eight “collaborators” but no employees. When I asked Holly what she should advise someone hoping to follow her path, she said: “Do it your way—but check the math.”

She explained that this means you should always apply someone else’s lessons in a way that makes sense to you, but you should also make sure that your happiness allows for enough money.

Speaking of advice, here’s what Holly had to say about relying on “professional” advice… and why those who give such advice should be careful.

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After weeks of apartment hunting, my husband Hal and I had finally found “The One.” It was our San Francisco dream flat. The only sticking point was the water pressure in the shower, which was little more than a light spittle. The lackluster morning shower and our resulting crankiness became a black cloud over our otherwise happy new home.

The plumber we consulted told us that the pipes were old old old and that the only solution would be to replace them… for just $20,000. Uh, no thanks. We resigned ourselves to a lifetime of unsatisfying showers.

When I told a friend about my weak water pressure, she sent a thoughtful housewarming gift: the same shower head she’d installed to fix her low-flow problem in her home. Sadly, I shook my head and tucked the gift away. Our problem was the pipes. No simple shower head would solve our woes. We made do in our cute little flat.

Flash forward through years of spittle showers and cranky mornings. Just recently, Hal and I had the pleasure of welcoming our friend Joe as a houseguest. Over breakfast one morning, Joe said, “Your place is so great… but man, that shower sucks! You know, all you need is a new shower head.”

With a sigh, I explained, “It’s been like that since we moved in. We have a new shower head lying around somewhere, but unfortunately, the problem is the pipes.”

“No way!” Joe leapt up to root through our hardware supplies, where he found the long-neglected housewarming gift. With five minutes work and a few turns of the wrench, Joe installed the new shower head.

We gathered in the bathroom for the moment of truth.

Water pressure… strong! At last, the shower of our dreams. My husband and stared at each other in disbelief. We’d had the solution in our reach all this time. What we’d needed was Joe.

Joe wasn’t bound by the power of the bad advice the plumber had given us. Joe had the bravery to tackle what we believed was an unfixable problem because the intractability of the problem had never been his status quo.

The moral of the story: Don’t be bound by bad advice. Often we already have the resources—within ourselves and our organizations—to find simple and workable solutions to resolve the challenges we face. Be fearless, like Joe, and simply take out your wrench and set to work.

And for all you consultants: Don’t be the bad-advice-dealing plumber. Don’t bind people to their problems with a slip of bad advice, especially if the advice is only in the interest of your bottom line. Every morning when I soap up under wonderful water pressure, I am reminded how powerful advice can be and the responsibility I bear to give it wisely.

My aspiration for the LightBox Collaborative: To hand our clients the right wrench for the job, then cheer them on as they crank up the torque on the problem until it’s solved.

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Image: Jerry

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