How It Is

Make Your Advice Work

Taking Tim Gunn’s advice to your website.

I love Project Runway. Seeing people be that dramatic and traumatic over making clothes is fun, plus I love the design. One of the best parts is when Tim Gunn steps in as a mentor. He rarely tells people exactly what they need to do, but he will give them his opinion. It’s the way he handles critique that makes him impressive. Recently he had a new show called Under the Gunn where he let other people mentor some young designers, and that show was, shall we say, less than spectacular.

One of my favorite designers, Nick Verreos (aka Uncle Nick), was one of the worst mentors. Instead of helping his mentees, he did the work for them and made their designs look more like him. He drew for them, he sewed for them, he even gave them ideas.

That’s not the Tim Gunn way.

Tim Gunn, Mondo Guerra, Anya Ayoung-Chee and Nick Verreos
Tim Gunn (left), host of the new Lifetime show ‘Under the Gunn,’ on set with mentors (second from left to right) Mondo Guerra, Anya Young-Chee and Nick Verreos, all former contestants on ‘Project Runway.’

When people ask you for advice on their work, it’s hard to not insert yourself into the process and put your own self into the work. You, too, are a smart, creative person. That’s why they asked you! So how do you keep yourself out of your advice and let people learn?

Boy that’s hard.

You have to let go of your own ego to do this. You have to be willing to remove your own desires from the equation, and instead of saying “Do this” you have to suggest “What if you did it like this?” It’s a classic case of leading the horse to water, but you really are the one who is going to show them the land where the ideas are and nudge them along.

One of the things I do a lot of is plugin reviews, and many times I see people reinventing the wheel. I don’t often put value judgements on plugins, and in fact I try hard not to do so. But when I see someone taking the hard road of handling a feature, like wanting to put autoplay in all YouTube videos, I wonder why they’re inventing a new oembed and shortcode and not filter oembed_fetch_url and have it check if it’s youtube and, if so, put in the arguments for autoplay?

But… Do I tell them “Here’s the code you want” and give it to them? Will that make them better developers? No, it won’t. Instead, I have to explain why reinventing the wheel isn’t a great idea.

Any time a plugin replicates functionality found in WordPress (i.e. the uploader, jquery), you’ve done something wrong. It’s a security risk, for one, as the features in WordPress have been tested by many more people than use most plugins, so the built in tools are less likely to have issues. But more importantly, you’ve given people too many ways to do one thing. A user doesn’t want to remember seventy shortcodes. They want to know “Hey, I know pasting in my video URL makes it show up on WordPress! I’ll do that!”

They want the easy, and you need to remember to give them the easy.

Similarly, advice on what’s right should lead towards what’s easy. What’s easier for you to maintain, to develop, and support. I know what works for me, but when I’m teaching someone how to update plugins and they ask me “What tool do you recommend?” I say “What do you already use and like?”

That’s my secret, by the way. I teach and mentor by trying to learn what they already know, what they’re already comfortable with, and then explain how to do things better or faster with those systems. But I try not to show them “This is the way to do it.” I stress this is A way to do things, unless what they’re doing really is a reinvention of the wheel, without making the wheel any better.

One reply on “Make Your Advice Work”

Good thoughts, Mika.

I teach and mentor by trying to learn what they already know, what they’re already comfortable with, and then explain how to do things better or faster with those systems.

That’s the right way to do it. Oftentimes, when people are put in that trainer/mentor role, they make one of two mistakes: [a] assuming the trainee/mentee knows as much as they do, or [b] the trainee/mentee knows almost nothing. Gotta get to their level of understanding first, and see what they can see in the way they see it. Otherwise, you’re assuming too much or too little – let’s not assume at all!

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