Soliciting advice from strangers

On being open to a fresh perspective.

Soliciting advice from strangers

Once upon a time, there was a boy who set out at daybreak to go fishing. He entered the local harbour with great bravado, already imagining the large bucket of fish he’d bring home to his family for dinner.

After setting his bait, a delicious, juicy worm, he expected to catch his first fish within minutes. He cast his line from the harbour wall, ready to pull back at any moment. But nothing happened. Not even so much as a bubble was visible on the water’s shiny surface. The boy scratched his head, why weren’t there any bites today? He had seen the old fishermen of the village do this a million times before. After a few hours, his confidence wavered and he started thinking back to his warm bed.

After dozing off for a minute, a great tug on the line startled him awake. He could barely hold on to his rod. “Me oh my, this is a big one!”, he thought. With all his might he pulled. As he reeled the fish in, he was already smiling about his catch. “Easy, peasy”, he smirked. The fish came so close to his face, he swore he saw it winking, but, at the critical moment, the line broke and the fish struggled free, disappearing back into the sea.

He felt crushed. It started to dawn on him that he might not catch any fish that day.

Suddenly two ghosts appeared. Spirits of old fishermen who used to fish from that harbour wall every morning when they were still fishing at all. They saw our young protagonist sitting in a heap, overcome by the disappointment of losing his big fish.

“What’s wrong, young man?” the first fisherman piped in.

“He looks like you used to every time a fish slipped through your fingers,” the other one added.

Because the boy was so disheartened he didn’t even notice these weren't real men when he looked up…

“I wanted to catch a bucket of fish today, but I haven’t caught any. My bait is finished. I’m sunburnt. I’ve been here the whole morning. I thought this was going to be easy,” the boy grumbled.

The first ghost consoled him, “Do not despair one young, fishing can be a cruel game, one day you catch a bucket of fish, and the next day you want to put the bucket over your head.”

The second one added, “We’ve fished these shores for many years, while we were still made of flesh and bone like you. Go cast your line over there, there’s a big fish hole at the point. Also, don’t use worms as bait, rather use those fat mussels on the rock over there.”

And with that parting advice, poof, the ghosts disappeared.

“Wait, what? ‘Still made of flesh and bone’? Where did they go?”

The boy picked up his rod and set out for the point with a few mussels in hand.

Within an hour, his bucket was full. With a big smile, and his chest held high, he marched back home and slammed the door open to show his big haul. When his parents asked him how he did it, the boy replied, “With a little help from my two friends”.

Troika Consulting

Sometimes we all need some help from a few friendly ghosts.

We all have blind spots. We only know what we know. Other people might have more experience or a different set of experiences they can apply to solve our problems. Like where to cast our lines and which bait to use in order to reach our goals.

An exercise you can try in your own life to gain advice from strangers (and benefit from fresh perspectives) is called Troika Consulting.

I first did this exercise in Michael Ashcroft’s mentor group in Write of Passage 7 back in September 2021.

I wanted to recreate the magic for my own writing students during our last mentor call.

Here's how it works:

1. Reflection:

Everyone gets 5 minutes to reflect on a prompt, for example, “What is the biggest challenge in your career at the moment ”?

After this, the group is split into teams of three and sent into separate rooms (virtual or real).

2. Sharing:

In alphabetical order, one person gets to play the client while the other two members are consultants.

The client has a few minutes to explain their problem (in this case their main writing challenge e.g. lack of upward movement, lack of recognition, …)

The two consultants listen, use reflection and ask probing questions to gather more info.

3. Consulting:

The client turns off their camera & mic.

The two consultants put on their thinking hats and brainstorm how the client can solve their problem (overcome their career challenges).

All while the client listens in and takes notes.

Switching off your camera allows the consultants to speak more freely. They can remove the person from the problem, often giving better advice. Like the two friendly ghosts who helped our young friend catch his bucket of fish.

Give it a try. Perhaps you can also reel in your biggest challenges with some outside advice.

Thanks to Rik van den Berge for reading drafts of this essay. And thanks to Sairam Sundaresan & his Storytelling Science workshop which permitted me to try a less serious approach.

Originally published at on May 28, 2023.