How to identify bad advice

You’re trying to make an important decision and you find that there’s a lot of advice flying around. Sadly, you soon realize that most of it isn’t good and very little of it is actually useful. How do you make it easier for yourself to identify bad advice?

There’s a lot in my sketch (below). So, here are the 3 key takeaways –

  1. Great advice has 2 characteristics – it is based on principles and it is intended for your benefit. Great advice is incredibly rare because it requires a lot of thought to get to the principles and in-person investment to understand your specific context.
  2. On the flip side, bad advice is what you hear 80%+ of the time. The most telling characteristic of bad advice is that the giver either speaks to himself/herself or to his/her interests. Combine this with a random jumble of thoughts and anecdotes and it is easy to spot. Most bad advice is a result of absence of “skin in the game” (H/T N N Taleb). When someone says something is ‘good for you’ when it is also good for them and when they don’t face the downside of the decision, it is likely not good for you. Think: Peter Thiel telling you to drop out of school.
  3. We are all asked for advice by folks around us. To become someone who gives generally useful advice, we need to combine 2 things – 1) Think in terms of principles – i.e. truths that are applicable across contexts (hard to do) and take the time to structure your advice, and 2) Stop giving advice to yourself (very hard to do). As a bonus – this scales as it doesn’t need to be personalized.

I hope you find this useful.

“Be yourself” can be really bad advice

There’s a category of advice that sounds good in theory but is pretty bad in practice. “Follow your passion” is one example. “Be yourself” is another.

The issue with “be yourself” is that it reeks of the fixed mindset and gets in the way of self improvement. It does so by encouraging the “This is just who I am – take it or leave it” mindset.

That is not to say we can change everything about ourselves. If you are an impatient person (speaking to myself) by nature, you are not going to become the most patient. But, you don’t have to either. Our traits and temperaments are part of a spectrum and we can always put in the work to stretch ourselves to move along that spectrum and learn to be flexible with how we apply ourselves in situations.

Put differently, if who you are is getting in the way of what you’d like to get done, stop being yourself and get better.

Perhaps a better piece of advice would be to ask folks to “become yourself.” It doesn’t just add a necessary air of intrigue to what is a fascinating lifetime journey of discovering our ever expanding capacity for change, it also focuses the journey on growth.

Besides, as Carol Dweck might say, becoming is better than being anyway.

Good career advice

Sometimes, I think most good career advice boils down to some version of –

“Don’t be in a hurry to climb some arbitrary career ladder or obtain some badge of supposed honor. Hustle, instead, to identify and solve problems that you think are challenging, useful, and learning filled – even if they’re risky at times. And, while you’re at it, invest effort in becoming self aware, doing good work, and being kind to people along the way.”

As with all great advice – it is relatively easy to formulate and say/find and very hard to live by.

The commencement speech problem

Many of us picture commencement speakers giving variations of the “Take more risks, work hard, do good” speech. The good news is that the proportion of speeches that contain such advice seems to be going down. Understanding why is useful for all of us as we often end up giving others advice from time-to-time.

The trouble with generic advice is that it doesn’t work for a large group of people. Some people need to take more risks while others don’t. Some folks need to work harder to earn their privilege while others need to be careful about avoiding burn out. Such advice is easy to give – but is generally flawed because it is either self serving (quit college and start companies so I can invest in the best of them) or designed for people similar to the advice giver.

While the best advice is given once you understand a person and their proclivities, that doesn’t scale. The better approach, then, is to focus on principles. For example, a career principle might be to – invest in understanding yourself and use that understanding to make better decisions and develop good judgment.

The challenge with principles is that getting to them takes considerable thought – the sort that should be a pre-requisite to giving advice.

(H/T Julia Galef, Shripriya Mahesh for notes/discussions on this)

Ben Horowitz on adding value and not following your passion

As I’ve written here, I don’t generally watch videos of talks as I think they’re largely a waste of time. However, Ben Horowitz is an exception. Every bit of content I’ve read or watched from him has been incredibly high quality. His blog is fantastic and his book, The Hard Thing about Hard Things, is the closest I’ve seen a book come to an entrepreneur’s bible. So, I did what a fan would and jumped on watching this 16 minute video during breakfast yesterday as I just expected it to be really good. And, it was.

These are my three lessons from his talk.

1. Think for yourself because you add value to the world when you bring to life a belief that no one believes to be true. This was the story of Brian Chesky at AirBnB. He believed that we would rent a mattress in our home to strangers. While most people thought this was absurd as you could be housing a serial killer, he did 2 things. First, he ran an experiment at home and it turned out to be just fine. Next, he dug into why hotel chains exist. He soon realized that hotel chains are a fairly recent invention. In the old days, people stayed at inns. However, these inns had too much variability as you could have some very bad experiences at some inns. He realized that, with the internet, information and reviews could make this transparent and enable people to choose well. It is that insight that’s led to a company valued over a billion dollars.

2. Don’t follow your passion. You don’t know what you are passionate about. And, besides, passions change. Start with what you are good at – you’ll get to passion. (More on this thanks to Cal Newport’s excellent book on the subject here)

3. A period of great opportunities. Yes, there’s global warming, terrorism and many bad things happening all over the world. But, there’s also the following facts (a few of the many he cited) –
– the number of people in extreme poverty today is the lowest it has ever been and one-fifth of what it was in 1900
– child labor is in steep decline and fell 1/3rd between 2011 and 2012
– expenditure of food as a % of income fallen in half since 1960
– Life expectancy has increased and we have grown taller (a measure of nutrition) oin the last 100 years
– Worldwide battlefield deaths are down, violent crime and global supply of nuclear weapons, also, are down
– In 2014, carbon emissions were flat for the first time in the last decade

There are still issues but you have technology available to you as a tool for change. But, if you contribute and think for yourself, you will be the generation that unlocks human potential.

Fantastic, as always. Thanks Ben.