This post will change the way you think about giving and taking advice forever
A little while ago, I came across this post: "Every thought about giving and taking advice I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible" It shocked me. Today it will shock you too (in a good way!)
It’s easy to give useless advice that feels profound.
For example, one of the pieces of advice I give most often to people is to write more. So a few months ago I suggested to a friend of mine that they should write about the situations in which they started procrastinating and explained that writing forces you to think about what exactly happened and thus would help with their productivity issues. A couple of weeks later I asked them how did it go and they told me that they did this a couple of times but it wasn’t useful, so they gave up on writing things down. I asked them if I can take a look at a couple of notes that they took and this is when I realized how shitty the advice I gave them was.
Here’s what they did based on my advice:
opened Roam Research
wrote down a literal description of the incident that happened with what the events that preceded it
At this point, they
didn’t actually think about the problem
didn’t take any actions to actually remedy it
are about to forget about their note ~forever
are about to give up on writing things down
Here’s what I do when I notice that I have a pattern of behavior I don’t like and what I was trying to communicate:
open an incoming.md file in which I write down any notes for further processing
having just one file decreases friction of writing thoughts down massively and makes me much more likely to write notes
write a description of what happened with my thoughts on what caused it
think about specific actions I can take in future similar situations
open my todo program (Amazing Marvin) and add a task that roughly says “did i do the specific action i was planning to take” a week into the future (this task can then be re-scheduled into the future any number of times as a reminder)
any time I encounter this reminder, I write down any new thoughts on the issue to incoming.md
clean up incoming.md every Sunday by deleting/moving into Roam Research all notes older than 1 month, so after 1 month I return to the initial note I took and, in case I did not solve the problem completely, IN A SEPARATE NOTE I summarize whatever happened to the problem in the meantime, what I did, what I’m going to do in the future
thus I will return to that new note 1 month later again and see what happened
returning to every note 1 month later enables gradual thinking and tinkering with habits and thought processes and often leads to new thoughts or insights, while also naturally integrating spaced repetition and increasing retention of ideas
this also effectively allows me to write letters to myself 1 month into the future, which is often very helpful
move off old notes to Roam Research and tag them and occasionally check older notes with the tags in question to see long-term progress
continue to do the steps above indefinitely until the problem is solved
it’s extremely difficult to communicate the process above verbally in a casual conversation where you have like 30 seconds of talking time before people start feeling weird and where you’re limited by the working memory of your friend
it’s extremely easy to mentally collapse the process above into something like “have you tried writing cases when you start procrastinating down?” and forget about all of the other elements of this strategy that actually make it useful
I actually do all of the steps above because I’m insane and obsessed with this stuff and simply “write down the situation” does not facilitate the emotional connection needed for this habit to stay in place
We are all different people
People differ a lot in their levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, energy, ambition, curiosity, independence, risk-seeking, fame-seeking, neuroticism, conflict-aversion, obsessiveness, etc. By default, high conscientiousness people don’t understand low conscientiousness people. High extraversion people don’t understand low extraversion people. High energy people don’t understand low energy people. It’s actually worse than that because “high neuroticism” or “high ambition” can actually mean a ton of different things. (a)
Even if someone shares our thinking style (so we feel like we have good rapport and understand each other well), they probably differ from us in a lot of other crucial personality aspects and thus are unlikely to understand our attitude towards life by default. Everyone (including me) tends to really underestimate how different we all are.
I probably have ADHD and I’m not good at doing what other people tell me to do. This doesn’t prevent my grandmas who’ve known me for my entire life and who spent thousands of hours with me over the years to keep telling me that I should just get a normal job. Even our closest ones have surprisingly little insight into our mental states.
Note the “by default"s above. If you only have 3 minutes of conversation time, you will probably only be able to hear the default advice, either modeled on the person who’s giving the advice themself or on a very crude model of you. But if you have an actual conversation or you know each other really well, it’s quite likely that you’ll be able to articulate your thought processes much better, to figure out what exactly makes you click, and will get advice that is actually tailored to you. It’s ok to take an hour or more to discuss a difficult decision with a friend.
If you’re giving advice, it’s helpful to
make sure that the person cares about solving the problem in the first place (rather than just venting, feeling obliged to want to solve the problem…)
make sure that the person does not have psychological blocks around doing anything about the problem (anxiety, learned helplessness) or figure out how to work around them
make sure that the person’s internal traits and ambitions match the thing you’re suggesting
We are systematically wrong about why we do the things we do
Of course you’re not guaranteed to get good advice in any case. A risk-loving CEO will probably not tell you that the reasons behind them burning cash launching new products are boredom and the desire for novelty. And a risk-averse CEO will probably not tell you that the reason they’re not launching new unproven products while allowing themselves to be eaten by startups is because they’re afraid of failure.
Correspondingly, the former CEO and the latter CEO will probably give you different advice on important life decisions, each backing up their advice with very seriously-sounding reasons. And even if they do realize that they’re risk-seeking or risk-averse, the former has probably convinced themself that people lose by being too cautious while the latter has probably convinced themself that people lose by being too reckless and will give you advice corresponding with their life philosophy, probably not realizing and thus not telling you how they arrived at this conclusion that informs every aspect of their thinking. All of this is especially true for “taboo” topics. Nobody wants to be considered reckless and nobody wants to be considered a chicken, meaning that people will be especially self-deceptive in such domains.
People are systematically wrong not just about their fundamental traits but also about everyday desires and emotions. Parents who “want the best” for their children but actually just live their own failed ambitions (a) through them is one classic example. ‘When John F. Kennedy was asked about the level of involvement and influence that his father had held in his razor-thin presidential victory over Richard Nixon, he would joke that on the eve of the election his father had asked him the exact number of votes he would need to win: There was no way he was paying “for a landslide”.' (a)People bad at small talk deciding that small talk is useless is also a good one.
To summarize: people generate systematically wrong explanations for their behavior and they will give you systematically bad advice if they reason from wrong explanations from their behavior. If you pay attention, you will notice this everywhere. We are really good at self-deception.
We are systematically wrong about why the things we do work for us
Most advice is basically people mistaking correlation for causation.
When things go bad, we try to fix them, but the truth is quite often things return to normal all on their own or due to external factors but to feel that our actions made them better.
For example, I’m writing a post on how to make waking up easier right now. I’ve had giant troubles getting out of bed in the morning for as long as I can remember myself, however I finally managed to start waking up with an alarm consistently a few months ago and figured that ok, I’ve been doing it for a few months, I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing, I think I should write about this – everyone I know has exactly the same problem after all. So I wrote 2,000 words about this over a few weeks and then lost the ability to get out of bed easily. I still don’t know what happened.
The simpler the problem the person is facing, the more difficult it is to fix
Mistake I’ve made many times: seeing someone with a simple problem and thinking “not to worry, this just needs a quick fix and they’ll be on their way!” instead of “what level of hidden dysfunction is keeping even this simple problem unsolved?”
Imagine someone is terrible at email: they take a long time to respond, they read emails and then forget about them until the person on the other end follows up a week later, they can’t send themselves a reminder-email and be sure that they’re actually going to read it, etc.
Here are potential reasons for why this could be happening:
they have literally just never heard of “inbox zero” and the “mark as unread” button in Gmail
they are bad at managing their time in general and they get overwhelmed with email easily; they find it difficult to say no to people and they don’t read/reply to emails as a way to avoid discomfort from having to say no or risk being overwhelmed with commitments; or they’re plain busy and unable to reply to or to even read 100 emails a day
It’s extremely easy to hear about someone struggling to stay on top of their email and go “oh, not being terrible at email seems pretty simple. You just need to open email every morning and make sure you get to inbox 0. That will solve most of your problems.” It’s extremely unlikely that the person you’re talking to literally just never thought about that. Note that all the issues in point (2) are much more difficult to solve than (1).
Ditto for “go to the gym” (exercise-induced vomiting?), “spend less time on twitter” (inability to cultivate friends in real life? compulsive avoidance of work?), “leave the job that makes you suicidal” (no savings? $$$ vesting over the next couple of years?), etc.
When someone tells you you should go to the gym, they’re probably not thinking about a million of personal factors that make going to the gym easy for them. Even worse, it’s quite likely that it was actually difficult for them to start going to the gym, but they managed to develop the adaptations necessary for it to be a consistent habit (e.g. “just going” to the gym even when they don’t quite feel like going, short-circuiting potential negative motivation/overthinking spirals - how?), and these habits have now just become parts of who they are, so they’re not thinking about them and are not realizing they were acquired at this specific point in time.
Returning to my discussion of fixing a pattern of behavior I don’t like, there are many moving parts and background processes that are idiosyncratic to my system and to my personality, like me having an incoming.md file that ensures future review of notes, using Amazing Marvin, which enables low friction but extremely persistent endless reminders, actually using Amazing Marvin rather than checking it once a month but ignoring it day-to-day, having special Roam Research pages and tags that make looking up old notes easy, caring about this shit a lot, and probably a bunch more stuff I’m forgetting now.
Simply grafting it on anyone’s life is unlikely to work and disentangling all of the elements and gradually installing all of them is actually pretty hard because the structure of such systems is typically very path-dependent, driven by personal exploration and working largely because of the emotional attachment developed to it in the process of this exploration. Of course creating such an emotional attachment is possible (one reason why summarizing self-help books that spend 200 pages trying to do this for a single idea is stupid), is worth trying, but it’s not easy to do and you should not be discouraged that it doesn’t work 100% instantaneously.
When simple advice does work
Simple advice works when it forces you to think, reminds you of something you forgot about or nudges you in the right direction, and more often takes the form of questions or general suggestions/pointers. For example, “what’s your plan for doing X?” or “what was the original reasoning behind doing X?” are often actually very helpful.
It’s surprising how often the advice that I give people who come to me asking for advice cashes out to some form of “well, have you considered doing the obvious thing?”
For example, when someone comes to me and says “help, I have a talk I have to give and I’m going to be terribly nervous and I dread it, what do I do?” it’s often surprisingly helpful for me to ask, “well, what sort of things would make you less nervous?” Or someone comes to me and says “I find myself just playing video games all day, how do I stop myself?”, I first ask, “have you considered what sorts of things you’d rather do besides play video games all day?”
In many cases, the obvious prompts aren’t sufficient. But in a surprising number of cases, they are. I still often find this advice useful myself: when my attention slips, I am often helped by someone just asking me to consider the obvious — “what would make the task less dreadful?” or “have you thought for five minutes about alternatives?” or “have you considered delegating this?” and so on.
Our brains are basically undercooked sausages and it’s both terrifying how easy it is to forget to do all of the obvious things regularly and very encouraging because the bar for doing better is set so low. This is why I think weekly one-on-ones (therapy, coaching) are actually really helpful.
Be careful when taking advice
It’s especially difficult to figure out what we really care about when we’re young and we should be vigilant to not be swayed by people who are older and who seem like they know what they care about or by our peer group which, as a whole, always seems to know where it’s moving.
The only adults teenagers are really exposed to are teachers and professors and I, for example, was very prone to seek advice from those I especially admired. I think I realized that I do not share some of the most important traits for which teachers and professors are selected (lack of desire to build things irl; intellectual play as one of the central pleasures in life, etc.) and that I probably shouldn’t listen too carefully to what my favorite professors think about life a bit too late.
I studied economics in the university and there were two standard paths among people around me:
PhD in economics
I think I realized that the actual reasons for these are usually
“I don’t know what I want and I don’t want to have a jerb”
“I don’t know what I want but people in finance/consulting make a lot of money and have high optionality so why not”
also a bit too late and I’m glad all the banks and consulting firms I applied to rejected all of my applications. I felt the pull of having a prestigious job incredibly strongly, even after my blog became fairly popular and I think I got very lucky that I failed to find a job, despite earnestly trying to do it for a long time.
The advice we are given is systematically biased not only because people are just bad it figuring out how shit works but also because advice can’t be isolated away from the relationships we have. If a friend suggests you to drop out of school and start a startup or write full-time, they will partly be to-blame for what happens to you when you make that decision (and unconventional life decisions do often end poorly). Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM applies to advice too and advice you receive will be systematically biased in favor of safe choices.
One way out of this is to perhaps explicitly ask something along the lines of “what’s the most outrageous advice you can come up with? what advice are you scared of giving me because you think I’ll blame you if it fails?" and to remember to try to figure out why they believe the things they tell you, why the made the decisions they made, and why they tell you these specific things whenever someone shares advice with you.
Finally, do remember that most people only did 1 or 2 things in their life. The probability that one of them is exactly what you should be doing with your life is very low, and they probably know next to nothing about everything else.
Giving good advice is both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. It’s usually helpful to note the motivation, personality, personal circumstances, etc. of the person on the other end of the conversation and to give both of you enough time to figure out what’s really going on. And yet, sometimes “just do x” is the best advice you could give and sometimes hearing “just do x” is the best advice you can hear.
Reposted via Creative Commons via guzey.com