Good and Bad Advice

Apr 2014

(Based on an Office Hours)

“Don’t go looking for boys in the dark
They will say pretty things then
leave you with scars.
Do go looking for boys in the park
For that is where the true gentlemen are.”

– Anna Godbersen, The Luxe

“The business man who is constantly asking advice is advertising the fact of his uncertainty of his own actions. Your great problems must be decided by yourself.”

– William Crosbie Hunter, Dollars and Sense

The entrepreneurs job is to filter advice. Not to listen to everything told to them. If they did they’d end up going in so many different directions they’d basically never get anything done. Instead they should filter for what is actually important. This is hard to do. Most advice is like being given with information where only some of it is actually relevant. The hard part is figuring out what.

Bad advice comes from everywhere and everyone likes to give advice. Particularly in startups, it is common to hear hundreds of conflicting opinions. A horrible mistake entrepreneurs make is trusting the advice of people who aren’t successful. When I started in entrepreneurship, a wise investor, one of the best sat me down and explained. He gave me this really interesting model of the world.

It was very explicitly, everyone is going to tell you what they think you should do. Hear all of it, think about it and then ignore about 90% of it and come to your own conclusions. Do your own thing and additionally don’t listen to the advice of anyone who is not already a self-made millionaire. It’s something that has rung true with me. His reasoning was very simple. People who haven’t succeeded at it. Don’t know. And their advice can be, without meaning to, be just as harmful as it may be helpful. And even if they have succeeded, what may have worked for them may not work for you.

It’s a very easy way of filtering good advice from bad advice because primarily good advice will come from people who’ve succeeded whereas bad advice won’t. Naturally, it all should come with a grain of salt. The fallacy is in an appeal to authority by taking the experience of the advice giver as a proxy for the quality of the advice. But these are discrete. A person who has achieved a lot may not always give good advice while a person who hasn’t might. It’s why some of the worst advice can come from PHDs and some of the best can come from children.

It’s why one of the wisest people in my life has been my little sister even though she is in grade school and has comparatively little life experience while one of the least knowledgeable has been my mother even though she has a PHD in economics and a lot of life experience. It’s worth noting, no advice, by its very definition is intended to be harmful. But very often it is. You fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

The most potent and counter-intuitive is other successful people, particularly when they’re not responsible for their own success. People who inherited lots of money, took over big family businesses or just plain got very lucky. They actually, without meaning too, give some of the worst advice. Perhaps because their success is hard to repeat. All advice comes from personal experience. And often the wisdom is only contextually relevant to that very specific circumstance and can’t be applied to others.

My favourite type of advice comes from stories. Where the advice is not directed at the user but rather is a narrative from which they can learn their own lessons. It’s why learning about history proves so valuable. The lessons are implicit not direct. History books do not tell us what to do, they tell us the mistakes of people who came before so hopefully we can stop ourselves from making them.

I think the makeup of great advice is not what to do but rather what not to. If you avoid everything you shouldn’t do, eventually you’ll do the things you should. And very often ends up leading to the right answer by process of elimination. A thought experiment.

If you were to try to give bad advice, how would you do it? I would try and say everything I think is wrong. And say to do that. How would you give good advice? I would try and say everything I think is wrong. And say not to do that. In a weird sense, they would both actually be good advice because the person can still learn lessons from knowing everything that is wrong. Both end up with the same outcome and I think is the answer.

The job of someone giving advice is not to tell the person what to do but rather to tell them what not to. And it is definitely not to try to enforce it either way or make sure it is being followed. It’s to help someone realise their own conclusions and do whatever they think is best but to avoid mistakes. In battle the winner is not the person who gets the most kills but who stays alive the longest. Success lies not in winning but not losing.

And a good way to do that is to be able to identify what constitutes a mistake. That is the ability to think about a problem in a lot of different ways. One way to do that is to have experienced a lot of problems. Another is to have many types of ways to think about things which comes from reading and knowing what to look for. If you pick a metric, you’ll end up measuring and optimising it. So helping people pick the right things to measure is the low hanging fruit of great advice. The actual measuring process is the entrepreneurs job.

I think a good model for being able to generate good advice is by having a large number of mental models from which to draw experience. It’s like having a variety of algorithms with which to crunch a dataset with. Eventually you’ll find types of data will suit a certain type of algorithm more naturally than others. Forcing data through an inadequate algorithm is disastrous because it nearly always leads to the wrong conclusions.