You want to do something, and you don’t quite know how to go about it. So you look for expert advice, of course. It’s only common sense.
There’s this oft-quoted sentiment that “given the choice between a politician who says “We have a problem, but the answer is simple,” and one who says, “We have a problem, and the answer is complicated,” it’s the one who says “It’s simple,” who will win every time.
Because we want to think that things are simple; that they can be broken down. We look for a secret, a system, a recipe.
2 c Flour, 3 egga, 1 1/2 tsp salt & 3/4 c cold water
That’s the family recipe for soup dumplings. Enjoy!
Because that’s the only recipe I can give you. Building a business, raising children, creating art— there is no step-by-step roadmap for that. At the most there’s a series of ‘best practices’ that you can implement. And even then… I would be leery of them.
Because experts– even experts with first hand experience– are only telling you what worked for them. They might have even found other people whose experiences mirrored their own. They’ve probably found other experts who back them up, but this is all based on an outcome bias. Taking a bunch of people and pointing out — here’s why they’re successful– is complete bullshit from a rational, decision-making perspective.
If you say, “Oh, all these successful people worked hard. I’m going to work hard, then I will be successful too. We make the mistake of assuming A causes B, when in reality, A is only correlated with B. A is probably also correlated with a lot of poor people too, who are unsuccessful for reason that are evidently unrelated to how hard they work.
One example of outcome bias that always has me rolling my eyes is Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs was an asshole, and everyone knows it. But because he was an incredibly successful and visionary asshole, people are combing through his life, trying to ascertain just what made him know that being an asshole was the right thing to do. Seriously! I don’t doubt he had several things going for him, but if you think being an autocratic, nitpicking, underling-abusing dick is going to pave your path to glory… well, I don’t want to know you. Or Charlie Sheen.
Outcome bias is incredibly pervasive among self-help literature. It’s not all bad; there’s some very useful stuff mixed in with it.
But that’s actually another incredibly painful point.
Good advice getting broken down and completely bastardized by people who either don’t understand the principles behind their advice or think YOU don’t need to know.
People say, “Follow your passion” like that’s the only rule you ever need to hear. But the principle underlying this phrase is that, if you work in service to your passion, that will make the hard times easier to take. If you’re just doing the thing that get you the most money or prestige, everything bad or irritating that happens to you will suck twice as much. Passion is that balm that soothes the soul.
Should this be self-evident? Maybe. But it’s not, and there are way too many people who interpret “walk this way” like they’re in a Mel Brooks movie.
There’s a World of Difference Between “Simple” And “Simplistic”
When you’re looking for expert help, you’re categorically not an expert, so it can be hard to tell who is. We’ve already covered the fact that you don’t want people who are just giving you the Cliffs Notes. But you ALSO don’t want people who puff up their authority by deliberately opaque. After all, “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it well enough.”
So What’s The Answer?
Take everything with a grain of salt. You are more than smart enough to learn anything someone will take the time to explain to you. So if you aren’t getting it, it’s almost surely not your fault. Keep looking. Keep asking. And weigh experts against each other. Why does Michael Gerber think that a franchise is the best business model and Seth Godin says it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re remarkable and you delight your customer? Are they at odds, or do you need to do both? Come on. Your critical thinking skills are more than equal to this. If you’re wrong some of the time, so what? You learn more when you’re wrong than when you’re right.
Ask these questions. Reflect on where the expert is coming from. Listen to your gut– if you feel like you’re getting smoke blown up your ass, you probably are.
The pitfalls of bad information and bad explanations are easy to avoid– as soon as you know to be looking for them.
Have you ever chucked bad advice? What happened?