Two Ludicrously Common Pitfalls Advice-Seekers Fall Into

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 eggs, 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 onYour 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.

Your Turn

Have you ever chucked bad advice? What happened?


14 thoughts on “Two Ludicrously Common Pitfalls Advice-Seekers Fall Into”

  1. I’ve chucked soooo much advice. When I first started blogging, I took every “pro-bloggers” advice as gold, because i was serious about blogging. But, it really wasn’t that long before I said – this just isn’t me so I can’t follow this advice anymore. I think in order to really find your voice or style in anything, you can’t stick to someone else’s rules, blueprint, map for success or whatever the expert wants to call it. You can take bits and pieces that totally resonates with you, and forget the rest.

    1.  @deniseurena Ach! Problogging. Good one. Nobody ever articulates the difference between blogger who set themselves apart as an authority, and the more laid back types who do their own thing, but who do interesting enough stuff that people follow. And probloggers are nearly always the former type, when most people, I think, would prefer to be the latter.

  2. I’m finally starting to question “experts” and treat their advice more as suggestions than as universal truths. The more confident I become in my own abilities and intuition — and that is a challenge I’m only just beginning to work on — the better I can sense whether something is working for me or not. But, less and less I follow someone’s advice blindly, and more and more I question, and pick and choose what works for me.

    1.  @remadebyhand Yay! Picking and choosing is important on two levels. The first is that it’s effective. The second is that it affirms your own authority on what’s right for you, instead of just following the random orders of people you presume to be your superiors. 

  3. Here here! I am much more trusting of researchers who look at a broad swath of people/businesses/etc than I am of “experts” who speak from very deep but usually not all that broad experience. But even then- you can hear what works for 90% of businesses and still not have it work for you. There’s still 10% that it doesn’t work for and you might be a part of it. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta check in with yourself and decide if something is a good idea or a bad one.  Now, tell me more about these soup dumplings?

    1.  @ethanwaldman I love it when people say, “Well, statisitically, this is the best way to do it.” Well, statistically, I’m an outlier. As are lots of people. Statistics don’t mean a damn thing in terms of an individual. 
      Mix it up and drop by the tsp full into chicken noodle soup (not recommended with other flavors of soup). Boil ten minutes and serve. 🙂

  4. One of these days I will write the article I have been dying to write about all the terrible parts about “following your passion”.
    It probably goes without saying that I am totally in agreement with you on this one. It’s easy to read someone else’s advice, try it and then have the advice (or the other person) to blame when things go wrong. It is much much much harder to actually do the research and figure out what really works for you. And at the same time also manage to avoid your own “stories” about what is working and isn’t working for you. But when you get good at it, I still believe it works way much better in the end. 
    When I was in MLM, they were always telling us just to copy the successful people because “the best copycat wins,” and I was just appalled… but then… well… it was MLM. But that’s a story for another time. 🙂 

    1.  @sarahemily MLMs are really like cults, aren’t they? I was at an event for one once, and it was like an old-fashioned revival. I mean, it’s a business model, and it even works for some people (I knew a Mary Kay lady who got the pink Cadillac!) but the whole time I was there I was like “Whoa. Every single person in the room has turned their brains off.” 0.0
      I totally want to read this post. WRITE EET!

  5. Another gem Shanna. Thank you for pointing out the problem of lazy thinking, when we accept one expert opinion without considering several others. I have had now fewer than 10 guitar teachers in 28 years of playing and that says nothing of the master classes I attended. Those teachers probably had simialr experiences which means I am a product of their teachers too. I just purchased a book on how to play scales 6 months ago even though I have been playing scales for more than 2 decades.
    And as for following our passion, guitar was my passion when I sucked. Now it is the thing in which I have invested the most time and effort. So although I am still passionate about it, it is what makes the most sense for me to do to earn money. Now I am mostly passionate about fitness, beer and darts, but I may have trouble making a living from them.

  6. Hey Shanna,
    Wow, there’s a lot to absorb here. And I’m not sure I’ve done a sufficient job of it but here goes on a (hopefully useful) comment.
    I can tell you what part of the answer is. Rigorously tested, scientifically proven (as much as anything can be proven) research and reporting. I have a friend, Amit Amin, who writes on Happier Human. He’s serious when he says that if it’s not scientifically proven or backed up, then it ain’t worth a damn. I applaud the simplicity he brings to following or not following something based on this basic criteria. But I think his view is simplistic sometimes.
    My opinion, even though everyone should take it with a grain of salt as you mention, is trust your inherent B.S. filters when exposed to something new. If the B.S. alarms don’t go off, explore deeper whether a new book, video, picture, podcast, or other type of content is worth incorporating into your life. We can’t always be on guard and looking for the motives behind everyone’s actions. Tons of people are misguided or intentionally mislead and we just need to be aware of it. We don’t necessarily need to actively do anything about it.

    1.  @joeyjoejoe I agree that scientifically proven is the gold standard, but a ton of stuff isn’t *proven*, it’s just statistically more likely, and people tend to conflate the two types of ‘knowledge’. 
      To use an obvious example, saying that, *statistically* men are better at math than women, doesn’t mean that I should automatically bow to your superior math skillz– IRL you are not appreciably more likely to be better at math than I. 

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