A Warning: 3 Reasons why most advice is bad advice

Common: Being led astray as a result of blindly accepting “well-intended” advice

Uncommon: After starting my first business at age 15 and watching it grow quickly only to fail less than 24months later, I became fascinated by the workings of success.  Why do some people and businesses succeed while others don’t? This question consumed me.

For almost a decade now, I have been interviewing successful individuals (businesspeople, athletes, artists, musicians, and the extraordinarily fulfilled) to discover the formula for success. While there were certainly some common themes among my findings, perhaps the most surprising and consistent discovery was how often the advice was really quite poor.

Of course, it is still wise to seek feedback, but I dare to make a bold and cautionary claim: Most advice is bad advice. This is so because of three fundamental factors…

#1 -The advice seeker’s methods are flawed

Over the years, I have found that my interviews have improved. In other words, I now gather much higher-quality information.  This is not an indication that my interview subjects have improved, but that my approach has become more effective.  Yes, the advice you receive is greatly influenced by your techniques to gather it.

Since most of us are never trained how to interview someone effectively (why skills such as this are not taught in school is beyond me), the information and advice we gather is often shoddy and sometimes fallacious.

Gathering good information comes down to four things: Rapport (creating trust), timing, empathy (understanding and connecting), and inquisitive questions.  Larry King, Barbara Walters, and Charlie Rose are among the greatest masters of extracting authentic information from their interviewees.  I suggest closely studying them in action.

#2 – Tacit knowledge is not easily defined

There are two types of knowledge:

  1. Explicit knowledge: Information that can be recorded, shared, and easily understood. It is descriptive data that, by way of written or spoken communication, is relatively self-explanatory.
  2. Tacit knowledge: Information that is “difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. …the ability to speak a language, use algebra, or design and use complex equipment requires all sorts of knowledge that is not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners… While tacit knowledge appears to be simple, it has far reaching consequences and is not widely understood.”
    1. Source: Wikipedia

Using “explicit knowledge” I could explain the step-by-step process of building a Lego car and you could essentially, end up with the same result. While we sometimes ask others how to perform similar, basic how-to-tasks, we would probably first seek an instruction manual or tutorial before taking someone else’s time.

However, other things are more complex.  And we reserve these more abstract ponderings  for human interaction – specifically with someone who has “been there, done that.”  These “experienced” individuals possess “tacit” knowledge or tricks-of-the-trade that is not easily accessible in conventional resources.

The problem is, defining and describing tacit knowledge is extremely difficult. For example, it’s challenging to describe how to ride a bike 60mph down rocky trail or how to be an influential and respected business leader. (This is also one reason why storytelling is such a powerful medium to communicate complex ideas – it creates a context around very broad advice).

Regrettably, humans are often unaware of this difficulty and consequently reduce the information to ambiguous highlights.  This is akin to owning half of a treasure map.  It’s intriguing, but dangerous.  The “context” is lost, and without it, the quality of the information is gravely debased and worse, misleading.

#3 – We simply don’t have the full story to share

Many social experiments have shown that humans are actually extremely poor at accurately analyzing and describing their own behavior.  We embellish, forget, and simply misinterpret our behavior and the results that followed.  We seek information/evidence that supports our existing beliefs and attitudes about the world.  And we overemphasize our abilities while underemphasizing the serendipitous events that simultaneously contributed to the outcome.  And then… we attempt to derive advice from partial or inaccurate memories. Not a good combo.


Advice on advice:

There are certainly many obvious flaws and challenges in the process of giving and receiving advice. But that does not mean we should avoid gathering it and giving it. It is always, well… contextual.  So, comically, here I am offering some parting advice on advice (but I guess it wouldn’t be right to proceed without a disclaimer: Read with caution):

  1. Assume that it is your responsibility to extract quality information.
  2. Understand that advice is always a micro view of a macro landscape.
  3. Seek behavioral patterns.  Since tacit knowledge is not so easily described, the best “advice” is likely obtained through observation, not conversation.  We would do ourselves a greater service by reflecting on our mentor’s life and the key decisions and actions that brought them to success.  This is why biographies can be a good source tacit knowledge.
  4. Building on the previous point, instead of seeking advice verbally, try arranging brief  internships and apprenticeships where you can observe and participate.
  5. If you do seek insight from an individual it may be best to engage with him or her using questions that are behaviorally, not physiologically based.  Poor question: “How do you approach personal challenges in your life?” Quality question: “When you received news that your wife wanted a divorce, what were 5 actions you took?” The first will cause the individual to draw from logic and philosophy, whereas the second question urges a response connected to personal behavior – the advice must be shared with “context.” Even though this does not rule out mental biases, it should increases the objective accuracy of the advice.   Yes, this requires some research ahead of time, but ALL great interviews do.
  6. Is it advice or courage that you need?  New and alternative perspectives can encourage growth, but in an era of instantaneous reward we often overlook the longer, more labor-intensive process of personal reflection and analysis.  Someone once told me, “Advice is what we seek when we know the answer but wish we didn’t.”  Stay in-tune with your north star and make sure your actions are not overshadowed by outside “advice” but rather influenced primarily by personal instinct and inner-council.

What are your thoughts?

How do you feel about the topic of advice? Please take a moment to share your thoughts and comments with the DGB community below.

Stay uncommon,

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