in Life Optimization

Don’t Give Advice; Share Experiences

Image from Pryere on flickr

My blog can come off as pedantic and scolding. Anything that pretends to offer ‘life optimization’ tips would be, what with all the ‘you shoulds’ and ‘you shouldn’t’s. Yet I have no idea how to live well, broadly speaking. I’m figuring out as I go, just like everyone else. Even geniuses are novices outside their narrow fields of expertise. But we can all share what we learn in the process, and enrich the lives of others along the way.

So here I go, telling you how to live once again. I say you shouldn’t ever tell someone what to do. You can only tell them what worked for you. Nobody knows what you should do except you – you are the only one who has the necessary information. you have more information about the decision at hand than anyone else on Earth. You alone know where you’ve been, what you want, how your mind works, where you might like to go – the works.

Taking Advice is Outsourcing Personal Decisions

To let someone else decide what is best for you (which is essentially what you do by taking advice) is like a CEO outsourcing a tough business decision to a consultant.It makes the CEO’s job easier, but there’s no way the consultant knows what is best for the company. They know what has been best for similarly sized companies in the past, but that’s irrelevant; we’re not talking about those companies. 

In Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things, he mentions being paralyzed with doubt and uncertainty when his company was in dire straits, because he knew that no matter how much advice his well qualified advisors and fellow executives could give him, they only know pieces of the puzzle. He alone as the CEO had it in its entirety. As he should – the CEO’s job description is to know everything and make the executive decision that will steer the company safely forward.

That said, there’s a reason CEOs hire consultants and advisors. Why slog through some problem from square one when there’s millions who’ve confronted the same issue before you? Thus exists the fields of coaches, consultants, advisors, psychiatrists, and so on. They’ve seen your problem before, which means they’re better prepared to help you deal with it. Why not pay them for their hard-earned experience and do exactly as they say?

Advice Is Individual Experience Generalized

This VC explains why not perfectly: “Advice is one person’s experience generalized. It’s a single point of view with all kinds of survivorship and attribution bias. Advice can be terribly dangerous when used as a substitute for thinking.” There is value in advice, but it can never compare to the efforts of a well-informed individual who knows their own needs better than anyone else. How, then can one effectively take advice into account?

Scott Britton uses two axioms to help him take advice constructively that could work. He asks himself “Does this person understand my current position” first, so that he can rank the advice appropriately. Sometimes your spouse has better advice than the expensive advisor, because they know you better. Don’t discount intimacy for expertise.

Secondly, he asks himself “Do I want this person’s life?” Since advice is individual experience generalized, if followed it will likely lead you to the same point that the advisor currently occupies. Similar to the saying ‘never trust a skinny cook’, never take advice from someone you don’t respect. The advice of those you do respect can be the best, but make sure you think through the framework they used to get there for yourself.

For example, I immediately purchase books when more than one person I admire recommends them to me. If two such people recommend that book independently, it must be worth my time, and the investment cost is low. If they recommend something bigger, like a trip, expensive course, or the like, I will think it through more seriously. But since I respect them and ‘want their lives’, so to speak, I take the advice seriously.

Life Is a Dark Room We’re All Fumbling Through Together

This is the best way to take advice. Find someone with expertise who knows you well, and remember that they are a different person with a distinct life path and goals. Use their experience to come up with the best result for you. Likewise, there’s no reason to tell someone what to do;  but sharing what you did and how it worked or didn’t will be helpful.

That’s what I (and most nonfiction writers, I daresay) try to do – not give advice but rather, to share what pitiful few things I have figured out in life. This blog is fundamentally descriptive, not prescriptive. We all face similar problems in life, and sometimes a second opinion comes in helpful. Plus there’s the value of a fresh perspective; another pair of eyes out in the world helping expose you to things worth knowing.

Life is a dark room that we’re all fumbling through together. We don’t know where we are or where we’re going, but we know where we’ve been. So we shout directions back to loved ones, alerting them to something dangerous here, and something lovely there. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to trust the directions of those ahead of us, much less if what they’re talking about is at all relevant to our position.