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Weekly 3: How useful is advice?

Summary: Be skeptical of advice. Gauge the credibility of other people's opinions. Think of your best

Idea Journal Weekly 3

January 27 · Issue #71 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Be skeptical of advice. Gauge the credibility of other people’s opinions. Think of your best friend. (~5 min read)

#1. Ultimately, it's your decision
Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes on his blog that you shouldn’t take any one person’s advice too seriously.
Imagine that you’re facing a big question like, Should I quit my job and start my own company?
You then ask the advice of a few successful people you know, whose opinions you respect and trust: one says “Yes” and the other says “No.”
As Sivers points out, because they can’t know everything about you and your particular situation, their advice is really just a reflection of their biases and their own current situation.
There are 3 such biases that you should be aware of when asking others for advice:
1. Success bias
Sivers writes that when successful people give advice, what he hears is: “Here are the lottery numbers I played: 14, 29, 71, 33, 8. They worked for me!”
Success is the result of many factors, some are based on luck and others aren’t, and it’s hard to know which are which.
2. Underdog bias
When most people give you advice, they don’t want to simply repeat what seems like conventional wisdom.
But what’s conventional and popular to them is based on their surroundings, not yours. If everyone around them is quitting, their advice may be for you to keep your job. It’s an under-represented opinion in their environment at that point in time.
3. Creativity bias
You ask, “Should I do option A or B?”
They reply, “Zebra!”
In this scenario, they’re treating advice like a brainstorm – giving a wild suggestion to help open up more options. As Sivers notes, this suggestion “was meant to be mostly entertaining, somewhat useful, and probably not correct.”
So if you shouldn’t take any one person’s advice too seriously, what should you do instead?
For Sivers, asking advice should ideally be like echolocation: “Bounce ideas off of all of your surroundings, and listen to all the echoes to get the whole picture.”
In the end, only you know what to do, based on all the feedback you’ve received, and an understanding of your personal nuances that no one else knows.
#2. It pays to be open-minded, but not all opinions are created equal
Author and investor Ray Dalio writes in his book Principles that the quickest way to get an education, and to increase your likelihood of being right about a given issue, is to have “open-minded conversations with believable people who disagree with you.”
For Dalio, a person’s “believability” is a function of their capabilities, the evidence of their track record, and their willingness to say what they think.
As he puts it, believable opinions are most likely to come from people who meet 2 criteria:
  1. They have successfully accomplished the thing in question at least 3 times.
  2. They have well-reasoned explanations of the cause-and-effect relationships that lead them to their conclusions.
If you imagine people and their respective opinions about a given issue as existing on a spectrum, they will tend to fall into one of the following camps:
  • The most believable people meet both criteria.
  • Somewhat believable people meet 1 of the 2 criteria.
  • People who are not believable fail to meet both criteria.
As you’re listening to other people’s advice and opinions on some issue, you should be especially wary of people who are not believable – the ones who lack both direct experience and good logic.
As Dalio puts it, “they are dangerous to themselves and others.”
#3. What would you say to your best friend?
Authors and academics Chip and Dan Heath write in their book Decisive that when you’re making an important personal or professional decision, it helps to create some emotional and mental distance, so that you can view it more objectively.
As the Heath brothers point out, we have a natural tendency to overweight short-term emotions in our decision making.
Sometimes this makes us erratic and quick to act, like when we react aggressively to another driver who cuts us off on the road.
But more commonly, short-term emotions have the opposite effect: we’re timid and reluctant to take action; or we see too much complexity and freeze with indecision; or we’re afraid of the unfamiliar and worry about what we’ll have to sacrifice in order to try something new.
The Heath brothers suggest that the most effective question you can ask yourself when you’re stuck making a decision is, What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?
That’s because giving other people advice downplays our own short-term emotions, and gives us clarity about what’s important.
As they put it, “When we think of our friends, we see the forest. When we think of ourselves, we get stuck in the trees.”
Quote of the Week
“If you stop trying to figure out how to do things the way other people want you to do them, then you get to listen to that little voice inside of your head that wants to do things a certain way. And then you get to be you, and no one in the world is going to beat you at being you.”
- Entrepreneur and AngelList CEO Naval Ravikant in an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast
Idea Journal
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