The Problem With Advice

screen-shot-2011-11-13-at-11-25-50-pmWe give advice all the time. And when we’re not busy dishing out our very own seemingly sweet words of wisdom, we search for it in gurus, friends, family, books, and religion. Advice-giving is not just a multi-billion dollar business either. It’s impact permeates everything from simple day-to-day choices to life-altering decisions. Yet, advice–especially the informal kind–is easy to give or consume dangerously, which is to say, little care is given as to whether the advice on offer is of a high quality.

Ever since I enrolled at Oxford to pursue an MBA I’ve thought about this topic a whole bunch and after a year of seeking advice in lots of places I now have a few concepts–quick rules of thumb if you will–that can help filter and refine advice before you give it or take it. These “sniff tests” are based on quotes for ease of memory and are as follows:

First, remember that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

Advice that worked for someone in a specific context and at a particular time will not necessarily work for you. The world moves fast. Times change and people change. Good advice should be malleable enough to adapt to new situations. If not, it becomes useless pretty quickly. Here’s an example:

Bad advice: Get a university degree.

Good advice: Get an education.

Second, notice that often “we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” 1Stephen R. Covey

Our experiences shape how we make decisions and ultimately, how we consider advice. Had a bad experience at a not-so-bad restaurant? You probably won’t recommend it even if the chef simply had a bad day. In other words, all advice we give and receive is coloured by our unique histories. So before you give or receive advice, consider if there’s any baggage it’s coming with.2

Third, “if you give advice, you need to be exposed to losses from it.”Nassim Taleb

This last concept sounds extreme, but if you imagine that you will be exposed to losses related to poor advice, you are likely to take greater care. Likewise, if you are on the receiving end of advice, consider whether the person giving it really cares about you.

A Note on Good Advice

In sum, good advice should consider:

  • context (what’s different this time?)
  • bias (what personal history is colouring perceptions?)
  • skin in the game (what’s the responsibility and how invested is the advisor?)

Keeping these three ideas in mind should help us all deal with advice a bit better, including the advice in this blog post.3



Notes

[1] Thanks for helping me find the quote Vicky!

[2] My baggage for the advice in this article is that I’ve spent many years seeking advice on a range of subjects and also writing lots of advice. Some of it has worked really well and some of it hasn’t.

[3] I considered all three sniff tests while writing this post.

The Most Potent Lesson of 2016

Here’s a message I sent to my private mailing list today. I haven’t blogged in a while so I thought I’d share something. If you like it, you can join over 100 other people (or 144 to be exact) who receive an email from me once a month. The sign up link is here. Enjoy.


Happy 2017 folks!

Hope your new year celebrations go well. It’s only 6pm in the UK so we have another six hours to go, and I figured I could squeeze in one more email before the year ends.

This year, I’ve read so many interesting books (37 in total but I was aiming for 50), and it’s hard to recommend one must-read, but out of the all the books, I think the most relevant — given what happened politically in 2016 — has to be “Lessons from the Top: the Three Universal Stories that all Successful Leaders Tell.” In a nutshell, the book’s key message is this (emphasis mine):

cover“…every leader begins with a personal story, a way of answering the question ‘Who am I?’ Lady Gaga tells us repeatedly that she was the weird kid at school, though she also turned out to be highly driven and creative. She describes herself as ‘a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers’. Secondly, every leader’s story involves a group narrative, a way of explaining ‘Who are we?’ In Lady Gaga’s case ‘we’ are the outsiders. She calls her fans ‘my little monsters’, and in her leadership story she is ‘Mama Monster’ who keeps in touch with her offspring on Facebook and Twitter. Thirdly, all leaders offer a collective mission, the answer to the question ‘Where are we going?’ or ‘What is our common purpose?’ Lady Gaga tells her followers that together they can change the world. She promotes a positive message about gay rights. This ‘leadership projection’ is what most of us would call storytelling.”

Notice how Lady Gaga can be replaced with any influential leader, regardless of whether they are deemed ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

For example, Trump’s leadership projection was this:

  • Who I’m I? A pragmatic and successful business man. I’m a winner. In fact I’m so good at winning that despite several bankruptcies I made a comeback. (Notice Hillary’s team lost her “who I’m I” narrative to scandalous and oftentimes unfounded accusations.)
  • Who are we? Patriotic Americans. And you know what, “I’m with you!” (Notice Hillary’s message was “I’m with her”, making it more about her and not the people.)
  • Where are we going? We will return America to its former glory. (Notice Hillary’s destination narrative was unclear.)

We saw something similar with Brexit and history has more examples yet it’s easy to forget a potent lesson: you can’t win with facts alone. We’re moved by a compelling narrative. We’re moved by stories. We’re moved by emotion. Credibility or facts come last.

Masters of persuasion know how to weild powerful stories to advance their agenda. My signoff message for 2016 (and my biggest lesson for the year) is that you should watch out for these tactics in the coming year. There will be important facts and issues that lose ground due to ineffective storytelling. And likewise, there will be trivial and oftentimes straight-out lies that pick up momentum thanks to powerful storytelling. Don’t get caught out if you’re a follower. And if you’re a leader, remember the tool you have at your disposal. Use it wisely.

Best wishes,
Michael

How I became a writer

I fell into writing accidentally. In fact I never really started reading books seriously until age 20 or so (though I ordered my first non-fiction on book on Amazon aged 18 – it was Plato).

From age 20, I started reading books on a range of non-fiction on topics. Here’s what a selection of my Amazon book orders looks like for the last 8 years.

bookorders

See the big jump in year 4? That’s the year I wrote my first book. Ever since then I aim to read about 50 books a year (or one book a week).

Today, I read mainly on my Kindle but here’s what a fraction (about 20 %) of my book collection looks like:

bookshelf

So how did I get into writing? I think two factors played a pertinent role.

First, I was reading so much that I felt a strong urge to share all the cool stuff I was coming across. For example, did you know that happier people have stronger immune systems? How about willpower, did you know that it’s like a muscle and that while it can be strengthened via training, it can also be depleted a exertion? These are all things I shared in both my first and second book.

The second reason why I started writing was because it was a way of self-prescribing solutions to personal challenges in the past, present, or future. By pulling together ideas from a range of sources and writing about them, I cemented what I had learned during the ’research’ process.
These two reasons are also why I rarely write material that is overly personal, instead choosing to be more informative and prescriptive. But perhaps that will change. After all, writing with personality can be more fun for both the reader and author.
In sum, I write because I enjoy sharing insightful material. I also write because it helps me condense knowledge and ideas I have accumulated from all the reading that I do. As I grow older and experience more of the ups and downs that life has to offer, perhaps I will also start to write so people can relate.

Don’t Believe the Hype. 30 is Not the New 20. (How to Make the Most of Your 20s)

Aged 25. His Team Spent $500,000 on the Thriller Video.

Aged 25. His Team Spent $500,000 on the Thriller Video.

This is an essay to myself as a reminder to make the most of the time I have.

You have a lot of energy now. Your body will begin to slow down when you are older, so work like crazy but always make time for play.

Build something. Write a book. Master a craft. Put in the hours in your career. Now is the time when you don’t have that many responsibilities and your body can take whatever you throw at it. Think of it as a period of acceleration because later, you will have to slow down.

Stevie Wonder produced four number one albums between the ages of 21 and 27 (he was lucky enough to repeat the feat in his 30s).  Michelangelo completed one of his greatest works, the statue of David, aged 26. Albert Einstein, while working as a patent clerk six days a week, managed to raise a family in his twenties, and introduced the world to e=MC^2 at the age of 26. Michael Jackson produced his greatest albums between the ages of 20 and 29 (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad).

Of course these people are freaks of nature. Not all of us have such talent. But who is to say we can’t have our own little victories in our twenties, before ambition dims and responsibility settles in? The twenties are the most vibrant period in which to pursue wild goals. And don’t give me your 9-to-5-too-busy-at-work, excuse. Didn’t I just mention that Einstein held down a full-time job as a patent clerk, raised a family, and in whatever time he had left over, worked on some of the greatest scientific theories ever, all in his twenties?

You are young. Use the energy you have in your twenties to do something you can look back on with pride.

Okay, maybe I am glorifying the twenties a bit. Much can be achieved at a more mature age. And there are many examples. For instance it is not unusual in the film industry for people to peak in their thirties and beyond. Quentin Tarantio’s career, for example, didn’t really take off until his 30s (although he wrote Resevoir Dogs in his late twenties). And in the business world, a good number of CEOs are in their late thirties/forties/fifties. With that being said, I bet you these people were “rising stars” in their twenties, working their butts off!

It’s not all about work though. You don’t want to look back and wish you socialised a bit more, attended a few more parties, or travelled more. I’d rather have my hangovers and jetlags before I’m a pensioner. And I’d most certainly rather have my junk food now before I need to worry about a diet. Your body will be more fragile in later years. So enjoy it now and make the most of your energy. It won’t last forever.

The Snowball Effect of Success

monkey_and_snowball

You’re more attractive if you’re already in a relationship. You’re more employable if you already got a job. In fact you’ll make a lot more money once you have lots of money. It seems to me that in life, all you have to do is make a name for yourself just a few times before you can take advantage of the snowball effect of success. You can then sit back and reel in opportunities that feed off of each other.