Problems with advice

, 4 min read

I always find navigating advice tricky.

First, you have to solve the problem of motives. Does the person giving the advice really have your best interests in mind? Are they trying to manipulate you for their benefit? It’s not always easy to tell.

Even when motives align, they might not be entirely honest. Take the example of the entrepreneur YouTuber. She teaches you how to start a business, but her primary income comes from selling courses to you instead running a business herself. In this case, the motives are aligned: the YouTuber wants to make money, and you hope to learn how to create a business. However, the YouTuber carefully omits that you are her primary source of income. Not exactly the most transparent transaction you’d want to get yourself into.

And even if someone has good intentions, you have another problem which is not solvable. Everyone is bounded and biased by their life experiences. A simple way to observe this is how generational opinions on investing in the stock market correlate strongly with how the stock market was performing during the early 20s to late 30s of each generation.

Even excellent thinkers like Charlie Munger are limited by what they’ve learned and experienced. His decisions and their outcomes shaped his world models and understanding of how the world operates. This isn’t because Charlie Munger isn’t smart enough, but because of how humans work. You cannot create causal models from information that never entered your brain.

Being shaped by experiences means that everyone’s context is different. The environment you grow up in, the people you interact with, the time period, and the place you live all shape your worldview. What might have worked during a booming economy of rapid industrialization might not be effective in a recession. Not to mention that people have different goals and values. One might be maximizing asset value, another might be idolizing freedom, and you might be going for a mix between freedom, wealth, and family.

This doesn’t mean all advice is useless. Good mentors is one of the most powerful ways to level up extremely fast, and good books can be even more impactful.

Advice comes from the giver’s world model, which is formed by their experiences. Experiences are information. To benefit from the knowledge and experience of others, reduce their advice to information. Information is much easier to work with because it can be examined, dissected, and analyzed. Then it’s easy to keep what is useful and discard the rest. From the useful information, you can build your own conclusions.

To reduce advice to useful information, ask the person about their choices and experiences rather than looking for direct advice about your situation. If you drill down enough, you will understand the criteria, circumstances, and outcomes of each decision.

Meh questions:

  • How should we go about our manufacturing process?
  • What’s the best way to hire people?
  • Should I start an AI company?

Better questions:

  • Why did you choose sourcing from China and building in-house?
  • What were the greatest challenges in scaling production?
  • Did you come up with a repeatable way of hiring good talent?
  • Why did you pick a16z instead of Sequoia to lead the investment round?

Most advice is bad because it doesn’t fit well to your situation. Following bad advice is confusing, and disorients your internal compass. You don’t want that since your capacity to make decisions and take action based on your own judgment largely defines where you will end up in life.