Every thought about giving and taking advice I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible

It’s easy to give useless advice that feels profound.

For example, one of the pieces of advice I give most often to people is to write more. So a few months ago I suggested to a friend of mine that they should write about the situations in which they started procrastinating and explained that writing forces you to think about what exactly happened and thus would help with their productivity issues. A couple of weeks later I asked them how did it go and they told me that they did this a couple of times but it wasn’t useful, so they gave up on writing things down. I asked them if I can take a look at a couple of notes that they took and this is when I realized how shitty the advice I gave them was.

Here’s what they did based on my advice:

  1. opened Roam Research
  2. wrote down a literal description of the incident that happened with what the events that preceded it

At this point, they

  1. didn’t actually think about the problem
  2. didn’t take any actions to actually remedy it
  3. are about to forget about their note ~forever
  4. are about to give up on writing things down

Here’s what I do when I notice that I have a pattern of behavior I don’t like and what I was trying to communicate:

  1. open an incoming.md file in which I write down any notes for further processing
    • having just one file decreases friction of writing thoughts down massively and makes me much more likely to write notes
  2. write a description of what happened with my thoughts on what caused it
  3. think about specific actions I can take in future similar situations
  4. open my todo program (Amazing Marvin) and add a task that roughly says “did i do the specific action i was planning to take” a week into the future (this task can then be re-scheduled into the future any number of times as a reminder)
    • any time I encounter this reminder, I write down any new thoughts on the issue to incoming.md
  5. clean up incoming.md every Sunday by deleting/moving into Roam Research all notes older than 1 month, so after 1 month I return to the initial note I took and, in case I did not solve the problem completely, IN A SEPARATE NOTE I summarize whatever happened to the problem in the meantime, what I did, what I’m going to do in the future
    • thus I will return to that new note 1 month later again and see what happened
    • returning to every note 1 month later enables gradual thinking and tinkering with habits and thought processes and often leads to new thoughts or insights, while also naturally integrating spaced repetition and increasing retention of ideas
    • this also effectively allows me to write letters to myself 1 month into the future, which is often very helpful
  6. move off old notes to Roam Research and tag them and occasionally check older notes with the tags in question to see long-term progress
  7. continue to do the steps above indefinitely until the problem is solved

Three observations:

  1. it’s extremely difficult to communicate the process above verbally in a casual conversation where you have like 30 seconds of talking time before people start feeling weird and where you’re limited by the working memory of your friend
  2. it’s extremely easy to mentally collapse the process above into something like “have you tried writing cases when you start procrastinating down?” and forget about all of the other elements of this strategy that actually make it useful
  3. I actually do all of the steps above because I’m insane and obsessed with this stuff and simply “write down the situation” does not facilitate the emotional connection needed for this habit to stay in place

We are all different people

People differ a lot in their levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, energy, ambition, curiosity, independence, risk-seeking, fame-seeking, neuroticism, conflict-aversion, obsessiveness, etc. By default, high conscientiousness people don’t understand low conscientiousness people. High extraversion people don’t understand low extraversion people. High energy people don’t understand low energy people. It’s actually worse than that because “high neuroticism” or “high ambition” can actually mean a ton of different things. (a)

Even if someone shares our thinking style (so we feel like we have good rapport and understand each other well), they probably differ from us in a lot of other crucial personality aspects and thus are unlikely to understand our attitude towards life by default. Everyone (including me) tends to really underestimate how different we all are.

I probably have ADHD, I’m not good at doing what other people tell me to do and I want to work directly on problems I care about the most. This doesn’t prevent my grandmas who’ve known me for my entire life and who spent thousands of hours with me over the years to keep telling me that I should just get a normal job. Even our closest ones have surprisingly little insight into our mental states.

Note the “by default”s above. If you only have 3 minutes of conversation time, you will probably only be able to hear the default advice, either modeled on the person who’s giving the advice themself or on a very crude model of you. But if you have an actual conversation or you know each other really well, it’s quite likely that you’ll be able to articulate your thought processes much better, to figure out what exactly makes you click, and will get advice that is actually tailored to you. It’s ok to take an hour or more to discuss a difficult decision with a friend.

If you’re giving advice, it’s helpful to

  1. make sure that the person cares about solving the problem in the first place (rather than just venting, feeling obliged to want to solve the problem…)
  2. make sure that the person does not have psychological blocks around doing anything about the problem (anxiety, learned helplessness) or figure out how to work around them
  3. make sure that the person’s internal traits and ambitions match the thing you’re suggesting

We are systematically wrong about why we do the things we do

Of course you’re not guaranteed to get good advice in any case. A risk-loving CEO will probably not tell you that the reasons behind them burning cash launching new products are boredom and the desire for novelty. And a risk-averse CEO will probably not tell you that the reason they’re not launching new unproven products while allowing themselves to be eaten by startups is because they’re afraid of failure.

Correspondingly, the former CEO and the latter CEO will probably give you different advice on important life decisions, each backing up their advice with very seriously-sounding reasons. And even if the do realize that they’re risk-seeking or risk-averse, the former has probably convinced themself that people lose by being too cautious while the latter has probably convinced themself that people lose by being too reckless and will give you advice corresponding with their life philosophy, probably not realizing and thus not telling you how they arrived at this conclusion that informs every aspect of their thinking. All of this is especially true for “taboo” topics. Nobody wants to be considered reckless and nobody wants to be considered a chicken, meaning that people will be especially self-deceptive in such domains.

People are systematically wrong not just about their fundamental traits but also about everyday desires and emotions. Parents who “want the best” for their children but actually just live their own failed ambitions (a) through them is one classic example. ‘When John F. Kennedy was asked about the level of involvement and influence that his father had held in his razor-thin presidential victory over Richard Nixon, he would joke that on the eve of the election his father had asked him the exact number of votes he would need to win: There was no way he was paying “for a landslide”.’ (a) People bad at small talk deciding that small talk is useless is also a good one.

To summarize: people generate systematically wrong explanations for their behavior and they will give you systematically bad advice if they reason from wrong explanations from their behavior. If you pay attention, you will notice this everywhere. We are really good at self-deception.

We are systematically wrong about why the things we do work for us

Most advice is basically people mistaking correlation for causation.

Leo Polovets

When things go bad, we try to fix them, but the truth is quite often things return to normal all on their own or due to external factors but to feel that our actions made them better.

For example, I’m writing a post on how to make waking up easier right now. I’ve had giant troubles getting out of bed in the morning for as long as I can remember myself, however I finally managed to start waking up with an alarm consistently a few months ago and figured that ok, I’ve been doing it for a few months, I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing, I think I should write about this – everyone I know has exactly the same problem after all. So I wrote 2,000 words about this over a few weeks and then lost the ability to get out of bed easily. I still don’t know what happened.

The simpler the problem the person is facing, the more difficult it is to fix

Mistake I’ve made many times: seeing someone with a simple problem and thinking “not to worry, this just needs a quick fix and they’ll be on their way!” instead of “what level of hidden dysfunction is keeping even this simple problem unsolved?”

Michael Story

Imagine someone is terrible at email: they take a long time to respond, they read emails and then forget about them until the person on the other end follows up a week later, they can’t send themselves a reminder-email and be sure that they’re actually going to read it, etc.

Here are potential reasons for why this could be happening:

  1. they have literally just never heard of “inbox zero” and the “mark as unread” button in Gmail
  2. they are bad at managing their time in general and they get overwhelmed with email easily; they find it difficult to say no to people and they don’t read/reply to emails as a way to avoid discomfort from having to say no or risk being overwhelmed with commitments; or they’re plain busy and unable to reply to or to even read 100 emails a day

It’s extremely easy to hear about someone struggling to stay on top of their email and go “oh, not being terrible at email seems pretty simple. You just need to open email every morning and make sure you get to inbox 0. That will solve most of your problems.” It’s extremely unlikely that the person you’re talking to literally just never thought about that. Note that all the issues in point (2) are much more difficult to solve than (1).

Ditto for “go to the gym” (exercise-induced vomiting?), “spend less time on twitter” (inability to cultivate friends in real life? compulsive avoidance of work?), “leave the job that makes you suicidal” (no savings? $$$ vesting over the next couple of years?), etc.

When someone tells you you should go to the gym, they’re probably not thinking about a million of personal factors that make going to the gym easy for them. Even worse, it’s quite likely that it was actually difficult for them to start going to the gym, but they managed to develop the adaptations necessary for it to be a consistent habit (e.g. “just going” to the gym even when they don’t quite feel like going, short-circuiting potential negative motivation/overthinking spirals - how?), and these habits have now just become parts of who they are, so they’re not thinking about them and are not realizing they were acquired at this specific point in time.

Returning to my discussion of fixing a pattern of behavior I don’t like, there are many moving parts and background processes that are idiosyncratic to my system and to my personality, like me having an incoming.md file that ensures future review of notes, using Amazing Marvin, which enables low friction but extremely persistent endless reminders, actually using Amazing Marvin rather than checking it once a month but ignoring it day-to-day, having special Roam Research pages and tags that make looking up old notes easy, caring about this shit a lot, and probably a bunch more stuff I’m forgetting now.

Simply grafting it on anyone’s life is unlikely to work and disentangling all of the elements and gradually installing all of them is actually pretty hard because the structure of such systems is typically very path-dependent, driven by personal exploration and working largely because of the emotional attachment developed to it in the process of this exploration. Of course creating such an emotional attachment is possible (one reason why summarizing self-help books that spend 200 pages trying to do this for a single idea is stupid), is worth trying, but it’s not easy to do and you should not be discouraged that it doesn’t work 100% instantaneously.

When simple advice does work

Simple advice works when it forces you to think, reminds you of something you forgot about or nudges you in the right direction, and more often takes the form of questions or general suggestions/pointers. For example, “what’s your plan for doing X?” or “what was the original reasoning behind doing X?” are often actually very helpful.

Nate Soares wrote about this beautifully in Obvious advice (a):

It’s surprising how often the advice that I give people who come to me asking for advice cashes out to some form of “well, have you considered doing the obvious thing?”

For example, when someone comes to me and says “help, I have a talk I have to give and I’m going to be terribly nervous and I dread it, what do I do?” it’s often surprisingly helpful for me to ask, “well, what sort of things would make you less nervous?” Or someone comes to me and says “I find myself just playing video games all day, how do I stop myself?”, I first ask, “have you considered what sorts of things you’d rather do besides play video games all day?”

In many cases, the obvious prompts aren’t sufficient. But in a surprising number of cases, they are. I still often find this advice useful myself: when my attention slips, I am often helped by someone just asking me to consider the obvious — “what would make the task less dreadful?” or “have you thought for five minutes about alternatives?” or “have you considered delegating this?” and so on.

Our brains are basically undercooked sausages and it’s both terrifying how easy it is to forget to do all of the obvious things regularly and very encouraging because the bar for doing better is set so low. This is why I think weekly one-on-ones (therapy, coaching) are actually really helpful.

Be careful when taking advice

It’s especially difficult to figure out what we really care about when we’re young and we should be vigilant to not be swayed by people who are older and who seem like they know what they care about or by our peer group which, as a whole, always seems to know where it’s moving.

The only adults teenagers are really exposed to are teachers and professors and I, for example, was very prone to seek advice from those I especially admired. I think I realized that I do not share some of the most important traits for which teachers and professors are selected (lack of desire to build things irl; intellectual play as one of the central pleasures in life, etc.) and that I probably shouldn’t listen too carefully to what my favorite professors think about life a bit too late.

I studied economics in the university and there were two standard paths among people around me:

  1. PhD in economics
  2. finance/consulting

I think I realized that the actual reasons for these are usually

  1. “I don’t know what I want and I don’t want to have a jerb”
  2. “I don’t know what I want but people in finance/consulting make a lot of money and have high optionality so why not”

also a bit too late and I’m glad all the banks and consulting firms I applied to rejected all of my applications. I felt the pull of having a prestigious job incredibly strongly, even after my blog became fairly popular and I think I got very lucky that I failed to find a job, despite earnestly trying to do it for a long time.

The advice we are given is systematically biased not only because people are just bad it figuring out how shit works but also because advice can’t be isolated away from the relationships we have. If a friend suggests you to drop out of school and start a startup or write full-time, they will partly be to-blame for what happens to you when you make that decision (and unconventional life decisions do often end poorly). Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM applies to advice too and advice you receive will be systematically biased in favor of safe choices.

One way out of this is to perhaps explicitly ask something along the lines of “what’s the most outrageous advice you can come up with? what advice are you scared of giving me because you think I’ll blame you if it fails?” and to remember to try to figure out why they believe the things they tell you, why the made the decisions they made, and why they tell you these specific things whenever someone shares advice with you.

Finally, do remember that most people only did 1 or 2 things in their life. The probability that one of them is exactly what you should be doing with your life is very low, and they probably know next to nothing about everything else.

Conclusion

Giving good advice is both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. It’s usually helpful to note the motivation, personality, personal circumstances, etc. of the person on the other end of the conversation and to give both of you enough time to figure out what’s really going on. And yet, sometimes “just do x” is the best advice you could give and sometimes hearing “just do x” is the best advice you can hear.

Discuss this post on the forum.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jesse Szepieniec for reading the draft of this post.

Notes

Further reading

Notably, other people are often better at spotting inconsistencies in our thinking and the self-deceptions we maintain – The Unreliability of Naive Introspection (a):

Relatedly, most of us have a pretty poor sense, I suspect, of what brings us pleasure and suffering. Do you really enjoy Christmas? Do you really feel bad while doing the dishes? Are you happier weeding or going to a restaurant with your family? Few people make a serious study of this aspect of their lives, despite the lip service we generally pay to the importance of “happiness.” Most people feel bad a substantial proportion of the time, it seems to me.9 We are remarkably poor stewards of our emotional experience. We may say we’re happy—overwhelmingly we do but we have little idea what we’re talking about.10

Or consider this: My wife mentions that I seem to be angry about being stuck with the dishes again (despite the fact that doing the dishes makes me happy?). I deny it. I reflect; I sincerely attempt to discover whether I’m angry—I don’t just reflexively defend myself but try to be the good self-psychologist my wife would like me to be—and still I don’t see it. I don’t think I’m angry. But I’m wrong, of course, as I usually am in such situations: My wife reads my face better than I introspect. Maybe I’m not quite boiling inside, but there’s plenty of angry phenomenology to be discovered if I knew better how to look. Or do you think that every time we’re wrong about our emotions, those emotions must be nonconscious, dispositional, not genuinely felt? Or felt and perfectly apprehended phenomenologically but somehow nonetheless mislabeled? Can’t I also err more directly?

Can You Hear Me Now? (a):

Imagine a large population of people living, seeing, learning, doing and generally going about their lives. As they do so, they accumulate beliefs. Depending on how smart they are, they also compress beliefs via abstraction, metaphor, subconscious pattern-recognition circuits, muscle memory, ritual, making and consuming art, going p-value fishing, exploring tantric sex, generating irreproducible peer-reviewed Science! and so on.

Some small fraction of this growing mass of beliefs can fuel communication attempts of some sort.

When two people attempt to hear each other, all communication rests on, and builds on, this shared set. If they mostly get to mutual yes, I hear you now conclusions, communication (of any sort, including non-verbal) creates an attractive force between them, and a repulsive force otherwise.

But that’s not all there is. There is the gradually snowballing momentum of everything that is not available as fodder for communication, all the unsocialized and incommunicable private dark matter of accumulating lived experience. If this is sufficiently high, the two will drift apart, cognitively speaking, even if their communication is a net yes, I hear you (and you hear me). And as they drift apart, communication will become harder, and slowly flip to a net no, I can’t hear you. In the picture, these are the snapping and missing links on the right, in the diverged later stage of the network of yeses on the left.

The noes eventually give way to silence. You can’t even get through enough to get to a no.

“Here’s my list of “psychological gulfs”. That is, common differences between people that are so large that those at the opposite extreme ends of the trait (say, the 5th percentile vs. 95th percentile) have a very hard time understanding and relating to each other. What would you add to the list, and what am I getting wrong?” (a)

Different Worlds (a):

A few years ago I had lunch with another psychiatrist-in-training and realized we had totally different experiences with psychotherapy.

We both got the same types of cases. We were both practicing the same kinds of therapy. We were both in the same training program, studying under the same teachers. But our experiences were totally different. In particular, all her patients had dramatic emotional meltdowns, and all my patients gave calm and considered analyses of their problems, as if they were lecturing on a particularly boring episode from 19th-century Norwegian history.

I’m not bragging here. I wish I could get my patients to have dramatic emotional meltdowns. As per the textbooks, there should be a climactic moment where the patient identifies me with their father, then screams at me that I ruined their childhood, then breaks down crying and realizes that she loved her father all along, then ???, and then their depression is cured. I never got that. I tried, I even dropped some hints, like “Maybe this reminds you of your father?” or “Maybe you feel like screaming at me right now?”, but they never took the bait. So I figured the textbooks were misleading, or that this was some kind of super-advanced technique, or that this was among the approximately 100% of things that Freud just pulled out of his ass.

And then I had lunch with my friend, and she was like “It’s so stressful when all of your patients identify you with their parents and break down crying, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you could just go one day without that happening?”

What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It? (a):

I took a surprisingly long time to realize I was asexual. When I was a virgin, I figured sex was one of those things that seemed gross before you did it, and then you realized how great it was. Afterwards, I figured it was something that didn’t get good until you were skilled at it and had been in a relationship long enough to truly appreciate the other person. In retrospect, pretty much every aspect of male sexual culture is a counterargument to that theory, but I guess it’s just really hard for my brain to generate “you are a mental mutant” as a hypothesis.

Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear? (a):

And when a young person is looking for job advice, I worry that all the artsy creative people whose heads are already way too high in the skies will be reading books by artsy creative people who urge them to follow their dreams, and so be even less mindful of the importance of a secure future. And all the hard-headed down-to-earth people will naturally gravitate toward reading Have A Very Secure Future By Going Into Business by Warren Buffett, and maybe never get reminded of the importance of following dreams. …

I wonder whether everyone would be better off if they automatically reversed any tempting advice that they heard (except feedback directed at them personally). Whenever they read an inspirational figure saying “take more risks”, they interpret it as “I seem to be looking for advice telling me to take more risks; that fact itself means I am probably risk-seeking and need to be more careful”. Whenever they read someone telling them about the obesity crisis, they interpret it as “I seem to be in a very health-conscious community; maybe I should worry about my weight less.”

Cargo-Cult Productivity (a):

In a conversation with Malcolm several weeks ago, upon hearing about my perceived total lack of control over the productive mood, he suggested to look for the mental processes accompanying occasional bouts of this mood and try to understand what stands behind them. I was quite dumbfounded by the fact that this thought didn’t strike me before, given my apparent commitment to self-development and ruthless introspection.

Well, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been dumbfounded. In fact, after paying even more attention to my brain states since this talk, I realized that I’ve been acting on his suggestion for as long as I can remember, and from my apparent lack of progress it does not seem a particularly useful strategy.

Cargo-cult productivity is what I came to call it:

  1. At a particular point in time I notice that I’m really feeling like doing some work.
  2. I notice what I feel and the current state of my mind.
  3. I generate a hypothesis which particular aspect(s) of my immediate mental state is the principal cause of me feeling productive.
  4. Once the mood wears off, I try to put that insight to use and to reignite my desire to work on stuff that I want to be working, rather than feeling addicted to reddit.
  5. I fail every time.

(I wrote the post I quoted above almost 5 years ago. Today I would be more optimistic: this strategy does in fact work. It just takes a lot more tries to figure out what’s driving the behavior in question)

Reality has a surprising amount of detail (a):

Before you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for. But after you see them they quickly become so integrated into your intuitive models of the world that they become essentially transparent. Do you remember the insights that were crucial in learning to ride a bike or drive? How about the details and insights you have that led you to be good at the things you’re good at?

This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.

Very good example of people giving a stranger on the internet all sorts of life/career advice while not giving any qualifiers/backgrounds on what they value in life: How the hell is one supposed to choose a career? Related: Please help me choose a career. (a).

Advice should aim to clear the mental mountains (a):

But I also like it because it helps me think about the idea of separation/noncoherence in the brain. Richard had his schema about how speaking up makes people hate you. He also had lots of evidence that this wasn’t true, both rationally (his understanding that his symptoms were counterproductive) and experientially (his story about a coworker proposing an idea and being accepted). But the evidence failed to naturally propagate; it didn’t connect to the schema that it should have updated. Only after the therapist forced the connection did the information go through. Again, all of this should have been obvious – of course evidence doesn’t propagate through the brain, I was writing posts ten years ago about how even a person who knows ghosts don’t exist will be afraid to stay in an old supposedly-haunted mansion at night with the lights off. But UtEB’s framework helps snap some of this into place.

UtEB’s brain is a mountainous landscape, with fertile valleys separated by towering peaks. Some memories (or pieces of your predictive model, or whatever) live in each valley. But they can’t talk to each other. The passes are narrow and treacherous. They go on believing their own thing, unconstrained by conclusions reached elsewhere.

Consciousness is a capital city on a wide plain. When it needs the information stored in a particular valley, it sends messengers over the passes. These messengers are good enough, but they carry letters, not weighty tomes. Their bandwidth is atrocious; often they can only convey what the valley-dwellers think, and not why. And if a valley gets something wrong, lapses into heresy, as often as not the messengers can’t bring the kind of information that might change their mind.

Links between the capital and the valleys may be tenuous, but valley-to-valley trade is almost non-existent. You can have two valleys full of people working on the same problem, for years, and they will basically never talk.

Sometimes, when it’s very important, the king can order a road built. The passes get cleared out, high-bandwidth communication to a particular valley becomes possible. If he does this to two valleys at once, then they may even be able to share notes directly, each passing through the capital to get to each other. But it isn’t the norm. You have to really be trying.

Most advice is conservative and intended for the average case. If you’re trying something new, most advice will be specifically wrong along that axis of novelty. Politely ignoring bad advice, without rancor, is an important entrepreneurship skill. (a)


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