Advice is Bullshit

by Mike Shea on 1 February 2015

If you're not steeped into the steaming piles of self help books out there, Stephen Covey wrote the steamiest of the bunch, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's full of clear practical advice for getting control over the important things in one's life. Though a bit higher in the clouds than the somewhat more practical Getting Things Done, it still offers wise words for prioritizing what matters and clearing away what doesn't.

Which is all great if you're Stephen Covey.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the interview Leo Babauta conducted with Stephen Covey:

I work out on a stationary bike while I am studying the scriptures for at least 30 minutes. Then I swim in a home pool vigorously for 15 minutes, then I do yoga in a shallow part of the pool for 15 minutes. Then I go into my library and pray with a listening spirit, listening primarily to my conscience while I visualize the rest of my entire day, including important professional activities and key relationships with my loved ones, working associates and clients.

Here's another one:

I am fortunate to have a very helpful team that enables me to spend time doing things that are important but not necessarily urgent.

I sure wish I had a staff.

Modern technology is one of my weaknesses, but my associates make this weakness irrelevant because they are superb at it. keep my phone number unlisted and rely on my associates to handle all voice mail, e-mail, faxes.


Step 0: Sell 25 Million Books

A boy walks up to a rich man and asks "how can I be rich like you?". The man replies, "one day I found an apple and I sold it for 10 cents. The next day I took my 10 cents and bought two apples, each of which I sold for 10 cents. The next day I bought four apples with my 20 cents and sold each of them for 10 cents. The next day my uncle died and I inherited 40 million dollars."

Stephen Covey wrote a book based on the random luck he had in his own life, the luck that put him in a spot where he could build an empire to handle his faxes for him. It's easy for a guy who has a fax management team to tell people earning $15,000 a year how to "put first things first" and "begin with the end in mind". It's also, apparently, easy for him to sell 25 million copies of this book which helps pay for the fax management staff. That leaves him all the time he needs to sire nine children and 52 grand children. No wonder he needed to do yoga every day.

We Are Not Other People

Here's an obvious thought we forget almost all the time. We are not other people. We are only ourselves. Try as we might to be sympathetic and listen to people, we still aren't them. We don't have their background, their upbringing, their bodies, their minds, their wishes, their troubles, their fears, or their dreams. We are ourselves. They are themselves. The two will not meet.

What Works For You May Not Work For Them

This changes a fundamental part of the advice-giving game. If we are not them, we can't tell them what they should do and expect it to work. Instead, we can only say what has worked for us (if it has). Think how this changes the conversation:

You should really understand your goals for the day every morning.

You should eat a high-protein diet and cut out the carbs.

You should have no email in your inbox.

Change that to this:

I find it helps me focus to sit down and come up with my goals for the day every morning.

I feel a lot better now that I cut out the carbs and eat nothing but chicken.

Nothing brings me a greater joy than seeing an empty email inbox.

We don't like to focus on ourselves in the self-help racket, but we really can't avoid it if we're ever going to respond to someone. Really, when we listen to people, that's all we should do. Giving advice assumes we really understand what they need and, very likely, we do not.

A Focus on Science

My biggest problem with 7 Habits and Getting Things Done is their lack of science. I think there's a lot of value in some bullshit self-help books. I really enjoy Good to Great and Stumbling On Happiness though both would make far better academic papers than whole books. The reason I love them is that they're based on scientific research, not just some rich person's ideas about what worked for them.

If we're going to bother digging into self-help advice, let's at least pick up the advice based on solid science. That's why a book like Your Brain At Work may be more useful than Getting Things Done. They might both come to the same conclusions (prioritize, focus, eliminate distractions) but "Your Brain At Work" is based on actual scientific research, even if it is $9 for the content equivalent of a research paper.

That's Fine For 92% of Americans

If someone gets cancer and asks a doctor about survival rates, the doctor is likely to say "ignore survival rates and worry about yourself". The same is true for this sort of self help nonsense. Even if the science teaches us about how we operate or what worked well for 10,000 people, that might still not work well for us. Again, we are specific beings with specific circumstances that might or might not work well with any advice, scientifically backed or not. We have to choose, for ourselves, what works well and what does not.

So here's my advice for you today. Advice is bullshit. If you want to help someone, just listen to them. Don't wrap what they say around your own ideas or your own life. Stop yourself from comparing their life to yours. Stop yourself from blurting out solutions you think will work for them because they worked for you. Just listen.

As Stephen Covey says, seek first to understand.

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