Advice is Bullshit

by Mike Shea on 1 February 2015

Back in 1989, Stephen Covey wrote the self-help book to beat all self-help books; 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's full of clear practical advice for getting control over the important things in one's life. It's filled with direct and practical-sounding advice to help us take control of our lives and live the lives true to our values.

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 team.

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

Faxes. I bet Escobar didn't worry about faxes either.

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 was also, apparently, easy for him to sell 25 million copies of this book which helped pay for the fax management staff. That left 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. Our string of random events that feel to us like conscious decisions are not the same as another person's string of random events.

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.

The Best Coin Flippers In the World

Let's take 500 people and ask them to flip coins. For everyone who rolled heads, we set them aside and ask them to flip again. For those that flipped heads again (about 125ish of them), we ask them to flip again. We do this again and again until we are left with just a handful of people, maybe one. These people flipped heads seven times in a row. Amazing! How did they do it? What sorts of lives did they live to be such amazing coin flippers? Are they telekenetics? What do they eat? Let's put those folks on the cover of American Coin Flippers.

You get the point. Nothing made them special. In any reasonably large group of people with any low but reasonable chance for success, SOMEONE is going to do well by pure chance alone. And then we idolize them or try to draw correlations that bring meaning to our discovery. We do this with self-help books. We do this with mutual funds. We do this in the music industry.

We human beings hate to think that life is that random—but it is.

A Focus on Science

My biggest problem with 7 Habits and Getting Things Done is their lack of science and research. They cherry pick their ideas and those helped by them just like selecting the best coin-flippers. Instead of grabbing the next self help book, we might dig into the science that seems to drive us there. Here are a few books I've read on the topic that opened my mind up quite a bit on human behavior, cognative biases, and the role of luck in prediction.

These books won't help you lose weight. They won't help you learn how to write a best selling novel. They won't help you get your life into order. They can, however, open our eyes to the truth that we are far more affected by random chance than we want to be.

So here's my advice for you today. Advice is bullshit. People telling you how to do things, unless it's backed by solid science and statistics that show you clear probabilities, are more than likely cherry picking correlations that feel like truth instead of random chance.

Likewise, the conscious actions you took that led you from point A to point B might have worked well for you but there's no guarentee they will work for someone else. We are not them.

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. Share experiences.

Seek first to understand.