How to identify bad advice

You’re trying to make an important decision and you find that there’s a lot of advice flying around. Sadly, you soon realize that most of it isn’t good and very little of it is actually useful. How do you make it easier for yourself to identify bad advice?

There’s a lot in my sketch (below). So, here are the 3 key takeaways –

  1. Great advice has 2 characteristics – it is based on principles and it is intended for your benefit. Great advice is incredibly rare because it requires a lot of thought to get to the principles and in-person investment to understand your specific context.
  2. On the flip side, bad advice is what you hear 80%+ of the time. The most telling characteristic of bad advice is that the giver either speaks to himself/herself or to his/her interests. Combine this with a random jumble of thoughts and anecdotes and it is easy to spot. Most bad advice is a result of absence of “skin in the game” (H/T N N Taleb). When someone says something is ‘good for you’ when it is also good for them and when they don’t face the downside of the decision, it is likely not good for you. Think: Peter Thiel telling you to drop out of school.
  3. We are all asked for advice by folks around us. To become someone who gives generally useful advice, we need to combine 2 things – 1) Think in terms of principles – i.e. truths that are applicable across contexts (hard to do) and take the time to structure your advice, and 2) Stop giving advice to yourself (very hard to do). As a bonus – this scales as it doesn’t need to be personalized.

I hope you find this useful.

Intent over words

Productive intent is a pre-requisite for a good conversation. Polished and thoughtful delivery definitely help – but, they’re secondary. People listen for intent before they listen to the words.

That is why the most productive conversations typically involve people who trust each other.

In the absence of deep trust, there are only two other routes to productive conversations. The first is to build a reputation for having good intent and to lean on it. And, the second is to signal intent early. Start with appreciation and the why behind your feedback before you give your feedback.

Intent is what people remember when they’ve long forgotten the words.

Actions unmask intent

In the short run, you might be able to act your way out of showing your true intent. You could pretend to care even if you don’t. You could pretend to be trustworthy even if you aren’t. You can pretend to be curious even if your intent is only to self promote. And, you can pretend to only want to influence when your intent is to manipulate and engage in politics.

Great actors can do all of this in the short run. They can outshine those who really care.

In the long run, however, your intent will show. It is impossible for the actor to cover all bases over a long trail of actions. Company A might have the best customer service ad campaign of all time but if its staff consistently brush customers away, the ad campaign’s effects will come to naught and may even result in negativity.

Actions, over time, unmask intent.

So much better, then, to just be upfront about what you care about and be consistent all around.

“I will be doing it. Will you join me?”

You want to go the gym. It would be great to have company. Good news – your friend would like to go to the gym today. That’s a perfect opportunity for the – “Let’s do it together” line. Of course, tomorrow arrives and you receive a message first thing in the morning that your friend has another commitment and won’t be making it. Lying in bed, you decide not to go too as you are tired and need some rest.

Engaging buddies on important commitments is a great idea. It just fails because the “Let’s do it together” line implies shared accountability. Shared accountability is an oxymoron.

A better way forward would be to say – “I will be doing it tomorrow. Will you join me?”

This changes the dynamic in 3 ways –
1.You take responsibility and make a commitment. This ensures that both you and your friend take the commitment seriously.
2. You’ve made a decision that you will go either way and that your friend is a welcome addition. If you only want to do something because your friend wants to do it, it is time to question if what you plan to do is important enough in the first place.
3. The ball is in your court to keep the commitment. If you lack the integrity to do so, it is time to get into the habit of keeping your own commitments.

This isn’t a post about changing the language. Language is a by-product of intent. And, our intent better be strong. There’s no other way of ensuring we consistently get past the resistance.

When you share constructive criticism…

…do it not to satisfy your own ego and insecurity, but do it because you care. It shows.

This could apply to everything we bring ourselves to – do it because you care. And that in turn means you have to make it a habit to avoid doing things because you “should.” Should is toxic. Do it because you care.

When you strip out what we did, our intent is all that remains. There are many ways to screw up the “what,” so let’s ensure the “why” is pure. In the long run, it always shows..