Most advice is pretty bad
I think that lots of advice given is bad - it isn’t practical, it isn’t insightful, and it is often something that is amazingly obvious to the person who is receiving it. Take, for example, these two pieces of advice from Sam Altman (someone who I admire and think can be very insightful - his conversation with Tyler Cowen is among the most interesting podcasts I’ve listened to recently) from his blog post 'How to be Successful’:
7. Work hard
You can get to about the 90th percentile in your field by working either smart or hard, which is still a great accomplishment. But getting to the 99th percentile requires both—you will be competing with other very talented people who will have great ideas and be willing to work a lot.
10. Be hard to compete with
The best way to become difficult to compete with is to build up leverage. For example, you can do it with personal relationships, by building a strong personal brand, or by getting good at the intersection of multiple different fields. There are many other strategies, but you have to figure out some way to do it.
This is not helpful advice, for a few reasons. The fact that people who work hard are more successful than people who don’t work hard, and that immensely successful people are disproportionately very conscientious is obvious to almost everyone who is likely to be reading a blog post about how to be successful. It’s also very unclear that it’s even possible to take this advice - conscientiousness is almost certainly partially genetic, so I’m not sure you can just jump up to the 99th percentile in hard-work just by willing it, and I’m also not sure that anybody is likely to read the advice ‘you should work extremely hard’ and change any aspect of how they approach their work.
The second piece of advice is less obviously bad - it gives (sort of) recommendations you can actually act upon: build a strong personal brand, have personal relationships, get good at the intersection of multiple fields. But if you think about how you would actually go about following this advice, it becomes apparent that the recommendations are hard to actually follow - how do I develop personal relationships that make me difficult to compete with? I can see that building a strong personal brand is likely to be an asset in becoming successful - but what is the best way to build a personal brand, and how do I do it without incurring significant costs (for instance, Elon Musk clearly has a pretty strong personal brand, but I think it’s unlikely that calling people paedophiles is going to be as successful for me as it is for Elon)?
Getting good at the intersection of different fields is, I suppose, a piece of advice that isn’t totally obvious (maybe it would be smarter to be really good at one thing than to try and excel in multiple fields that intersect) - but it’s still slightly unclear what Sam actually means when he makes this recommendation, and how it relates specifically to being difficult to compete with. My assumption here is just that a lot of especially successful founders that Sam has worked with at Y-Combinator have been exceptional at several things and founded companies that combine some of those things in some way - it’s an interesting observation about founders, but I’m not sure it’s particularly useful for people trying to figure out how to maximise their chance of success (it is, though, the most useful part of the quoted passage).
Here’s another passage that I wrote that is sort of a composite of lots of different blog posts about how to be effective I’ve read:
Be impossible to beat and impossible to ignore
The most successful people I’ve ever known have consistently cultivated an attitude that I would summarise as ‘even when everything is going wrong, I will not be beaten by the world or by the circumstances I’m in’. That doesn’t mean there aren’t set-backs - successful people often face more set-backs than other people because they’re more ambitious than other people. But when there are set-backs, hyper-successful people don’t see themselves as defeated, and don’t even see defeat as a possibility - when things go wrong, it’s an opportunity to improve your processes, improve your offering, and show that you have some fight in you.
And showing that you have some fight in you is important - people who are the most effective in getting back up when they’ve been knocked down become impossible to ignore. When Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple, he analysed what had gone wrong, founded NeXT, and made himself so difficult to ignore that Apple brought him back. And then he released his ‘Think Different’ campaign, highlighting people that are so influential that ‘the one thing you can’t do, is ignore them’.
I’m not saying this composite is as well written as a lot of the better advice blogs, but I think it’s at least somewhat recognisable as the kind of advice you might stumble across if you were looking at how to be successful. The problem with the advice is that if you get rid of the irrelevant anecdote about Steve Jobs and the sentences that don’t add anything, you can distill it to:
If you face a set-back, don’t give up
Use the fact you didn’t give up as a way to get attention
Again, both of these pieces of advice are basically useless. For one thing, there are clearly good reasons to ‘be beaten’ - if you have founded a company or a website or a blog that is taking up huge amounts of resources and making minimal progress, a proper cost-benefit analysis might suggest that it really is worth giving up on your venture. It is certainly true that many successful CEOs and artists had some dream they tried to achieve, faced multiple set-backs, and ended up doing amazingly anyway. But there are also a ton of failed artists and company founders who continued for way too long because they didn’t want to give up on their dreams - selecting on the dependent variable is misleading us here. The second piece of advice is just not actionable in any meaningful way - what does ‘become impossible to ignore’ really mean?
I think sometimes the problem is that bad advice gets a lot of hits and attention because it can be enjoyable to read, and it can also be motivational. I found the Sam Altman essay I originally cited as an example of bad advice through Ben Kuhn (who gives good advice), who recommended it because he claims that:
Much good advice is easy to understand, but hard to implement. So to get the most benefit from it, you should find whatever version of it most resonates you and then re-read it frequently to keep yourself on track
This is fair enough, I think. Bad advice that is basically not actionable might be inspirational and fun to read, and maybe the fact that it is inspirational doesn’t really make it good advice. If I read ‘you must work hard, you must give 100%’ over and over again, maybe I’ll be motivated to work harder. I’m not sure that makes ‘you must work hard, you must give 100%’ good advice (maybe it makes ‘you should read a motivational quote about working hard every day’ good advice).
So, what is good advice?
I think good advice has three main components:
It is not obvious
It is actionable
It is based on some true insight
Here is an example of good advice: Ben Kuhn’s article ‘The unreasonable effectiveness of one-on-ones’. To summarise, Ben noticed that his partner was struggling at grad school, and realised that the number of meetings she had with her supervisor was very low, and she didn’t have a lot of time to discuss her ideas or problems with someone else. To remedy this, Ben and his partner Eve had weekly review sessions where they went over decisions that she had to make, discussed the advantages and disadvantages, discussing long-term goals, etc. Eve came away feeling that the one-on-ones were immensely helpful in organising her thoughts, deciding on her priorities, etc. He ends with this insight:
The last thing this helped me realize is that specialists have a lot of non-specialized problems. In one sense, this is so well known it’s become a cliché—the engineer who just wants to crank out code all day, the philosophy professor with their head in the clouds. But the cliché doesn’t really describe me or most engineers or philosophers I know, who are broad-minded enough to be happy thinking about things outside our assigned specialty. Even for us, though, we can often increase our impact a lot by improving our generalized effectiveness.
I think this is good advice because it fulfils all three of the criteria: it isn’t obvious (at least to me) - during my master’s degree, I never considered having one-on-one meetings with people who don’t know much about political science as a way of clarifying my ideas. It’s actionable - if I had read this piece before finishing my master’s degree, I could have tried this out and see whether it helped me. And it’s also based on a (presumably) true insight - talking to people regularly and frequently about your work and what you’re doing can be very helpful even if they’re not someone who knows a lot about the kind of work you’re doing.
In one of my recent blog posts, I tried to give my own advice that I thought would be helpful - my first piece of advice was using the software Anki, a free flash-card program that is useful for remembering things. While I don’t want to arrogantly claim that I offer particularly good advice, I at least tried to offer advice that fulfilled my criteria. It’s certainly non-obvious - most people have never heard of Anki. It’s actionable - you can download Anki right now and create a flashcard deck. It’s based on a true insight - that spaced repetition and active recall are very powerful techniques to learn and remember things. Many people who read the article clicked on the link to download Anki, so perhaps they thought it was good advice too!
Let me know what you think in the comments - was I too harsh on Sam Altman’s post? It has been extremely popular so maybe I’m missing something (although my guess is that it’s pretty enjoyable to read and fairly interesting on the characteristics of successful Y-Combinator founders, so the fact that it isn’t particularly helpful advice isn’t a barrier to it being popular). Am I missing something in my three criteria? Feel free to DM me on Twitter too.
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