Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → A warning to anyone receiving advice

Imagine you hand a man your camera, and ask him to take a photo of you.

He does, but when you look at the photo later, you notice he took a photo of himself by mistake.

Imagine you’ve got a question: “Should I quit my job, and start my own company?”

You go ask the advice of some successful people you respect. Two say yes. Two say no.

Because they can’t know everything about you and your unique situation, they’ll give advice that’s really just a reflection of their own current situation.

I’m personally interested in understanding this subject of advice, because strangers ask my advice every day. Big questions about what to do with their life or career. My only honest answer is “I don’t know”, but I try to say something useful.

So this is just a warning about some ways that advice is biased.

Lottery numbers

When successful people give advice, I usually hear it like this:

“Here are the lottery numbers I played: 14 29 71 33 8. They worked for me!”

Success is based on so many factors. Some are luck. Some are not. It’s hard to know which are which.

So which do you learn from?

Underdog opinion in their context

Someone giving advice doesn’t want to say what seems said too much already.

But he’s basing that on his own surroundings, not yours.

So if everyone around him is quitting their jobs, his advice to you would be to keep your job.

That advice has nothing to do with what’s best for you — just what opinion seemed under-represented in his environment that day.

Creative sparks

You ask, “What should I do, option A or B?”

He replies, “Zebra!”

He’s treating it as brainstorming, giving a crazy suggestion just to open up more options.

Like an Oscar Wilde quip, it was meant to be mostly entertaining, somewhat useful, and probably not correct.

So what to do?

I could go on with more examples, but you get the point.

The problem is taking any one person’s advice too seriously.

Ideally, asking advice should be like echolocation. Bounce ideas off of all of your surroundings, and listen to all the echoes, to get the whole picture.

Ultimately, only you know what to do, based on all the feedback you’ve received, and all your personal nuances that no one else knows.

P.S. Great books about making big decisions: