[Draft] Why we are so bad at advice and how we can do better

the child of On taking advice and learning from people we admire and This productivity advice won't help you but you should read it anyway

Would appreciate feedback!


It’s very hard to give advice that’s actually helpful.

For example, one of the pieces of advice I give most often to people is to write more. So a few months ago I suggested to a friend of mine that he should write about the situations in which they started procrastinating and explained that writing forces you to think about what exactly happened and thus would help with their productivity issues. A couple of weeks later I asked them how did it go and they told me that they did this a couple of times but it wasn’t useful, so they gave up on writing things down. I asked them if I can take a look at a couple of notes that they took and this is when I realized how shitty advice I gave them was.

Here’s what they did based on my advice:

  1. opened Roam Research

  2. wrote down a literal description of the incident that happened with what they thought caused it

At this point, they

  1. didn’t actually think about the problem

  2. didn’t take any actions to actually remedy it

  3. are about to forget about their note forever because you actually encounter old notes quite rarely in Roam Research

  4. are about to give up on writing things down

Here’s what I do when I notice that I have a pattern of behavior I don’t like and what I was trying to communicate:

  1. open an incoming.md file in which I write down any notes for further processing

  2. write a description of what happened with my thoughts on what caused it

  3. think about specific actions I can take in future similar situations

  4. open my todo program (Amazing Marvin) and add a task that roughly says “did i do the specific action i was planning to take” a week into the future (this task can then be re-scheduled into the future any number of times as a reminder)

    • any time I encounter this reminder, I write down any new thoughts on the issue to incoming.md
  5. I clean up incoming.md every Sunday by deleting/moving into Roam Research all notes older than 1 month, so after 1 month I return to the initial note I took and, in case I did not solve the problem completely, IN A SEPARATE NOTE I summarize whatever happened to the problem in the meantime, what I did, what I’m going to do in the future

    • thus I will return to that new note 1 month later again and see what happened
  6. I move off old notes to Roam Research and tag them and occasionally check older notes with the tags in question to see long-term progress

  7. I continue to do the steps above indefinitely until the problem is solved

Three observations:

  1. it’s extremely difficult to communicate the process above verbally in a casual conversation where you have like 30 seconds of talking time before people start feeling weird and where you’re limited by the working memory of your friend

  2. it’s extremely easy to mentally collapse the process above into something like “have you tried writing cases when you start procrastinating down?” and forget about all of the other elements of this strategy that actually make it useful

  3. I actually do all of the steps above because I’m insane and obsessed with this stuff and I don’t think the friend I was talking to would ever end up following this

We are all different people

People differ a lot in their levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, energy, ambition, curiosity, independence, risk-seeking, fame-seeking, neuroticism, conflict-aversion, obsessiveness, etc. High conscientiousness people don’t understand low conscientiousness people. High extraversion people don’t understand low extraversion people. High energy people don’t understand low energy people. It’s actually worse than that because “high neuroticism” or “high ambition” can actually mean a ton of different things. (a)

Even if someone shares our thinking style (so we feel like we have good rapport and understand each other well), they probably differ from you in a lot of other crucial personality aspects and thus are unlikely to understand our attitude towards life by default. Everyone (including me) tends to really underestimate how different we all are.

I probably have ADHD (I have unlimited energy to do things I’m obsessed with but find it extremely difficult to do anything I’m not obsessed with), I’m not good at doing what other people tell me to do and I want to work directly on problems I care about the most. This doesn’t prevent my grandmas who’ve known me for my entire life and who spent thousands of hours with me over the years to keep telling me that I should just get a normal job. Even our closest ones have surprisingly little insight into our mental states. At this point, I’m doubtful there’s anybody who understands what’s going on in my head at all.

Do note the “by default” qualifier in point (2). If you only have 3 minutes of conversation time, you will probably only be able to hear the default advice, either modeled on the person who’s giving the advice themself or on a very crude model of you. If you have 60 minutes of conversation time or you know each other really well, it’s quite likely that you’ll be able to articulate your thought processes much better and will get advice that is actually tailored to you.

If you’re giving advice, you should

  1. make sure that the person cares about solving the problem in the first place (rather than just venting, feeling obliged to want to solve the problem…)

  2. make sure that the person does not have psychological blocks around doing anything about the problem (anxiety, learned helplessness) or figure out how to work around them

  3. make sure that the person’s internal traits and ambitions match the thing you’re suggesting

We are systematically wrong about why we do the things we do

Of course you’re not guaranteed to get good advice in any case. A risk-loving CEO will probably not tell you that the reasons behind them burning cash launching new products are boredom and the desire for novelty. And a risk-averse CEO will probably not tell you that the reason they’re not launching new unproven products while allowing themselves to be eaten by startups is because they’re afraid of failure.

Correspondingly, the former CEO and the latter CEO will probably give you different advice on important life decisions, each backing up their advice with very seriously-sounding reasons. And even if the do realize that they’re risk-seeking or risk-averse, the former has probably convinced themself that people lose by being too cautious while the latter has probably convinced themself that people lose by being too reckless and will give you advice corresponding with their life philosophy probably not realizing and thus not telling you how they arrived at this conclusion that informs every aspect of their thinking. All of this is especially true for “taboo” topics. Nobody wants to be considered reckless and nobody wants to be considered a chicken, meaning that people will be especially self-deceptive in these domains.

People are systematically wrong not just about their fundamental traits but also about everyday desires and emotions. Parents who “want the best” for their children but actually just live their own failed ambitions (a) through them is one classic example.{{% sidenote 1 %}} ‘When John F. Kennedy was asked about the level of involvement and influence that his father had held in his razor-thin presidential victory over Richard Nixon, he would joke that on the eve of the election his father had asked him the exact number of votes he would need to win: There was no way he was paying “for a landslide”.’ (a) {{% /sidenote %}} People bad at small talk deciding that small talk is useless is also a good one.

To summarize: people generate systematically wrong explanations for their behavior and they will give you systematically bad advice if they reason from wrong explanations from their behavior. If you pay attention, you will notice this everywhere. People are really good at self-deception.

We are systematically wrong about why the things we do work for us

Most advice is basically people mistaking correlation for causation.

Leo Polovets

Why do people believe homeopathy works? I think this results from something like the following process:

  1. you get a cold

  2. you want to take at least something because you feel that you want to recover more quickly

  3. you buy homeopathic pills

  4. if you recover more quickly then usual, you interpret this as pills helping. Otherwise, you interpret this as having taken the pills too late (since, it’s well known that they only work if you start taking them right when the symptoms appear)

  5. inevitably, you start to strongly believe that homeopathic pills help you recover more quickly

I believe that this type of a situation happens much more frequently than people realize.

Here’s another example. I’m writing a post on how to make waking up easier right now. I’ve had giant troubles getting out of bed in the morning for as long as I can remember myself, however I finally managed to start waking up with an alarm consistently a few months ago and figured that ok, I’ve been doing it for a few months, I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing, I think I should write about this – everyone I know has exactly the same problem. So I wrote 2,000 words about this over a few weeks and then lost the ability to get out of bed easily.

lagrangian’s tweet desire to share

The simpler the problem the person is facing, the more difficult it is to fix

the general problem i have with advice of the form “do this different thing” is that it consistently fails to respect the reasons why people are not already doing the different thing

Qiaochu Yuan

Mistake I’ve made many times: seeing someone with a simple problem and thinking “not to worry, this just needs a quick fix and they’ll be on their way!” instead of “what level of hidden dysfunction is keeping even this simple problem unsolved?”

Michael Story

Imagine someone is terrible at email: they take a long time to respond, they read emails and then forget about them until the person on the other end follows up a week later, they can’t send themselves a reminder-email and be sure that they’re actually going to read it, etc.

Here are potential reasons for why this could be happening:

  1. they have literally just never heard of “inbox zero” and the “mark as unread” button in Gmail

  2. they are bad at managing their time in general and they get overwhelmed with email easily; they find it difficult to say no to people and they don’t read/reply to emails as a way to avoid discomfort from having to say no or risk being overwhelmed with commitments; or they’re plain busy and unable to reply to or to even read 100 emails a day

It’s extremely easy to hear about someone struggling to stay on top of their email and go “oh, not being terrible at email seems pretty simple. You just need to open email every morning and make sure you get to inbox 0. That will solve most of your problems.” It’s extremely unlikely that the person you’re talking to literally just never thought about that. Note that all the issues in point (2) are much more difficult to solve than (1).

Ditto for “go to the gym” (exercise-induced vomiting?), “spend less time on twitter” (inability to cultivate friends in real life? compulsive avoidance of work?), “leave the job that makes you suicidal” (no savings? $$$ vesting over the next couple of years?), etc.

When someone tells you you should go to the gym, they’re probably not thinking about a million of personal factors that make going to the gym easy for them. Even worse, it’s quite likely that it was actually difficult for them to start going to the gym eventually, but they managed to develop the adaptations necessary for it to be a consistent habit (e.g. “just going” to the gym even when they don’t quite feel like going, short-circuiting potential negative motivation/overthinking spirals), and these habits have now just become parts of who they are, so they’re not thinking about them and are not realizing they were acquired at this specific point in time.

Returning to my discussion of fixing a pattern of behavior I don’t like, there are many moving parts and background processes that are idiosyncratic to my system and to my personality, like me having an incoming.md file that ensures future review of notes, using Amazing Marvin, which enables low friction but extremely persistent endless reminders, actually using Amazing Marvin rather than checking it once a month but ignoring it day-to-day, having special Roam Research pages and tags that make looking up old notes easy, caring about this shit a lot, and probably a bunch more stuff I’m forgetting now.

Simply grafting it on anyone’s life is unlikely to work and disentangling all of the elements and gradually installing all of them is actually pretty hard because the structure of such systems is typically very path-dependent, driven by personal exploration and working largely because of the emotional attachment developed to it in the process of this exploration. Of course creating such an emotional attachment is possible (which is why summarizing self-help books that spend 200 pages trying to do this for a single idea is stupid), but it’s not easy to do.

When simple advice does work

Simple advice works when it forces you to think, reminds you of something you forgot about or nudges you in the right direction, and more often takes the form of questions or general suggestions/pointers. For example, “what’s your plan for doing X?” or “what was the original reasoning behind doing X?” are often actually very helpful.

Nate Soares wrote about this beautifully in Obvious advice (a):

It’s surprising how often the advice that I give people who come to me asking for advice cashes out to some form of “well, have you considered doing the obvious thing?”

For example, when someone comes to me and says “help, I have a talk I have to give and I’m going to be terribly nervous and I dread it, what do I do?” it’s often surprisingly helpful for me to ask, “well, what sort of things would make you less nervous?” Or someone comes to me and says “I find myself just playing video games all day, how do I stop myself?”, I first ask, “have you considered what sorts of things you’d rather do besides play video games all day?”

In many cases, the obvious prompts aren’t sufficient. But in a surprising number of cases, they are. I still often find this advice useful myself: when my attention slips, I am often helped by someone just asking me to consider the obvious — “what would make the task less dreadful?” or “have you thought for five minutes about alternatives?” or “have you considered delegating this?” and so on.

Our brains are basically undercooked sausages and it’s both terrifying how easy it is to forget to do all of the obvious things regularly and very encouraging because the bar for doing better is set so low. This is why I think weekly one-on-ones (therapy, coaching) are actually really helpful.. Having a friend say “just do it” in the moment of uncertainty can really be crucial.

In lieu of conclusion: be careful when taking advice

It’s difficult to figure out what we really care about when we’re young and we should be vigilant to not be swayed by people who are older and who seem like they know what they care about or by our peer group which, as a whole, always seems to know where it’s moving.

The only adults teenagers are majorly exposed to are teachers and professors and I, for example, was very prone to seek advice from those I especially admired. I think I realized that I do not share some of the most important traits for which teachers and professors are selected (lack of desire to build things irl; intellectual play as one of the central pleasures in life, etc.) and that I probably shouldn’t listen too carefully to what my favorite professors think about life a bit too late.

I studied economics in the university and there were two standard paths among people around me:

  1. PhD in economics

  2. finance/consulting

I think I realized that the actual reasons for these are usually

  1. “I don’t know what I want and I don’t want to have a jerb”

  2. “I don’t know what I want but people in finance/consulting make a lot of money and have high optionality so why not”

also a bit too late and I’m glad all the banks and consulting firms I applied to rejected all of my applications. I felt the pull of having a prestigious job incredibly strongly, even after my blog became fairly popular and I think I got very lucky that I failed to find a job, despite earnestly trying to do it for a long time.

The advice we are given is systematically biased not only because people are just bad it figuring out how shit works but also because advice can’t be isolated away from the relationships we have. If a friend suggests you to drop out of school and start a startup or write full-time, they will partly be to-blame for what happens to you when you make that decision (and unconventional life decisions do often end poorly). Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM applies to advice too and the advice you receive will be systematically biased in favor of safe choices.

One way out of this is to perhaps explicitly ask something along the lines of: “what’s the most outrageous advice you can come up with? what advice are you scared of giving me?” And whenever someone gives you advice, try to figure out why they believe the things they tell you, why the made the decisions they made, and why they tell you these specific things.

Finally, do remember that most people only did 1 or 2 things in their life. The probability that one of them is exactly what you should be doing with your life is very low, and they probably know next to nothing about everything else (a).

Notes

  • after you gave the advice verbally, you can follow up in writing with the key points you made and additional thoughts you came up with in the meantime (with the background on why advice should work, how exactly it worked for you and how you started following it, etc.)

    • also, you can snooze emails and ask how did it go or have a call during which you try figure out if the advice works and if not why

Further reading

Notably, other people are often better at spotting inconsistencies in our thinking and the self-deceptions we maintain – The Unreliability of Naive Introspection (a):

Relatedly, most of us have a pretty poor sense, I suspect, of what brings us pleasure and suffering. Do you really enjoy Christmas? Do you really feel bad while doing the dishes? Are you happier weeding or going to a restaurant with your family? Few people make a serious study of this aspect of their lives, despite the lip service we generally pay to the importance of “happiness.” Most people feel bad a substantial proportion of the time, it seems to me.9 We are remarkably poor stewards of our emotional experience. We may say we’re happy—overwhelmingly we do but we have little idea what we’re talking about.10

Or consider this: My wife mentions that I seem to be angry about being stuck with the dishes again (despite the fact that doing the dishes makes me happy?). I deny it. I reflect; I sincerely attempt to discover whether I’m angry—I don’t just reflexively defend myself but try to be the good self-psychologist my wife would like me to be—and still I don’t see it. I don’t think I’m angry. But I’m wrong, of course, as I usually am in such situations: My wife reads my face better than I introspect. Maybe I’m not quite boiling inside, but there’s plenty of angry phenomenology to be discovered if I knew better how to look. Or do you think that every time we’re wrong about our emotions, those emotions must be nonconscious, dispositional, not genuinely felt? Or felt and perfectly apprehended phenomenologically but somehow nonetheless mislabeled? Can’t I also err more directly?

Can You Hear Me Now? (a):

Imagine a large population of people living, seeing, learning, doing and generally going about their lives. As they do so, they accumulate beliefs. Depending on how smart they are, they also compress beliefs via abstraction, metaphor, subconscious pattern-recognition circuits, muscle memory, ritual, making and consuming art, going p-value fishing, exploring tantric sex, generating irreproducible peer-reviewed Science! and so on.

Some small fraction of this growing mass of beliefs can fuel communication attempts of some sort.

When two people attempt to hear each other, all communication rests on, and builds on, this shared set. If they mostly get to mutual yes, I hear you now conclusions, communication (of any sort, including non-verbal) creates an attractive force between them, and a repulsive force otherwise.

But that’s not all there is. There is the gradually snowballing momentum of everything that is not available as fodder for communication, all the unsocialized and incommunicable private dark matter of accumulating lived experience. If this is sufficiently high, the two will drift apart, cognitively speaking, even if their communication is a net yes, I hear you (and you hear me). And as they drift apart, communication will become harder, and slowly flip to a net no, I can’t hear you. In the picture, these are the snapping and missing links on the right, in the diverged later stage of the network of yeses on the left.

The noes eventually give way to silence. You can’t even get through enough to get to a no.

“Here’s my list of “psychological gulfs”. That is, common differences between people that are so large that those at the opposite extreme ends of the trait (say, the 5th percentile vs. 95th percentile) have a very hard time understanding and relating to each other. What would you add to the list, and what am I getting wrong?” (a)

Different Worlds (a):

A few years ago I had lunch with another psychiatrist-in-training and realized we had totally different experiences with psychotherapy.

We both got the same types of cases. We were both practicing the same kinds of therapy. We were both in the same training program, studying under the same teachers. But our experiences were totally different. In particular, all her patients had dramatic emotional meltdowns, and all my patients gave calm and considered analyses of their problems, as if they were lecturing on a particularly boring episode from 19th-century Norwegian history.

I’m not bragging here. I wish I could get my patients to have dramatic emotional meltdowns. As per the textbooks, there should be a climactic moment where the patient identifies me with their father, then screams at me that I ruined their childhood, then breaks down crying and realizes that she loved her father all along, then ???, and then their depression is cured. I never got that. I tried, I even dropped some hints, like “Maybe this reminds you of your father?” or “Maybe you feel like screaming at me right now?”, but they never took the bait. So I figured the textbooks were misleading, or that this was some kind of super-advanced technique, or that this was among the approximately 100% of things that Freud just pulled out of his ass.

And then I had lunch with my friend, and she was like “It’s so stressful when all of your patients identify you with their parents and break down crying, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you could just go one day without that happening?”

What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It? (a):

I took a surprisingly long time to realize I was asexual. When I was a virgin, I figured sex was one of those things that seemed gross before you did it, and then you realized how great it was. Afterwards, I figured it was something that didn’t get good until you were skilled at it and had been in a relationship long enough to truly appreciate the other person. In retrospect, pretty much every aspect of male sexual culture is a counterargument to that theory, but I guess it’s just really hard for my brain to generate “you are a mental mutant” as a hypothesis.

Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear? (a):

And when a young person is looking for job advice, I worry that all the artsy creative people whose heads are already way too high in the skies will be reading books by artsy creative people who urge them to follow their dreams, and so be even less mindful of the importance of a secure future. And all the hard-headed down-to-earth people will naturally gravitate toward reading Have A Very Secure Future By Going Into Business by Warren Buffett, and maybe never get reminded of the importance of following dreams. …

I wonder whether everyone would be better off if they automatically reversed any tempting advice that they heard (except feedback directed at them personally). Whenever they read an inspirational figure saying “take more risks”, they interpret it as “I seem to be looking for advice telling me to take more risks; that fact itself means I am probably risk-seeking and need to be more careful”. Whenever they read someone telling them about the obesity crisis, they interpret it as “I seem to be in a very health-conscious community; maybe I should worry about my weight less.”

Cargo-Cult Productivity (a):

In a conversation with Malcolm several weeks ago, upon hearing about my perceived total lack of control over the productive mood, he suggested to look for the mental processes accompanying occasional bouts of this mood and try to understand what stands behind them. I was quite dumbfounded by the fact that this thought didn’t strike me before, given my apparent commitment to self-development and ruthless introspection.

Well, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been dumbfounded. In fact, after paying even more attention to my brain states since this talk, I realized that I’ve been acting on his suggestion for as long as I can remember, and from my apparent lack of progress it does not seem a particularly useful strategy.

Cargo-cult productivity is what I came to call it:

  1. At a particular point in time I notice that I’m really feeling like doing some work.
  1. I notice what I feel and the current state of my mind.
  1. I generate a hypothesis which particular aspect(s) of my immediate mental state is the principal cause of me feeling productive.
  1. Once the mood wears off, I try to put that insight to use and to reignite my desire to work on stuff that I want to be working, rather than feeling addicted to reddit.
  1. I fail every time.

(I wrote the post I quoted above almost 5 years ago. Today I would be more optimistic: this strategy does in fact work. It just takes a lot more tries to figure out what’s driving the behavior in question)

Reality has a surprising amount of detail (a):

Before you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for. But after you see them they quickly become so integrated into your intuitive models of the world that they become essentially transparent. Do you remember the insights that were crucial in learning to ride a bike or drive? How about the details and insights you have that led you to be good at the things you’re good at?

This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.

Very good example of people giving a stranger on the internet all sorts of life/career advice while not giving any qualifiers/backgrounds on what they value in life: How the hell is one supposed to choose a career? Related: Please help me choose a career. (a).

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The point you make above reminds me of a Jordan Peterson quote (which I cannot find), where he says something along the lines of:

“You are incredibly complex and you have no idea what’s going on inside you. But if you’re committed to honesty / not lying, then that’s a contract that someone else can deal with. Even though they won’t know what’s going on inside you (because you don’t), at least they know they can trust you to be hones to the best of your knowledge.”

I think it’s interesting to think of truth telling (or perhaps it’s better to say avoiding lying) is a useful way of summarizing someone’s behavior that has value as well as predictive power.

This may be true, but I suspect homeopathy might be a bad example. I’m a bit surprised by the wikipedia definition of homeopathy:

homeopaths , believe that a substance that causes symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people

The definition I was carrying around is closer to this one on WebMD (https://www.webmd.com/balance/what-is-homeopathy#1):

Homeopathy is a medical system based on the belief that the body can cure itself. Those who practice it use tiny amounts of natural substances, like plants and minerals. They believe these stimulate the healing process.

Using the latter definition I do think homeopathy is underrated, not overrated. Mostly because of the effect Daniel Schmachtenberger describes as following:

If there is a synthetic molecule I can patent, and an organic one I cannot, I will focus my efforts on the synthetic one. This can create a preponderance of true information on the synthetic molecule vs the organic one, making it look like the unbiased choice.

I.e. the incentives always align towards synthetic molecules which can be patented, but very often they are based off of organic ones (~homeopathy) that are known to work (but aren’t patentable).

I take your point, and it’s an interesting one, but I think it leaves the door open for “overthinking” as a possible cause for not doing things. In which case thinking about more complex causes is actually a bad idea.

For instance, I’ve struggled with going to BJJ training. I spent time thinking about why, talking to my friends, etc. There’s some mix of fear and discomfort going on that’s certainly contributing to me not going. In the end though, none of that matters. You just need to go. The reason that “just go” hasn’t been working for you, probably has more to with wanting there to be more to it, wanting to find a strategy. Instead, if you just simply go through the motions of simply going, you will naturally surface the emotional cascade that has been keeping you in place. And if you commit to actually going, and pushing through this cascade, you will process and overcome it and build the successful habit.

This is an approximation of what works for me. I think of a friend who is very good at underanalyzing situations (where I default towards overanalyzing), and I simply ignore my thoughts and emotions and “just go”.

This reminds me of Wardley mapping and the author’s (Simon Wardley) beef with business advice suffering the same problem. I believe he describes it as advice without any context. In order to understand whether business advice can be applied, he felt he needed to know more about the context the business was in at the time of the decision. For this purpose he invented Wardley mapping which takes into account the business as comprised of components along a scale of technological evolution, how they relate, as well as the landscape (a snapshot of your environment) and the climate (a description of dynamic processes in the landscape).

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Good points! The gym section now says:

Even worse, it’s quite likely that it was actually difficult for them to start going to the gym eventually, but they managed to develop the adaptations necessary for it to be a consistent habit (e.g. “just going” to the gym even when they don’t quite feel like going, short-circuiting potential negative motivation/overthinking spirals), and these habits have now just become parts of who they are, so they’re not thinking about them and are not realizing they were acquired at this specific point in time.

And I’ll add you in the acknowledgements section if you don’t mind.

Glad I could help!