It is very easy to advice others to do something, but it is very hard to be sure that this will actually help them. However, not all understand this or choose to phrase their advice accordingly. I.e. instead of “here is a way to X”, it actually should be “this is how I did X”. Thus, very often non-objective advice is just a description of what helped the author, which is also true for some of my posts.
Please treat this as a mega disclaimer to all my future and past posts.
I do try to self-improve a lot and it seems that I am not alone in this desire. There are plenty of blogs, sites and videos on self-improvement with various advice. This can be about better productivity, self-confidence, startups, health, exercise. It is a very good way to create value for people and improve people’s lives.
However, often such advice is very subjective. People just share what they do and how this helps them. Someone wakes up at 4am every day and starts by making their bed. This helps them to be extremely productive. As a result, they tell others “hey, do you want to be more productive? Just wake up at 4 am and make your bed everyday”. Obviously, this does not mean that this will have positive effect (or any) on you. The author of the advice has their own life with their own weak and strong areas. You have your own, which may be completely different.
Imagine that you have vitamin C deficiency (hypothetical example) and this has physical negative consequences, but you don’t know the reason. You somehow miraculously start taking vitamin C supplements and this fixes the deficiency. The deficiency is now gone. Then you can advise others - do you want to get rid of such negative consequences? Take vitamin C supplements. However, let’s imagine that there is some other way to get similar negative consequences. Thus, one can have perfect level of vitamin C, but still have same negative consequences (hypothetical example). Thus, your advice won’t help them. The situation above with 4am and making one’s bed is exactly the same. Perhaps the author was missing routine and was too dynamic and that’s why waking up at 4am helps them. Perhaps you are over attached to your routine and adding more to it will even harm you.
Eye opening examples
This effect is easy to observe with advice which had an enormous effect on you, but didn’t work for others. E.g. I do consider “The science of Wellbeing” course on Coursera (my summaries: full, brief) to be a life changing as well as “Search Inside Yourself” book (my summary). However, I met people who took the course and read the book and were “meh”.
Thus, context of the advice matters a lot. There are thousands of dimensions in life and when you do something, each of these act as an input condition. There are obvious examples of this. Let’s say you’ve been studying positive psychology for years. Then “The science of Wellbeing” won’t bring you anything new. Even regarding this post right now, you can think that this is obvious for everyone and it is weird that I am talking so much about this. However, this was not that obvious for me and I even decided to write about this.
At the same time, it is very easy to give such subjective advice (in other words describe what you did and which effect it presumably had on you). However, identifying all input conditions as well as even estimating whether this could help someone else is extremely hard. For some input conditions, it may be even hard to understand that they can vary. E.g. you always wake up energized. It may look like all humans are like that. Or you can be extremely organized and require structure in your life and you implicitly assume that that how all people live. It is like fish living in water. If you never experience anything else (meeting a people, who don’t have this quality), it is hard or impossible to even observe your “water”.
The estimation of usefulness for others is a nightmare. Unless you are a researcher with a group of test subjects with double blind testing, you have very little tooling for this. In your own life, you almost always have sample size of 1 (just you yourself). You can’t go back in time and redo the intervention differently (or even not do the intervention to simulate a control group). Basically, you just have one trial and then you have to derive everything you have from that.
At the same time, people are incentivized to increase perceived value of their advice. Very often authors of the advice also share various positive details about their life, e.g. making a million in couple years, being financially independent, making a successful startup, feeling very happy for many years. I am not saying that this is done maliciously, however, there is clearly an incentive to create an appearance that this positive quality was caused by the advice. At the same time the author is not incentivized to point out weaknesses of their advice. E.g. the sample size of 1. If you want to attract attention, you will rather say “hey, this always works, 100% credibility and reliability”.
It is somewhat peculiar that I do point this weakness in my blog right now. Basically, I am saying here that you should treat my advice carefully and always keep in mind that even if it works for me, it does not mean that it will work for you.
If authors are not the ones to fix this, you will have to take this into account. When you see someone saying “do X and you will get Y like I did”, always remind yourself that you may have different context. Even advice which worked for you before, may not work anymore. I especially observe this with startups. Usually there is someone who made an extraordinary exit and then they often start advising others. Usually they just tell their story and what they perceive as key factors to their success. Often they actually don’t know themselves why it worked out. Remember, sample size of 1. Thus, they already estimate. At the same time, the market is very dynamic. The situation they had is now gone. That demand is fulfilled by them. The world is different.
At the same time, I don’t have any concrete example of a serial startup founder. Based on my observations a person with an amazing exit just tells others about the exit, but can’t reliably reproduce their success again. Obviously, their context is now different. E.g. they may not have financial pressure they had before. However, this somewhat contradicts credibility of their advice. If their advice was that sound, they would be able to use it themselves to create a new startup.
You can try the advice out. Alternatively you can try to generalize yourself based on multiple sources. E.g. if there are 100 different people telling that waking up at 4am improves their productivity and they are diverse enough (e.g. not all are military folks), you may conclude that this is reasonably general.
Fix as an author
As an author, I do feel somewhat weird about writing such subjective advice. One way to improve the situation is to always mention that you didn’t do extensive research, this just worked for you and your own unique conditions. Another way is to avoid writing about subjective topics. Instead do e.g. objective calculations and simulations. I personally write about subjective advice if its impact on my life was enormous (like the course and the book above). In some sense, we can estimate expected effect by multiplying probability of having effect with its magnitude. If magnitude is huge for me, the expected effect on others is also larger (even if probability is generally low).
Happy self-improvement & mental adjusting of subjective advice value!