Stop Taking Advice

“I don’t really keep counsel with others. I’m the kind of person who will think about something, and if I know it’s right I’m not going to ask anybody. I don’t go, ‘Boy, what do you think about this?’ I’ve made every decision for myself—in my career, in my life.”Tom Cruise

I propose that most of the advice you’re given is useless.

Giving advice is easy. People are full of opinions, and we love nothing more than to share them with others. It gives us a chance to talk about ourselves: our opinions are largely based on personal experiences, emotions, and values. Yet, how many of us actually do the work required to hold a certain view?

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.Charlie Munger

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“Asking for advice is a form of thinking out loud, except that it involves no thought.”— Joe Queenan

When literally anyone can give you advice, it should be expected that the overall quality of advice given is extremely low. Unfortunately, the people we tend to take the most advice from is our close circle of friends and family, who are often the least qualified to provide it. You wouldn’t take computer advice from a plumber, so why take entrepreneurship advice from your buddy who has spent his life in a cubicle?

The friends and family group is also the most biased. They attempt to point you in a direction they would like to see you go, rather than where you would like to see yourself go. They are secretly manipulating you, consciously or not. And if you continuously follow their advice, you will eventually wind up living someone else’s life instead of your own.

How often have you heard of the engineering student who realizes he hates physics but continues anyway because his friends all do the same? Or the medical student that gives up 12 years of his life to satisfy his parents? The investment banker who hates the job but stays for the prestige?

The people that give you advice may say they have your best intentions in mind, but the truth is that it’s often the best in their mind. It’s so they can happily gloat to their friends what their son or daughter does for a living. It is the choice that they themselves would make, given their hopes, dreams, aspirations, anxieties, and risk tolerance. Nevertheless, we tend to trust these people the most.

The bottom line is that you are not other people. There are very few one-size-fits-all pieces of advice. Generic advice is just that: generic. The further removed you are from the ideal case, the less it holds true.

A passage from the $100 Startup illustrates this point:

James thought back on the discouragement he had received from well-meaning friends when he first told them about moving down south. “You can’t start a business during a recession,” they said. “You can’t move across the country without a job.” “Most small businesses fail within one year.” “Almost all mom and pop restaurants fail within the first year.” On and on it went. And every time someone gave him a reason he couldn’t succeed in what he had set out to do, he made another note in his “non-planning” folder: merely one more obstacle to overcome.

The “advice” from well-meaning friends turned out to be nothing more than discouragement and obstacles.

Every entrepreneur has surely heard some semblance of the above, but anyone who has ever done anything that has deviated from the norm can relate.

Most people simply don’t like to see others succeed. If a person doesn’t fit the mold of what he or she should be, it threatens the status quo. Change is scary. It brings people to question their own ideals, their routines, their life. It makes them feel small. And so the ever popular advice “be realistic” was coined, to push these outliers back to the sphere of convention and mundane.

There are a number of other reasons why advice is useless:

  • It’s easier said than done. The doing is the important part.
  • The advice is outdated, irrelevant, or mismatched.
  • Confirmation bias and self-serving bias cause people to reinvent stories to self-attribute and self-aggrandize their successes.
  • Advice is mood and state dependent. My advice to you could change from one day to the next because it’s raining out.
  • Groupthink. A psychological phenomena that causes people to stick with the group on viewpoints and decisions.
  • The advisor isn’t being upfront with you.

Certain advice can be helpful, but be selective in the advice you take. Listen to those who have the necessary real world experience, who fully understand your situation, who carefully listen to you, and who share the same values.

You can also just take the leap. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission and lead you.

Be a bit like Tom Cruise. It’s your life.

 

How to Quickly Break the Ice with “The Two Things” Game

Scenario: You’re at a party or networking event and meet someone. You exchange formalities.

At some point in the conversation, you’ll probably ask, “So, what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m an author/banker/entrepreneur/drug dealer/[insert job title].”

Here’s where Two Things comes in.

The Two Things is a fun little game that was introduced by Glen Whitman. It serves as a great ice breaker and can lead to some very interesting conversations. It builds rapport quickly and also allows others to easily join in on the discussion.

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The Story of the Two Things: 

A few years ago, I was chatting with a stranger in a bar. When I told him I was an economist, he said, “Ah. So… what are the Two Things about economics?”

“Huh?” I cleverly replied.

“You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are really only two things you really need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay, here are the Two Things about economics. One: Incentives matter. Two: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Ever since that evening, I’ve been playing the Two Things game. Whenever I meet someone who belongs to a different profession (i.e., a profession I haven’t played this game with), or who knows something about a subject I’m unfamiliar with, I pose the Two Things question.

So what are the two things about The Two Things game?

1.  People love to play the Two Things game, but they rarely agree about what the Two Things are.
2.  That goes double for anyone who works with computers.

I’ve tried this game a couple times with people and I can vouch for #1. It’s worked really well and is a fresh conversation boost to the regular small talk that usually accompanies meeting someone new. The “Two Things” are usually insightful and amusing, and can offer a new perspective even on topics you think you understand.

Here are some of the “Two Things” that people have come up with for their respective fields.

The Two Things about English Literature:
1. The text is really about writing.
2. Writing is really about sex.
-Marya

The Two Things about Practicing Law in the Real World:
1.  Billable hours.
2.  Deep pockets.
-Glen

The Two Things about Science:
1. Artifactual data proves nothing.
2. All data is artifactual.
-Eustacia

The Two Things about Economics:
1.  Incentives matter.
2.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
-Glen

Give it a try and let me know how it works.

 

How to Stand Out From the Crowd

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
— George R.R. Martin

Want to stand out amongst your peers? Get into the habit of reading.

Everyone knows they should, but very few do (as with exercising, getting enough sleep, eating right, the list goes on). I’ll give you an example. During the first day of class this semester, the professor asked the class how many of us read. Four hands went up in a class of 40 senior year business students.

Most people don’t put in the time to become smarter and obtain a knowledge advantage. It’s easier than ever to tune out and reach for the dopamine rush of video games, TV and Facebook. One thing humans are very good at is hyperbolic discounting, i.e. setting a diet goal but eating cake after dinner. We just can’t resist short-term temptations.

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Although literacy rates have soared in recent decades, 33% of U.S. high school graduates will supposedly never read a book after high school. That number is 42% for college graduates.[1] Even if those numbers aren’t totally accurate, it’s easy to see why it happens. Our education system has equated reading with studying and evokes painful memories of cramming for mundane tests.

I know, because it happened to me. I used to be a voracious reader as a child, but less and less so as I grew older. It was only in this past year that I decided to reignite my passion for reading, and I am amazed at how profoundly it has changed my thinking in a way that school could never imitate.

When you actively choose to read something that interests you, you retain far more information than if you were forced to study it. Education does not stop after school (in fact, Einstein believed that education only truly starts after you forget everything learned in school). Whatever problem you’re facing right now, somewhere in the history of mankind, someone probably much smarter than you has written about it. Save yourself the trouble and learn from those who have already figured it out.

Books are also one of the best investments on your money you can make. If it took the author 40 hours to write his book, you’re essentially buying 40 hours of his time for the price of the book. Imagine how much it would actually cost to buy that amount of time with Donald Trump or Kevin O’Leary, both of whom have written numerous books.

The purpose of reading is not to simply obtain raw knowledge though. It’s that reading brings meaning to your life, allows you to see things in a different light, and simply makes you a better person.

Studies on reading show a host of benefits, including:

  • Improved intelligence through larger vocabulary and abstract reasoning skills
  • Greater creativity after reading across fields
  • Increased verbal intelligence, i.e. better writing skills
  • Greater empathy and understanding of social cues
  • Reduced stress and extended longevity of the mind

Want evidence? If there’s one common trait among successful people, it’s that they read. A lot.

Charlie Munger once famously remarked,

In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren(Buffett) reads — at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.

When asked how to get smarter at a conference, Warren Buffett held up a stack of papers and said,

Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will.

Buffett understood that even after giving away his “secret,” the majority of people would not act on it. One person who did take his advice to heart was Todd Combs. He now works closely with the legendary investor.

Here’s another example. When Mark Cuban was starting out in his first business, he read every book and magazine he could. He ignored the price. A twenty dollar book could lead to a new customer or solution, which paid for itself many times over. While he was reading, he learned a valuable lesson:

The same information was available to anyone who wanted it. Turns out most people didn’t want it.

The lesson here is that if you do the same thing everyone else does, you will achieve the same results. Given the fact that relatively few people actively read, you can put in the extra work and spend an hour a day (or more) reading to stand out amongst the crowd. Then take the ideas you’ve learned and run with them.

There’s no real secret to reading more. Adjust your priorities and make it a part of your daily routine, just as eating dinner or brushing your teeth is. Start small if you have to. Twenty pages a day amounts to 24 books a year.

Make reading a part of who you are. Your future self will thank you.

 


[1] http://www.statisticbrain.com/reading-statistics/

Musings on the Corporate Rat Race

I’m nearing the end of my 4-year university experience. Although I will graduate with a degree in finance, I no longer have avid dreams of working corporate.  Until a few months ago I had been ready to don my pressed shirt and Hermes tie (or maybe it’s WalMart, I can’t tell) every morning for the foreseeable future. I was conditioned throughout university to find that corporate job and spend my days in cubicles and meetings. It was simply a result of the business school environment: the colleagues I interacted with, the corporate representatives that trawled the campus, and the professors and career counselors that guided us down that path. I was sucked into this.

Yet there was a growing dissatisfaction in me as I sent that next application or dragged myself to networking events and job interviews. I knew I wouldn’t be happy. I had experienced it in every one of my internships; the initial interest, soon followed by a mounting complacency. The snoozes on my alarm would happen more frequently and begrudgingly as the weeks dragged on. If an internship was this painful, what would working full-time be like? I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted.

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We’re taught from an early age that the path to success is to go to a good college, get good grades, find a job and settle down. It’s so ingrained into our minds from our friends and family that we never stop to question it. But why blindly follow the herd down the cliff? Student loan debt in the U.S. is over $1 trillion and more than two-thirds of students graduate with debt. They’re forced into jobs to pay off their debt. Many students then realize the job they were promised doesn’t exist. Those that do find employment still remain unhappy, switching jobs on average 10-15 times over the span of their career. The “prestige” of the illusion is revealed, but to dismay and panic rather than amazement.

A recent question on Quora asked, “Why do so many people hate their jobs?” and received the following top answer:

One reason that many people with good college educations hate their jobs is that they picked a conservative / climb-the-ladder-oriented career when they were young (i.e., right after college) and then they never switched. Then, after doing that first profession for 7-10+ years, they feel locked in; they don’t know what to do next / how to change. They are doing pretty well financially in that first career, and they perceive tons of risk to switching careers. So they do the same thing for the rest of their life.

An article from Forbes supports this notion, stating that only 19% of people are satisfied with their jobs. Although the sample size of 400 isn’t by any means conclusive, the common theme is that workers feel stuck in their jobs. If time is the most precious commodity, is it not absurd to spend 10 hours every day doing something that makes you unhappy? And yet most people traverse through life like this.

Even a comfortable job that pays well can have its downsides, as it makes it all the more difficult to quit. Michael Lewis, the acclaimed author of books such as Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, describes what it was like for him to forgo his cushy 6-figure salary:

…It did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write. My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside.

Paul Graham, VC/Entrepreneur, likens jobs to pizza in an apt food metaphor to describe why people still pursue low-satisfaction jobs. The reason pizza is so common, albeit unhealthy, is because (1) it offers immediate appeal and (2) it’s produced cheaply and heavily marketed.

If people have to choose between something that’s cheap, heavily marketed, and appealing in the short term, and something that’s expensive, obscure, and appealing in the long term, which do you think most will choose? It’s the same with work. The average MIT graduate wants to work at Google or Microsoft, because it’s a recognized brand, it’s safe, and they’ll get paid a good salary right away. It’s the job equivalent of the pizza they had for lunch. The drawbacks will only become apparent later, and then only in a vague sense of malaise.

Many people go through life blind to the diverging paths along the road. They opt for the pizza because it’s what everyone else wants and gets.

Realize instead what makes you happy and shed the obligations you feel towards the opinions of others and how they view you. Until then, you will always be working towards some ideal that will ultimately be unfulfilling.

Otherwise, you may wake up one day and find a stranger staring back at you in the mirror. Of all the masters one can serve, “the opinion of others” is harrowing in its ability to command every single element of your life and consume you whole.