The Relativism of Advice

Good advice can be a difficult thing to acquire, though you wouldn’t know it while perusing the how-to section at a bookstore, reading the opinion section of the newspaper, or browsing just about the entire internet.

There’s advice everywhere. Advice on money, on work, on relationships, on food. Advice about how to spend your time, how to raise your kids, how to travel or work out or edit a photograph.

But although it’s wonderful to have so much advice available, much of it is lacking a very important block of text, which I think would solve those on the receiving end a lot of time:

This advice is applicable to me, the author/blogger/columnist. If you are exactly like me in every way, in terms of gender, economic upbringing, education level, physical archetype, genetic predisposition, and every other variable a person might have, including experiencing everything I’ve ever experienced and having the same parents as me, this will probably work pretty well for you. Otherwise, results will vary.

I think this is something most of us know, but it’s easy to forget in the moment when we’re promised something we want. When someone waves a temptation in front of us, and doesn’t just offer to give us what we want (which would seem fake), but offers to tell us how to get it for ourselves (which feels more legitimate), we’re prone to ignore that little voice that says, “How can this possibly work for everyone?” We even ignore the secondary voice that adds, “If it worked, wouldn’t everyone be wealthy/raise perfect children/have rippling six-pack abs?”

What we’re failing to take into consideration is the context in which the advice is given.

I think most advice is given with good intentions, I really do. But I also think that, although it’s important to be optimistic about our efforts, sometimes we set ourselves up for disappointment when we ignore the fact that the guy promoting the fitness shakes is a professional fitness model, with all the habits, history, and genes that go along with a profession of that kind.

I’m almost embarrassed when I have to add the above stipulation to advice I give, because it can come across as negativity.

In emails and when giving talks, audience members often ask me how they can travel the world full-time the way I do. I have to admit that I have no idea: I know how I did it, but I also have a set of skills that can be utilized from anywhere, a network of friends and connections I’ve been cultivating for years, and preferences that allow me to enjoy the difficulties of travel where others might find only discomfort.

All I can honestly do in these situations is point people toward handy tools, and provide some insight as to skills they can learn, research they can do, and people they can meet.

This is a more truthful approach, but I also know it’s less exciting for those who receive this kind of advice. They want me to tell them exactly how to do it; a silver bullet. A ten-step plan to reaching their dreams. And when they don’t achieve what they hoped to achieve, they’ll assume it was their own fault. Maybe they messed up step six? Who’s to say?

Definitive advice is often faulty from the outset. Not because the people divvying it out are scam-artists, not because the people receiving the advice are no-talent dreamers, but because the conversation the two are having isn’t the one they should be having. Instead of saying, “Here’s how you do this,” and then declaring the path the advice-giver took to be the correct option, maybe it would be better to step back and identify what the steps actually accomplished, and how they might be accomplished through other means.

I’m able to travel full-time because I have work I can do from anywhere, assets I’ve built that allow me to bring in money even when I’m not working, and connections I’ve made through blogging, meeting folks around the world, and helping people out whenever I can.

Rather than telling people to do exactly what I’ve done — learn to write, publish books, learn to do design work and some web development, start a blog and have people vote on where you move every four months — I might tell them to acquire skills that are useful in the online economy. To think about assets they could build and to figure out how they want to travel, which will determine what kind of connections they’ll want to make.

This is not about holding back advice, it’s about giving practical, actionable, versatile advice that can be utilized by anyone, no matter their situation. Otherwise, in order to be truthful, I’d have to tell everyone who asks me how they can do what I do that they should start by being white, male, about 5’10”, born in the US, left-handed, etc.

The world is full of advice, and much of it is useful in the right hands, but also essentially worthless to most people.

Consider the context of advice, whether you’re giving it or receiving it, and adjust what you say or take away as a result. We might find that the conversations we have become far more valuable as a result.

Update: April 18, 2017

Over the years, with this in mind, I’ve spent a lot more time providing frameworks and big picture concepts than checklists and five-step solutions. I could probably shoehorn some of what I want to share in these more familiar formats, but it still feels dishonest much of the time, because it leaves so much out, or paints a rosier picture that might set bad expectations.

There’s no real way to achieve willpower in seven steps, and that’s a necessary ingredient for much of what people want to achieve.

There’s no real way to become broadly well-informed in two weeks. That takes a lot of work and attention over time, and though it plays a key role in a lot of things folks might want to accomplish, promising people that end in that duration is setting everyone up to look foolish.

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