The Advice Paradox

“The ultimate question of any advice, rules, or traditions is, What do you ignore and why? No one can ever follow all the good advice they hear. This is the advice paradox: no matter how much advice you have, you must still decide intuitively what to use and what to avoid.”

From The Year Without Pants

Books and experts often promise step by step ways to achieve a goal. The goal might be weight loss, becoming wealthy or living a happier life. But a promise is one thing: achieving the result is another. Looking at how most people who read these books and don’t achieve the results they desire reveals a problem. We often have more faith in advice from strangers than we do in ourselves.

Advice that sells the best makes the grandest promises, even if they’re false. We know, rationally, that there aren’t just 7 steps to true success and that even if there were, it would take more than 21 Days to Master it. We know growing rich requires more than following 13 steps.

Book titles never say what would be more honest: “This might work for you sometimes”, “You’ll have to take some risks to even try to get what you want” or “You’ll get just a handful of useful tips even if you read the whole book.” Honesty like this doesn’t benefit whoever is giving the advice, so the most popular advice givers rarely say these things.

Even if they did, our brains love the fantasy that there’s just a few easy tricks to learn to solve our biggest problems. We love it so much that when advice we pay for fails to deliver the impossible, we blame the advice, not the fantasy that magical advice exists elsewhere. Soon we’re on the hunt again for killer secrets and magic recipes.

The lure of advice is it’s a narrative: it feels good while you get it. But once the advice is over we return to the uncertainty of our lives, which feels, by comparison, confusing and scary. Advice is knowledge that we choose to use, or not. No one can make that choice for us, and it’s this that creates the paradox.

  • Simple advice can be hard to follow.
  • We can’t follow all the good advice we get.
  • Advice that feels good to hear can be bad advice.
  • Advice that feels painful to hear can be good advice.
  • It’s possible to follow good advice diligently and still fail.
  • Giving and receiving advice is far easier than making real life choices.
  • You’re in the paradox now – even this post is a kind of advice.
  • What now? I can’t advise you. But I wish you well.

12 Responses to “The Advice Paradox”

  1. karthik

    Great read Scott! You are the man when it comes to honest and truthful writing. Okay I know I’m into the same paradox, but then curious to know, should one follow advises(at least few) or try to find their own ways in everything.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Karthik. In thinking about the post after I posted it I had an idea for another post giving advice on advice :) The paradox is hard to resist.

  2. Phil Simon

    We love stories, listicles, and easy answers. This is why Jim Collins and Tom Peters sold millions of books. We can’t, however, control every variable. We’re only improving odds by taking good advice. Those who search for guarantees and sure things do so in vain.

  3. Sean Crawford

    It was Thoreau who said that most of us live lives of quiet desperation. It was Romain Gary, in his novel A European Education who wrote, “Our greatest enemy is despair.”

    Viewed in this light, I have read self-help books not as a conscious deliberate decision to become a true master of life in 21 days, but rather, as a salve, a balm, a chance to feel better in comparison to my (half-conscious half-felt, in the background) ongoing desperation and despair.

    I say this not with shame but with amusement at my humanity. I laugh along with the fellow who, in at attempt to put his self-help addiction into useful perspective, wrote a pun on the classic, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” entitled “I’m OK—You I’m Not Too Sure.”

    It was comedian Red Green who used to end his TV show by saying, “We’re all in this together” which is another way of echoing Scott’s final line, “…I wish you well.”

  4. Steve

    Finally, someone speaks the truth. Well said. I don’t consider this a paradox though. It’s not really advice you’re offering, but perspective, which may just be better than advice.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Perhaps a circular loop is more accurate: advice about advice about advice… and on it goes. I consider the belief that the next layer of advice solves all possible problems a paradox of sorts, but strictly speaking I see your point.

  5. Ryszard

    Scott, this aticle is a kind of advice but we need it to recognise the best one. Part of the text: “We know, rationelly, …” with some examples of advices – masterful! Thank you very much.

  6. Joanne

    I’ve read a lot of books about how to write fiction. I’ve spent more time reading these books than I’ve spent writing. Maybe seeking advice is my subtle way of dodging the painful, hard work of learning to write in a new genre.

    So far the best advice I’ve read about writing is to write.

    1. karthik

      Nice one Joanne !! “So far the best advice I’ve read about writing is to write.” I guess this thought goes into the same advice paradox at the same time escapes out of it..

      “Just do it ” is the way to go may be…

  7. Rohan

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the great post.

    The explosion of information invalidates much of the expertise of the specialist. Woe to the expert in their ever shrinking world. From Levitin ‘The Organised Mind’:

    “Just 300 years ago, someone with a college degree in ‘science’ knew about as much as any expert of the day. Today, someone with a PhD in biology can’t even know all that is known about the nervous system of the squid”

    Defending the boundary of shrinking expertise is a doomed strategy. Collecting expertise across boundaries, applying our creative genius to what we find and finding unique combinations becomes increasingly important.

    This then creates the situation that we are all experts of our point of view. The way to avoid an argument? Practice the scientific method. Or at the least, learn Occam’s Razor.

    Take the simplest explanation as your starting point, draw your own conclusions and acknowledge the imperfection of your view. That’s the expert I want to listen to.



  8. Joe McCarthy

    I think advice-giving is inherently presumptuous.

    I greatly prefer the practices embraced by many 12-step programs:

    * sharing experience, strength and hope (wherein the most useful experiences shared often include weakness and despair), rather than giving advice

    * taking what I like, and leaving the rest (a practice well-aligned with the points made in this post)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Lurking in here somewhere is our tendency not to want to think – advice that’s more attractive promises to deliver an instant solution, whereas sharing experience, which is likely more valuable, requires some work to understand, remember and eventually translate into a new kind of outlook or behavior.


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