Sometimes, people ask for my advice. And, sometimes I give good advice, even excellent advice. And, what is the response to the good advice? It’s often “evidence” that I’m wrong. People send me links from journalists who pander to their prejudices.
Why do people ask for advice when they don’t really want it? Well, sometimes they are really asking for consent. They want me to say “Yeah, go ahead, go into debt for that holiday in Jamaica” or “Sure, risk your family’s savings for a stock that will tank in ten years” or “Why not? You only live once, might as well die doing a job you’ll hate for a boss who’s evil.”
So, I’ve withheld the actual scenarios, to protect my own sanity, and to protect myself from the anger of the foolish. Sometimes I see people not follow my advice, and go with their original plans anyway, and then come to me for advice again, and again. Why? I think they like to argue.
But what makes it worse is that there is so much fuel they can throw in my face. “But I should work for evil boss, it says so in Forbes Magazine and Inc.” Or “but my children will love it in Afghanistan, just read the Huffington Post, New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the BBC.”
Now, when I was a kid, I liked the press. I read it voraciously. I liked TV. But, I knew that books were better, more thought out.
What motivates bad advice?
Yes, just as you can be motivated to get a gold medal, or write a great book, you can be motivated to give terrible advice. And in today’s cyber-economy, there are more motives than ever before.
Reason one: Journalism is written in a hurry.
Do you think you can write quality advice, week after week, year after year, and still lead a life? Impossible. Journalists need to constantly write something, and sell it, in order to survive. By definition, some of it will be garbage (correction: most of it will be garbage).
As Newspapers make cuts, and there is no money to buy articles that aren’t printed, so the garbage is given front page status. But, that’s not the full story.
Reason 2: People don’t want the truth, they want to be right.
Come on, try convincing an England fan that they are about the worst team out there. They were lucky to get pitted against Russia and Sweden, were football fields are frozen all day. It’s like doing snow boarding against the Jamaicans. (Cool Runnings, touching movie. Imagine if coming in eighth place were an accomplishment. But enough about England’s chances in the next cup.)
Now, why has pandering to the prejudice of the audience gotten worse over the past 200 years?
Well, when Washington Irving was writing, he did a piece on a terrible advertisement that overblew the value of a house. He was commenting on a piece of property that was advertised in The Times of London. The advert worked, apparently. So, more people followed.
But, without getting into a study of psychology of rats and Ivy Lee, let’s just cut to the chase. Newspapers, magazines and tv shows know that people don’t want the truth. People want certainty.
Christopher Columbus grew up seeing that, and men like him were always the exception. However, until recently, that exception, those who tried to give us the truth instead of pandering to our prejudices, were motivated to get jobs in journalism. Not any more. Thank Ivy Lee for bringing more dirty money into the newspaper business (which eventually got into academia too.)
Reason 3: People aren’t writing for you, they are writing for someone else
What do you mean, writing for someone else? Take a look at the book “In the Blink of an Eye,” by Walter Murch. Or “Fifty Years of Golfing Wisdom,” by John Jacobs. Both of these books acknowledge in their introduction that there is no one size fits all solution. Some of the best writers acknowledge that they have no idea who you are, and so the advice may not apply to you.
John Jacobs speaks of the golf magazines that are misread by novices but aimed at pros. Most pro golfers hit the ball one way, but the newbies hit it another way. In correcting for the ways the pros hit, the amateur just makes his or her golf aim worse. Jacobs goes on to describe some of the special problems women golfers face. As an instructor for 50 years, teaching people of all income levels, body types and abilities, he knows well that there is no one size fits all solution.
Walter Murch’s book doesn’t go into nearly as much detail. He’s writing primarily for multi-million dollar directors, the kind of top talent he met in Los Angeles. Still, in his introduction, he acknowledges that his advice and wisdom might not be for everyone.
He tells us the story of Stravinsky, who used to tell people to keep their passion controlled. Stravinksy, it is said, had a volcano inside him, ready to erupt. But, his listeners may have been iceburgs. The advice, to keep their passion under lids, was possibly the worst advice you could give these cold, boring people. They needed to develop their passion, to express it.
As books, tv shows and movies reach a wider audience, the chance that they weren’t written for you grows. The advice books are most likely written for upper-middle class mid level managers in Californian corporations. And even for them, they aren’t necessarily that good, because they are written in a hurry and to fit their perceived prejudices.
So, instead of following advice, I’d advice you to follow history. Try to find stories about people who have walked in your shoes, or shoes you could fit. See how they met similar challenges, even if their technology and transport was different. Did what they tried work? What were the results? Do you think you could try something similar?
Reason 4: They don’t have your best interests at heart.
Why write an article? Some people write for love of their audience (which as we’ve illustrated above, may not be you, and probably is not you most of the time.) Others write for money. And who pays them?
Ivy Lee got paid by the Rockefellers. The miners had striked and got shot at, and Rockefeller had a bad reputation. The story goes that Ivy Lee paid off the newspapers to show Rockefeller in a better light. And, they bought it.
Now, a salesperson writes a story to get you to make a purchase. A Microsoft certified expert has an economic motive to get you to buy Microsoft products, even when they don’t meet your personal needs. If the expert is only selling one product, or only knows how to use one, that product suddenly becomes the “best” solution.
But, not all of their interests are based on personal greed or even the needs of the salesperson. We still have stories defending Facebook stock price, from people who have other motives. They don’t want to lose their Facebook pages. Perhaps they feel sorry for Facebook employees paid in stock instead of cash, who may lose their homes if the stock continues to fall (which, baring a bailout, it most likely will). If the stock can stay somewhat high until the employees get a chance to sell out, then these people won’t have been cheated out of as much money.
Of course, others may want to keep their free Facebook pages, or justify their own addictions to Facebook (or pandering to prejudices to get you to buy their copy.)
Anyway, there are many more reasons why bad advice is out there. And, with the free market, you have a wide variety of bad advice to pick from. The market is merely pandering to what people want to hear.