Two Types of Advice

First, there’s generic advice. The kind that fills books and graduation ceremonies. It represents the advice-giver’s accumulated wisdom, but it’s not directed to an individual.

Confucius shared general principles of good living, not just advice for one person. Steve Jobs spoke to the entire Stanford convocation, not just one graduate.

The advantage of generic advice is scale. Instead of reasoning about all cases and circumstances, the advice-giver tries to provide a best-fit approximation of the advice for most cases. The advice is better the closer you are to the author’s ideal case.

Because of this scale, through books we can access the recorded generic advice of the best thinkers who have ever lived. It doesn’t matter that Seneca died thousands of years ago, I can still draw lessons from his teachings to apply to my own life.

The disadvantage of this advice is that the more nuanced the situation, or the further removed you are from the ideal case, the worse the advice is. Seneca couldn’t have anticipated how life has changed in modern times, nor could he anticipate all possible permutations of life situations.

The Importance of Specific Advice and Mentors

I love generic advice. It’s probably the reason I read so many books. But the problem with this advice is that sometimes it doesn’t work. You may try your best to implement the suggestions of one author, only to find them useless. Worse are the generic platitudes or advice which is correct “on paper” but fail to accommodate the endless nuances of reality.

That’s why specific advice is crucial. Specific advice allows you to tap into the tacit and nuanced knowledge of someone who has been there before. It’s the difference between reading a book on calculus, and having someone show you exactly why you got a question wrong.

Institutions like universities are mostly about facilitating this specific advice. With Wikipedia, cheap textbooks, libraries and Google searches, generic advice large enough to fill entire lifetimes of education is freely accessible. The gap being filled isn’t the knowledge, but the specific advice that is sometimes missed in a textbook.

Because specific advice is so valuable, it helps explain the importance of “who you know over what you know” to fields like business. Because the generic advice is too simple to fill all the gaps. Ben Casnocha puts this another way in saying, “the who you know is the what you know.”

Finding Mentors

A realization that made a big difference in my life was that, just as I can read books in a library, I can go find mentors to help me. Too many people put arbitrary limits on who they can attempt to reach out to or ask advice from, and as such, never get the benefits of having someone experienced give them a push in the right direction.

Admittedly, the higher you aim your sights, the harder it can be to make a deep connection. People are busy, so they won’t always return your emails or calls. But for whatever pursuit you’re trying to excel at, there are thousands, if not millions of people who have done it before. The stupidest thing you can do is not even try to talk to any of them.

  • K

    I don’t know if you intended it, but this is the best rebuttal to Gene Mark’s “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” that I have read! Yes, all of humanity’s knowledge is out there on Google, but sitting by yourself in the library reading the Internets is not the same as having focus and direction (specific advice) from a good teacher!

  • Nick

    Wow. Really good post.
    I always thought the quote “Its not what you know, its who you know” was saying that just by being around people, you will do better. Like you somehow magically reaped the benefits.
    Having read your post, I see it as a much more active, and interesting, idea. The people I have surrounded myself with have knowledge they’ve acquired, and I have the ability to (possibly) access that knowledge.
    As someone who has a little bit of social anxiety, I can also use this new idea to bring focus to my interpersonal relationships- at least in the beginning when I’m getting to know someone.

  • Will Kwan

    I think what’s most important about having mentors is the time you save. With the amount of information that’s available to the masses these days, we usually have enough of this “generic” advice to be able to deduce the specific answers if we work at it. The problem is that no matter how smart you are, finding the right information and making the necessary connections can be time-consuming. It’s the difference between trying to learn a skill by watching online videos vs. having someone teach you; in the latter, you get immediate feedback.

  • usexpat

    I agree with Will; it’s the first thing I was thinking while I was reading. I like shortcuts and “lifehacking” and don’t like wasting time. Haven’t consciously thought of advice as general or specific. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

  • Dannyboy

    did you really just compare steve jobs and confucius? In soviet china you DIE!!!!!!!!!

  • Michael

    I know this is off topic, but what’s your advice for finals?

  • Spencer McDonald

    I was thinking of the movie “Karate Kid” while reading your outstanding post. Sure we could go to youtube and pull up a video on the art of karate and probably learn the mechanics and moves and that would not substitute for the real deal of practice, practice, practice that you see in the Karate Kid movie.

    If our young character had only watched the youtube he probably would not have beaten his nemisis. With a mentor and honest practice and real feedback, he was able to learn the art of karate so that he could win.

    We need to enroll mentors and accountability partners to act as anchors to keep us grounded and on track to our dreams and destiny.

  • Scott Young


    Good thing there’s no Soviet China, I suppose. 😉


    Well I wouldn’t say that it makes it possible to improve without having connections. I didn’t have a single personal connection headstart with the business I’m in. Every one of them came through cold-calling and emailing people. That said, I didn’t have to deal with racism, sexism or other attitudes that could make upward mobility harder.

    I think it’s better to think of specific advice as something you can leverage as an advantage, rather than an excuse to hold yourself back.



  • Ana

    Hi, Scott,
    I like the idea to have mentor to count on when you get really stuck, but some people seem to be lazy when they know they have a mentor for a quick and easy answer.
    The issue is, quick and easy answers are normally quick and easy to forget too. In my experience, if you work hard to find out your own answers, the probability of forgetting them is smaller. Even when you finally need to resort to a mentor, because you don’t know what else to do (which is the case I think a mentor is more useful). You thought so hard about the question before going to the mentor that the answer is going to stick with you as a deeply wanted gift.

  • Mitchell

    I really like the line “the generic advice is too simple to fill all the gaps.”

    Generic advice is just a start, a push to get you on your way. If you want to reach expert status, you need to get someone who has the experience of the minutia. Someone who can explain the small details and how they correspond to the larger picture.

    Those “gaps” sure do count for a lot in the bigger picture!

  • Sandy

    The answer may lie in the will of the recipient, not the will of advisors and thinkers. Unless I fully and willfully inquire knowledge or advice, I will miss the opportunities that are out there. I have to seek to find. Most of my reading is connected to self-help pursuits and I am often a touchstone for friends for advice. Giving it helps me remember what I believe is right for me and if it helps others, great. Advice is only advice if the advisee is ready to hear the message. Only when I am ready to hear what I need to hear will I hear what I need to hear. Until then, it is all about the journey. I have learned to be patient. It takes a lot of slow to grow. I do value your post. Thanks for the op.

  • Bo Reidler

    It’s all about the interaction you get with another human being. Learning is not just about knowledge acquisition. Critiquing, analysis and points of view come into play in active learning. A mentor/teacher can only open the mind of the student to possibilities. Students must be open to all possibilities within the realm of focus and this should include the general and specific. (macro & micro elements). And in this day and age all forms of interaction are viable in the sense that some forms suit some people better than others. The fact that we can choose, and at a time that suits us, is fantastic.

  • Sam

    Really an enlightening post. The reality of the fact embeded in the post have been vague to me before now but its clearer. Thanks Scott for the discussion.

  • Daniel Young

    I think there is also synergy between the two different advices. Having knowledge of general advice means that we can ask better (more specific and informed) questions to our mentors. Likewise, having domain specific insight allows us to gain a better understading of general advice.

  • ian


    thanks for running this unbelievable blog. The advice I find here is invaluable and often very similar to lessons I have learned myself. I believe that recognizing success and happiness as a process rather than luck, and trying to understand and optimize these patterns, is the first step to living a fulfilled life.
    Please keep up the good work and keep giving me ideas I wouldn’t have had without you. I and many, many other people greatly benefit from your blog.


  • dadac123

    I gotta say,the last two paragraphs shocked me!
    I’ve read it again and again,and it made me realize there’s another possibilities.
    I spend so much times to think over something on my own,but in fact,I could talk to someone else and maybe ask for their suggestion or just talk to them.
    What you said is an active method,and this will help one to reach a bigger world.
    Thank you,Scott! It’s such a great advice I can get.

  • William Veasley

    At times, it is hard for me to seperate the generic advice from the specific advice. I am in school right now and I am constintally searching for advice on Google, Yahoo, or even Bing. The generic info always seems to overwhelm me, but my third eye’s vision is becoming clearer.
    When I was young you could not get me to read a book and now all I do is read and write. All I want to do everyday is read and write. The information that is avaliable in reading books is priceless. The more I read, and the more I want to read. At the end of the day, I just want to be knowledgable of all that goes on around me.

    Great article and I look forward to your next!

    God bless,
    William Veasley

  • Robert Cross

    Some specific thoughts.

    Hiking in the mountains to Rim Lake, the climb is long and hard. Taking the wrong trail at the last fork which was unmarked adds to the anguish of the climb when the mistake is discovered and backtracking is necessary. “Moana”, a name given during the climb to one of the young ladies who moaned and groaned with every step, decided to keep going instead of stopping to rest with the group so that she wouldn’t have to play catch up. At a fork in the path she took what looked like the best path and kept plodding, down hill. When the others discovered her error and one of the group was dispatched to catch her, she collapsed into a pile of tears faced with the 1/4 mile climb back to the right path. How could she have known, the path looked well traveled and the slight descent was a welcome change?
    The Psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” Way…..what is the Way? One source describes it as the path of an individual or a course of life. How can one know which way? Too many begin to examine their lives in their 50s or 60s only to discover that the way that seemed right to them didn’t lead to what they expected. Would Frank Sinatra after four marriages and lifelong struggles with depression still proudly sing in his later years, “I did it my way” ?
    Who is not faced with choices, forks in the road? Which of the unmarked paths is the one that will lead to the expected or hoped for destination? A well known Psalm, quoted often by eulogizers and by congregants has the line, “He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Of course the He is the God with whom we have to do. My way leads to disappointment, regrets, broken relationships and painful consequences, His way, God’s way, the right way, establishes a person like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, and in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3)
    His Way? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7) His Way has to begin with the fear of the Lord, with believing in His sovereignty and knowing that I/we are accountable to Him. Jesus, in answer to Thomas who had this age old question, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus responded, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”(John 14:5-6) We cannot ignore this basic foundation; that we are accountable and that our access to God the creator is through Jesus Christ His Son and yet expect to find guidance at the many forks we face in the road.
    The way is not always marked or clear. How are we to proceed beyond establishing the basic foundation? The Lord said to Jeremiah, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is and walk in it; and you shall find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16) Sounds like we need to hold up at the unmarked fork, look hard and ask for the ancient paths where the good way is. “Thou wilt make known to me the path of life.” (Psalm 16:11) In another Psalm David declares that in the remotest part of the sea, (maybe a deserted island) Even there thy hand will lead me. (Psalm 139:9-10) The Navigators have a visual picture of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that depicts the way….path Christians travel on, the teaching way. But then one chooses the wrong fork in the path, the Word of God reproves, “hey you are off the path”, the Word of God corrects, “this is the way back to the path”, and then, back on the path the Word of God continues to train in righteousness that we might be adequate for the tasks He assigns to us.
    God assigns us tasks? Big ones and small ones, all part of the Way. Go and make disciples…..Matthew 28:19-20……….you shall be My witnesses……Acts 1:8… the Father has sent Me, I also send you….John 20:21…… imitators of me (Paul), just as I also am of Christ….1 Corinthians 11:1. He has a task for each of us, we are not here just to eat, occupy space and breath oxygen. “Set up for yourself roadmarks, Place for yourself guideposts, Direct your mind to the highway…”(Jeremiah 31:21 )There is a course, stay on it, ask the Spirit of God who dwells in you, if you have received Jesus Christ as your Savior, for guidance at the forks with unmarked paths, “…but when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (John 16:13) and then, “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.” Our joy is made full in the way, on the path, under direction from the mighty hand of God.

  • Taxwright

    Scott, just came on your blog today while searching for info about vegetarianism.

    Your analysis of generic and specific advice is certainly a good one, and is a perfect example of generic advice. The comments left here (including my own) are one way we make these forums (fori?) more specific.

    The real problem with all mentoring is the same as for any training and coaching–practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. We each have to find and use good mentors, successful mentors. Of course, what we value determines the success we want to emulate.

    Just sayin’.

  • Keone

    Hey Scott, I read with interest your posting about the MIT Challenge. Very cool, good luck to you. Are you planning on doing the labs for classes where all the material is available? 6.004 and 6.005 would be good ones to try since they have all the lab files you need on OCW and the only hardware is your computer. The most useful knowledge I learned in course 6 was from working on labs, so I would highly recommend checking them out.

    Also, on 6.01 your final was the practice problems from one of the topics (maybe 20% of the class), not the full final. Did you see this one:

    Good luck man.

    – Keone (MIT ’11)

  • Scott Young


    Yes–the 6.01 class exam I used only covered the last part of the class. Part of the difficulty is my self-inflicted policy of not looking at any exams before I write them–which means sometimes the exam isn’t quite what I expected, along with the rapid pace which means I usually can’t invest an additional day if it’s not absolutely necessary.

    For the moment, I’m going to let that class stand because the two major topics which weren’t covered in the exam, namely LTI systems and circuits are the entire focus of later courses. So while I did learn them in 6.01, I’ll be evaluated on those subjects again far more rigorously in Circuits, and Signals and Systems.

    At the end, if I still have time, I’m planning to go back and shore up some of the more marginal exams I’ve written (such as ones where I can’t say I passed if I completely omit part marks, or ones such as this which weren’t completely comprehensive). Again, the time constraints of the challenge force me to prioritize.


  • skye

    Great post Scott ! Especially in this day and age whereby we have technology on our fingertips, it’s becoming more important whilst we utilize books or mentors in our learning curve, I feel pretty much end of the day it’s our own reflection and rate of learning that determines where we head to.

    Sometimes we don’t capture what ideas are out there probably because we are not ready yet to see them for the value that they have and only after some life experience or learning plateau we get better at opening ourselves to new ideas and possibilities

  • Geoff

    dude. It’s been 3 weeks without a new blog post. I understand why you decided to stop posting so often. but 3 weeks…

  • Scott Young


    I took a holiday, as I mentioned in my newsletter and MIT videos. Even bloggers allow themselves vacations 😉

  • Timothy Leung

    Like your idea! And the way you learn, really want to make frd with you.
    Passionate with knowledge! The world lack this kind of people?