Say you want to become a novelist: who would give you better advice on getting started, Stephen King or someone who just published their first book?
I imagine most people would lean towards Stephen King. After all, he’s an incredibly successful author, so he certainly knows a lot of things that a first-time author wouldn’t. If King and this first-time author gave contradictory advice, you’d probably ignore the newbie and listen to the legend.
This doesn’t just apply to novelists. Scientists would prefer to look to Einstein for inspiration than the colleague who just got tenure. Rappers want to emulate Jay Z not the guy who just went pro. New start-up entrepreneurs look to Gates and Jobs, not smaller scale triumphs.
But despite the near-universal tendency to want to listen to these greats, I think that it’s often the people only a few steps ahead of you that offer better advice.
Listen to the Person Two Steps Ahead
Few people are in a position where they could receive and weigh both the advice of someone like Stephen King and a first-time novelist side-by-side. King is completely inaccessible. The best you could hope to get would be to watch interviews with him, or read his books about writing.
However, the tradeoff between listening to the expert and the person just two steps ahead of you is present everywhere.
Say you wanted to start learning French. Should you ask for learning advice from the person who started learning a decade ago and is now nearly fluent, or the person who just broke into having simple conversations?
Or programming. Should you see what your friend, a full-time coder, has to suggest? Or the friend who just made his first application?
Why would anyone listen to the less qualified person, given these options?
I think there are a few compelling reasons why the person just a few steps ahead can offer better advice.
#1 — What Matters Changes as You Get Better
When you ask someone for advice, you’re implicitly asking them what’s important. Unfortunately, some things are very important for beginners but don’t really matter once you’re fairly successful.
Consider blogging. I’ve been blogging for years, writing every week. I have an archive of over 1000 articles. Few readers will ever get through even 10% of those. At this stage, my primary focus is on writing quality content, not just trying to increase my post count.
However, for a newbie, the advice to “focus on quality” probably isn’t the most useful. Most newcomers have no experience writing. Therefore, the best way to improve quality is to simply write a lot. Making a goal to write more is questionable advice for an established blogger, but essential advice for a newcomer.
Advice from someone just a few steps ahead will better reflect what’s important at that stage.
#2 — The Path to Success Changes
Success in some pursuits is timeless. If you wanted to get in shape, the same truths which held hundreds of years ago hold today.
But success in many areas is shifting constantly. The publishing world when Stephen King began his career is drastically different from the one today. Many of the steps a new Stephen King would have to embark on are completely different than the ones he actually took.
The person a few steps ahead will possess much more recent information as to what it takes to achieve the next step.
#3 — Success Breeds a Different Outlook
There are a lot of false, feel-good beliefs which are a luxury to possess. As a result, people who don’t have to face the consequences of those delusions are more likely to possess them. This is the danger of going soft , and although some successful people stay just as sharp as when they started, many switch to feel-good beliefs at the price of uncomfortable truths.
Advice from those just two steps ahead will give you not just the words, but the urgency. They can, with the tone of their voice, imply how hard you’ll need to work and what steps are necessary to undertake.
Cultivating Local Wisdom
I don’t think that the opposite extreme, that all your advice should come from those who are only a little better than you, is a good solution either.
People far more successful can point out troubling local maxima that are invisible to those only a bit better than you. They can tell you when a strategy is unsustainable, or prepare you to navigate future obstacles you can’t currently foresee.
But just as you want to get a birds-eye view of the big picture, you need to see the details as well. Local wisdom matters because its exactly that detailed, experience-specific knowledge that is often lost when you only focus on people far more important and accomplished than you.
My advice: Whenever you start working on a goal, strive to find at least one person who recently accomplished a very similar goal and ask for their advice. Not only are these people more accessible for personalized advice, but they often carry wisdom that’s simply unavailable from any other source.