The Problem with Advice

If you want to eat healthy, you need to have a balance between eating too much and too little. If you want to be responsible with money, you need to balance between saving enough to enjoy your future and spending enough to meet your needs today. Not too much, not too little.

Most problems in life come down to calibrating between extremes like these. Calibration has two challenges. First you need to figure out in which direction you’re unbalanced—are you spending too much or too little? Too aggressive or too passive? Overdoing it or underdoing it? Second, you need to figure out how to rebalance yourself.

Calibration is harder than maximizing. If you don’t need to balance, and moving in one direction is always better, then you can marshall all your efforts into solving the second challenge. When a problem involves calibration, however, you always need to keep an eye on whether you’ve slipped too far to the other side.

Calibrating Advice

The problem with advice is that most of the time it can only point in one direction. I can advise you to spend more and enjoy life or save it for a rainy day. But it’s hard for me to advise both and still be comprehensible.

If the intended recipient for advice is obviously miscalibrated in one direction, this may not be a problem. It’s probably safe to say someone with high consumer debt should spend less and save more, or someone who is obese should eat less.

However, what if there’s more than one recipient? If I write a blog post, it will get read by thousands of people. For any conceivable topic, that means my advice will be bad for some people, even if it’s still useful on average.

What if you don’t know the recipient very well? In that case, you may assume they’re miscalibrated in one direction, but the opposite could very well be true. Good advice crucially depends on what the advice giver believes to be the more likely miscalibration.

Too Much or Too Little?

How can you tell which direction you’re miscalibrated? This itself isn’t an easy issue.
A dominant heuristic people use is to see where other people are calibrated, and compare themselves to those people. Unfortunately, this suffers from a number of problems.

First, averaging over the people around you doesn’t necessarily give you the ideal position. If we did this with weight or savings rate in North America right now, it might be far from what most reasonable people would consider ideal. This creates a bias to think you’re better calibrated than you actually are if you’re close to the average.

Sometimes we’re able to recognize a discrepancy between the average and the ideal. But this can also create other problems if you’re calibrated in the opposite direction of the people around you. This may push you to an opposite, unhealthy extreme. If you’re told people of your group are normally too passive, you may push yourself to becoming overly aggressive. If you’re told people in your group are too heavy, you may push yourself to undereating.

Sometimes the calibration issue has to deal with the fact that it’s not clear where the ideal sits between two extremes. With weight and savings, there’s a minor risk of distortion, but consider philosophical issues like:

  • How much should you set goals versus live in the moment?
  • How much should you live according to strict rules versus not hold yourself too tightly?
  • How much should you have faith in things or doubt them?
  • How often should you change your mind, or maintain your convictions?
  • How much control should you try to exert control over things versus accepting them the way they are?

If there is an ideal balance between these contradictory notions, it has been suggested to lie at very different points (sometimes at extremes) in between those pairs of ideas.

Recalibrating

One solution to the calibration problem is to be more open to trying different points on the curve. If you can push yourself to try spending time at one point versus another, and seeing what results they create in your life, you can get a better idea as to which direction you need to push towards to live better.

If you’re a very goal-oriented person, this could mean trying to live more spontaneously for a period of time and seeing whether that pushes you closer to harmony. If you’re a very rational person, this could mean trying to make decisions more intuitively and seeing whether they turn out better or worse.

Summary

Advice is hard to give and receive. This is because most problems are ones of calibration and not of maximizing. When you hear advice, always leave open the possibility that you’re not the intended recipient, and in fact you’re calibrated in the opposite direction. In fact, most good advice can also be argued convincingly in the other direction and still be true for some people.

The only way to get unstuck from being overly miscalibrated is to try out different points between the two extremes. Generally you won’t be able to flip between one extreme to the other (nor should you). Applying a lot of effort usually only pushes you mildly towards the other direction. But even a little adjustment can give a lot of information about how you might live better.

  • Ronald

    Scott, I am writing this here since you aren’t responding to my email. Please refund my money and unsubscribe me from learning ninja. I emailed three times and you never responded. I have the feeling from reading your past posts that you are aware of this because you automated your quick message system of checking email. Please be an honest business person. You might have blocked my email or just ignore me but it feels slimy.
    -Chandra

  • Ronald

    Scott, I am writing this here since you aren’t responding to my email. Please refund my money and unsubscribe me from learning ninja. I emailed three times and you never responded. I have the feeling from reading your past posts that you are aware of this because you automated your quick message system of checking email. Please be an honest business person. You might have blocked my email or just ignore me but it feels slimy.
    -Chandra

  • Jeff

    Great post Scott! This is what I’ve been thinking about for awhile now, since I now here a TON of contradictory advice between two credible sources. I think most people will tend to give their advice based on the sample size of their own successes, when in reality, the combination of factors that led to their success may not directly transfer to the advice-receiver.
    I guess it all comes down to self-awareness. How well do you know yourself? How do you know if a piece of advice will actually work for you? I think you’re right, you try out different points on the spectrum and then look at the evidence.

  • Owen Biesel

    Hi Scott, thanks for starting this discussion! I resonated a lot with your questions about how much to live according to one ideal or another, and I’m glad to have this calibration framework to think about these important issues.

    One of your points is that generally good advice can be inappropriate for people who are miscalibrated in an unusual direction. A related point is that even appropriate advice can annoy or offend someone if it’s not an issue they’re actively working on, or if they feel that you don’t understand their situation well enough to have a say. (I imagine this to be more of an issue for people giving advice in person than for authors of blog posts whose readers can just click away if they want.) One thing I like to do to lessen the likelihood of my advice coming across badly is to attaching “if” clauses to my advice, as in “If you want to eat more healthfully, you should plan your meals ahead of time so you aren’t hungry when you have to make your food choices.” That way, the advice doesn’t have to be followed to be accepted.

    In case you’re interested, here’s a blog post I wrote last month with more on this idea: http://doeshecollectbutterflies.blogspot.nl/2016/05/should-without-anxiety.html

  • Owen Biesel

    Hi Scott, thanks for starting this discussion! I resonated a lot with your questions about how much to live according to one ideal or another, and I’m glad to have this calibration framework to think about these important issues.

    One of your points is that generally good advice can be inappropriate for people who are miscalibrated in an unusual direction. A related point is that even appropriate advice can annoy or offend someone if it’s not an issue they’re actively working on, or if they feel that you don’t understand their situation well enough to have a say. (I imagine this to be more of an issue for people giving advice in person than for authors of blog posts whose readers can just click away if they want.) One thing I like to do to lessen the likelihood of my advice coming across badly is to attaching “if” clauses to my advice, as in “If you want to eat more healthfully, you should plan your meals ahead of time so you aren’t hungry when you have to make your food choices.” That way, the advice doesn’t have to be followed to be accepted.

    In case you’re interested, here’s a blog post I wrote last month with more on this idea: http://doeshecollectbutterflie

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