Advice Reversals

One of the topics I like to explore on this blog is meta-advice. That is, advice about advice.

I don’t think this is as silly and abstract as it might at first seem. After all, we’re constantly being bombarded with suggestions for how to work, live, study, exercise, eat, sleep, date, etc. I think there’s a relative paucity of thought given on what’s the right way to think about that advice.

One of the problems with advice, particularly in the one-to-many information style like you’re reading right now, is that you can never address a particular person. You may envision a particular situation when you write the advice, but the person may be different from your actual case. This can lead to situations where your advice is actually bad for some, even if it’s true for others. I’ve written about this before here.

An interesting situation, I think, arises, when what counts as good advice actually reverses depending on where you are along with a goal. Meaning, advice can be good at one stage, but later, the opposite of that same advice is more useful.

Examples of Advice Reversals

One example of an advice reversal could be exercise. Consider two people. One, a person who rarely exercises, never has time and is chronically out of shape. Two, a person who trains daily and is trying to reach competitive-level athleticism.

Now consider the following advice: The most important thing in exercise is showing up.

For the first person, this might be perfect advice. Lower the difficulty of the exercise. Put little to no constraints on the type of exercise performed. Maybe even allow the person to quit midway through workouts if it becomes too onerous. The net effect? The person will show up to the gym more, exercise more and become healthier.

Now consider the same advice, but for the second person. Now this is probably terrible advice. Reaching new levels of fitness requires a lot more than showing up. Worse, in some cases there can be problems with overtraining and not allowing enough recovery. A “just show up” mindset might be counterproductive if it results in injury due to a sloppy, overly enthusiastic approach.

Another example of an advice reversal might be blogging. For new bloggers, my standard advice is simple: blog more and blog consistently. Writing tons of content is usually a strong strategy for beginners since it builds their presence and gives tons of practice writing, eventually allowing them to find their niche and improve quality of writing.

But for people with established blogs, this doesn’t seem like great advice. For one, after you’ve written too much, nobody will see everything so average quality starts to matter more than quantity. Second, having a more infrequent schedule is less likely to burn out your existing reader base.

What Should You Do About Advice Reversals?

There seems to me to be three main ways of dealing with advice reversals, and more general inapplicability of advice to different situations:

  1. Understanding why advice works (or doesn’t). If you know the principles behind advice, you can more easily know when it applies and when it doesn’t. This has the advantage of allowing you to draw from a wider pool of advice, but suffers when the reasons for the advice are less obvious than the advice itself.
  2. Pattern matching the similarity of the situations. I feel people do this instinctively. The more you and I are similar, the more I’m inclined to follow your advise. Since our local conditions vary less, the principles that could possibly change what is good advice are more constrained. The problem with this is that it leads us to overly rely on advice when superficial characteristics are in common but ignore the deeper reasons which might matter more.
  3. Self-experimentation. The surest way to test advice is to run it on yourself. This has high accuracy, but it limits how much you cover and isn’t much use in situations where you must make a choice and can’t try other options later.

All of these three methods have problems, and so does reliably following advice. But thinking about these issues and applying all three can do a lot to mitigate the problems of advice which goes from good to bad, depending on where you’re standing.

Do you have any other examples of advice reversals? Share your ideas in the comments!

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  • Anon

    “Now consider the same advice, but for the second person. Now this is probably terrible advice. Reaching new levels of fitness requires a lot more than showing up. Worse, in some cases there can be problems with overtraining and not allowing enough recovery. A “just show up” mindset might be counterproductive if it results in injury due to a sloppy, overly enthusiastic approach.”

    Make it run, make it work, make it fast, make it beautiful.

    It’s an old software engineering adage. I’d rephrase it as: get consistent output, get effective output, get choice over output trade-offs, get optimal output.

    An athlete is reaching for #4.

  • Anon

    “Now consider the same advice, but for the second person. Now this is probably terrible advice. Reaching new levels of fitness requires a lot more than showing up. Worse, in some cases there can be problems with overtraining and not allowing enough recovery. A “just show up” mindset might be counterproductive if it results in injury due to a sloppy, overly enthusiastic approach.”

    Make it run, make it work, make it fast, make it beautiful.

    It’s an old software engineering adage. I’d rephrase it as: get consistent output, get effective output, get choice over output trade-offs, get optimal output.

    An athlete is reaching for #4.

  • Anon

    I think trouble dealing with nuanced advice is a symptom of a deeper problem: having trouble with cognitive nuance altogether, and needing to slot things into neat 2x2s and dichotomies.

  • Anon

    I think trouble dealing with nuanced advice is a symptom of a deeper problem: having trouble with cognitive nuance altogether, and needing to slot things into neat 2x2s and dichotomies.

  • Another example: the expertise reversal effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expertise_reversal_effect). Instructional techniques that work well for someone just learning a subject may not work as well for an expert. Worked examples (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worked-example_effect) may fall into this category.

  • Duncan Smith

    Another example: the expertise reversal effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E…. Instructional techniques that work well for someone just learning a subject may not work as well for an expert. Worked examples (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W… may fall into this category.

  • Veronika Alexander

    I think it’s the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as a “universal truth.” I don’t think there is one, just like there isn’t a universal diet. Thus a great advice for many cases is going to be a bad one in some situations, no matter what the advice may be.

    For example, not too long ago, a colleague of mine sent me an article that shows that optimistic people excel in school, make more money, live longer, etc, etc. Moreover, she wrote, it’s a conscious choice to stay pessimistic, while at any point of time I can choose the opposite and reap all the rewards that come with it. I think it’s an awesome advice. For most people. But I suffer from severe depression and it’s not that simple for me to suddenly feel optimistic. Besides, as some data also suggest, feeling down helps depressed people avoid unnecessary risks as they view the world in a more realistic way.

    Same goes with advice “avoid meat” or “eat more vegetables, seeds, and grains” — wonderful, but not for those like me, with colitis.

    What (for now at least) works for me is to challenge myself to do more/improve every day and beware of adverse effects that might show up (and adjust to those).

  • Veronika Alexander

    I think it’s the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as a “universal truth.” I don’t think there is one, just like there isn’t a universal diet. Thus a great advice for many cases is going to be a bad one in some situations, no matter what the advice may be.

    For example, not too long ago, a colleague of mine sent me an article that shows that optimistic people excel in school, make more money, live longer, etc, etc. Moreover, she wrote, it’s a conscious choice to stay pessimistic, while at any point of time I can choose the opposite and reap all the rewards that come with it. I think it’s an awesome advice. For most people. But I suffer from severe depression and it’s not that simple for me to suddenly feel optimistic. Besides, as some data also suggest, feeling down helps depressed people avoid unnecessary risks as they view the world in a more realistic way.

    Same goes with advice “avoid meat” or “eat more vegetables, seeds, and grains” — wonderful, but not for those like me, with colitis.

    What (for now at least) works for me is to challenge myself to do more/improve every day and beware of adverse effects that might show up (and adjust to those).

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