Years back, a customer of one of my courses told me that he planned to judge the course based on how “counterintuitive” the advice was.
From the theory of information, this is a reasonable strategy. Information, in this sense, is a measure of surprise. You don’t learn much when someone tells you something you already know. In contrast, ideas that totally change how you think about something are more valuable.
However, from an advice-taking perspective, I think this person was misguided. Not only is good advice typically “obvious,” but a lot of “counterintuitive” advice is actually bad. Somewhat surprisingly, even if advice is obvious, it’s still useful to hear it!
Everything is Obvious
One of my favorite books is Duncan Watts’s Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer). When serious social scientific researchers spend years investigating a question, the lay public often receives the result with a pronouncement of “well, duh!”
Watts argues that this is a psychological illusion. We judge obviousness not by if the information is strictly new—but if it violates our intuitions. Unfortunately, our intuitions are often fuzzy, which makes many scenarios seem plausible.
When investigators painstakingly look into a question and find an “obvious” answer, it may seem like a waste of funds. Except that very often, the opposite conclusion was also plausible! In other words, we actually have learned something from an information-theoretic perspective, but our sloppy intuitions make it seem like we already knew the answer.
The Obviousness of Good Advice
I have been lucky enough to receive a lot of excellent advice. This advice helped me launch a successful business, grow it to a multi-person team and write a best-selling book. Little of that advice was counterintuitive. Instead, it generally crystallized something that had felt like a possibility—but only stood out once articulated by someone who knew more than I did.
One example occurred when I was preparing to market my book, Ultralearning. I had spent nearly a decade working through the ideas, and multiple years going through the process of writing a book. Now the dreaded phase of marketing was beginning, and I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it.
I remember asking James Clear, author of the enormously successful Atomic Habits, to tell me what he did. He told me he had been on 200+ podcasts in the first six months of the book’s launch, including around 80 that were released the first week his book was out. Woah!
By the standard of counterintuitiveness, the idea that “going on a lot of podcasts helps to promote a book” was pretty uninformative. I already “knew” that. But had I not received that advice, I probably would have thought going on a dozen or so podcasts was enough. The advice seems obvious in retrospect, but I would have been wrong had I not heard it.
There Are No Secrets (But You Don’t Already Know The Answer)
When I interact with people, I find they often fall into two camps when it comes to advice:
The first group believes in secrets. They think there are special, unheard-of methods and ideas that will cause you to lose weight, earn money or become successful.
The second group believes you already know what to do to succeed. Failure to get ahead, in this case, is either because of a lack of willpower, motivation or talent.
I’d like to argue that both groups are wrong. There is genuinely useful information that people don’t possess. This lack of knowledge—much more than motivation or willpower—keeps them from success in many pursuits.
Yet if you hear “obvious” advice, it doesn’t sound like a great secret. It sounds like the same stuff everybody already knows. Knowledge typically isn’t about discovering secrets. Instead, it’s about figuring out which boring, yet plausible, account of how things work is actually right.