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.


How to Read More Books

A couple commenters, in response to my semi-regular reading list, have asked me how I manage to read so many books. Reading more books seems to be a goal for many people, so I thought I’d briefly share my approach.

Why Read Books?

Before I start, I’d like to state firmly that I don’t believe books are necessarily better than reading blogs, listening to podcasts or watching television and movies. All mediums have the potential to be enlightening or insipid, so you don’t get points just because your media consumption tends to be text.

That said, books tend to have certain strengths that are harder to replicate in other formats. For starters, books tend to be long—movies, articles and podcasts can usually only give a brief summary of a book. So for depth and breadth, books tend to win out both for facts and fiction.

Reading books is also one of the formats people struggle with most. The patience required to read books is harder to come by in our world of non-stop distractions and entertainment.

Difficulty itself doesn’t make something worth doing. But if books are worth reading, and they have some qualities hard to find in other media, then that might merit more effort to read more. If only because whatever virtues social media or television have, people seem to have no problem consuming them.

How to Read More Books

1. Have More Good Books

I used to feel guilty about having unread books lying around. If I bought a book, and didn’t read it, that was a waste of money. I should really finish the books I have before I buy new ones.

That attitude is counterproductive. The best way to read more books is to have lots of good books to read. The easiest way to stop reading is to get stuck on a book you aren’t in love with. Because the book is difficult, you’ll avoid reading and the habit of reading will start slipping away from you.

My solution is to have at least 5-10 unread books at my home at all times. (Note: I used to do this with library books when money was more of a concern, so this strategy needn’t be more expensive.)

2. Don’t Finish All Your Books

I like to finish books. It’s nice to feel like you’ve gotten the full idea and experience the author intended.

I don’t like to feel pressured to finish books. Pressure to finish translates to a less pleasurable reading experience. If done to excess, this can quickly make reading a chore you choose to do as little as possible.

In addition to my unread pile, I have dozens of books I started and never finished. That’s okay. Even reading part of a book is better than having read none of it. I’ve also gone back and finished many books after leaving them on my shelf for months.

3. Always Have Books With You

Some people ask whether I prefer ebooks or paper books. The truth is I like both—for different purposes.

For sitting at home and reading, I prefer paper. There’s something satisfying about holding a paper book, being able to flip the pages and put it on your shelf when you’re done. The experience of reading isn’t purely reducible to the information content on the pages.

However, if I’m traveling or out of the house, I prefer digital. I used to have a Kindle, but didn’t like carrying it places. Now I use the Kindle app on my iPhone and I keep a couple ebooks there for long commutes or plane rides. Now, I never have a reason not to read.

4. The More You Read, The More You’ll Enjoy Reading

What if you don’t like reading any books? What if you can’t seem to finish any book you start because after thirty pages you’re wondering if you can just wait until they make a movie version?

My feeling is that reading is an effortful skill that doesn’t come automatically to most people. Sitting and reading for long durations is quite unlike watching a movie or listening to a podcast. Even if you are completely literate, even a tiny amount of effort required for reading can tire you out before you read a full book.

However, I do think there is a solution. If you read more, you’ll get better at reading. Getting better at not only the cognitive task of literacy, but also with not getting distracted and sitting for longer periods of time. As you get better, reading will become more and more enjoyable.

5. Find Smart People, Read Their Reading List

Most books aren’t very good. Quite unfortunately, it is hard to judge a book by its cover.

This is particularly true of nonfiction, where you don’t only want to read something that is intellectually stimulating, but also something you hope is true.

My solution is to follow people smarter than me (through blogs, Twitter, etc.) and add books they mention to my Amazon queue. As long as they weren’t specifically panning the book or rejecting its thesis, there’s a good chance that the book is of good quality by taking this approach.

Side note: For those curious, some of the “people smarter than me who make occasional book recommendations” category include: Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander, Cal Newport, David Chapman, Ben Casnocha and Robin Hanson.

6. Have Both Ambitious and Fun Books

Ambitious books are deep, intellectual books you would be proud of yourself for having read. While in university, I got Infinite Jest for that reason. I did finish it, and it was thought-provoking and inspired. But it was also exhausting and had me turning to the dictionary more than any English-language book I’ve ever read before.

I think it’s good to read ambitious books. But if you only get ambitious books (or worse, you force yourself to finish them before reading fun ones) you’ll kill any potential joy for reading you might have.

So always have “fun” books—light, easy reads that make you feel good in addition to weightier tomes. That way you can switch between styles depending on whether you want challenge or relaxation and never give up the habit of reading.

7. Make Time for Reading

Most of the suggestions I’ve made involve reducing the friction to having a prodigious reading habit. But nothing beats having uninterrupted stretches of time when you can get reading done.

The unfortunate truth is, if you don’t read now, you may feel like you don’t have any of these chunks of time. And you might be right. After you’re finished work, you may feel too tired to start reading a book and you’d prefer to watch television or browse Facebook.

However, if you do read, you probably notice many stretches of time when you’re able to get some reading done. During your morning transit ride. Part of your lunch hour. A longer layover. Before bed.

My sense is that reading, like exercising, is something difficult to add in through willpower, but often easy to do when you’re already in the habit. That means that, if you’ve already been reading regularly, it’s fairly easy to continue. But it also means that if you aren’t reading at all right now, you may need to invest some time for it to start.

When I first started reading lots of books over ten years ago, I wrote about it on this blog. The main strategy I used was to temporarily cut my other media (at the time, mostly television) and make up for it with more reading. It was a bit uncomfortable at first, but it did the job. I was able to build a habit of reading lots of books that carries on today with fairly minimal effort.

What are your strategies for reading more? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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