The Actionable Advice Paradox: Why the most specific advice is the least helpful

Table of Contents Most Advice is Useless Consider the Authors At best, advice is always

Most Advice is Useless

I stumbled upon a recent post of All That is Solid, “Most advice is pretty bad,” which made fun of the uselessness of advice like “work hard.” This kind of advice is everywhere and pretty easy to spot 1I know because I’ve written plenty:

  • Stay positive.
  • Lean in.
  • Give fewer fucks.
  • Make YES your default.
  • Make NO your default.
  • Surround yourself with good people.

Most advice is pretty bad” theorizes that good advice has three main components:

It is not obvious
It is actionable
It is based on some true insight

Let’s focus on 1 and 2. 2We’ll ignore the “true insight” part for now, because isn’t that redundant?

Say you have a goal to get to the mall and you want some actionable advice:

“When you get out of here, take a left onto the main road. Drive down a few miles, get on the 217, and then get off at exit 291. Make the first left, and then follow the signs from there.”

“Drive towards the 217, get off at 291.”

“Take the bus and get off at the stop at the mall. Or get an Uber or a Lyft.”

If you were driving from my house, these would all work. #1 seems like the most actionable; #2 requires a lot of insider knowledge, and #3 is so generic that it’s useless.

But #3—the most generic advice—is the only one that works for everybody.

Specific and actionable advice is only useful when it takes someone’s context into consideration. But as it becomes more specific, it immediately becomes useless to everyone else in a different situation.

I run into this all the time when I’m writing: there’s a great temptation to say something that’s helpful and immediately useful. It’s helpful to have a specific reader in mind—many might say that you should write to yourself, a few years ago or the advice you know you need to take—but “ask your mother to take your dog for a walk” or “put her in a kennel and just workout already” wouldn’t make much sense to other people, only those who are in my exact situation.

The way you translate “specific advice” to “the useful, underlying principle” is to ask what is this really all about? In my case, it’s about the importance of clearing out everything that’s getting in the way of my goals—in this case, my guilt that I shouldn’t work out in front of my dog because of that one time with the dumbbells.

  • Clear out everything that is standing between you and your goal
  • Complete your goal

What would be helpful is looking at the underlying mechanisms, and helping people figure out how to get there.

Consider the Authors

As people move up the ladder of status and become a boss/manager/the type of person prone to giving advice, they also tend to become more prone to give advice. They think that because they’ve, say, caught a fish, that their own fish-catching steps will lead to success for everyone.

At Best, Advice is Incomplete

People’s lives are complex systems: we’re all going in a different direction.

The advice that you need depends entirely on your context, your direction, and your weak spots. We’re only as good as our weak spots, after all—but we also don’t know what we don’t know. Most of the time, we don’t even know what our weak spots even are. Before I got into hella good shape,3I was really good at CrossFit for a bit, back in the day; n.b., my abs are once again “hidden” beneath a layer of ice cream. I blamed genes and life history and everything without realizing why I didn’t have visible abdominal muscles.

It had nothing to do with the myriad supplements being touted online by Bro Scientists. It had everything to do with ice cream.

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