On Advice

Some time ago this "ultimate cheat sheet" circulated through my various social networks. A couple of my friends asked me what I thought of it. My intuitive reaction was a negative one, but I needed to think about why I felt that way. This, in my mind, unraveled into a deeper theme, which I thought worth sharing.

But first, some context.

I am currently in my second year at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Prior to that, I spent six years working in a financial services firm. I left because I wanted to explore the broader world, and get back in touch with my deep passion (solving big problems with the help of software, which has the incredible ability to provide unprecedented leverage to almost any human activity – software is, after all, eating the world). Stanford allowed me to do it in a community of people who have great ideas, are ambitious, and surprisingly diverse (if you know where to look).

Throughout my first year I've taken classes that immersed me in the world of business, and particularly early-stage ventures. I went to panels, where novice, seasoned, successful and failed entrepreneurs alike shared their experiences and gave their advice to wide-eyed business school students. I went to lunches with people who had something interesting to say. I extracted the essence of more than a hundred cases I've covered in class. I read articles that my classmates sent me, scavenged the Web for advice given by founders, CEOs, salespeople, and everyone else. As a result, by the end of my first year, I had an impressive cheat sheet of my own. I keep it in Evernote, titled "business advice", and despite being written in concise, bullet-point form, it now exceeds 20,000 words. So it remains useful, I organized it into about 50 themes over 5 major categories.

As I was restarting this blog, I considered sharing the entire file with the world. Why not? After all, it's a compression of more than a year of advice, given to me in various forms, ranging from very personal to heavily broadcast.

The problem with the advice I so diligently collected, and with James's advice, is that it's useless. It's useless, because it's compressed so much that it becomes almost impossible to apply. It lacks any context whatsoever to be put in practice. It is more than just "dead knowledge". It's knowledge that's been dead for years and is now shriveled, dehydrated and turns to powder as soon as you touch it.

In fact – and this is what was bothering me so much when I read the post – I believe that such advice has negative valueA big problem is that cheat sheets like this give their readers a false sense of security  – a belief that there is "the" right answer. There isn't. The astute adage "Ask ten people for advice and you'll get eleven opinions" is spot on. Every one of these rules is an outcome of a thought process or an experience. Each of them is a black box – whose inputs are the pros and cons, the context that the author faced, and the set of things he valued, and the output is a decision. And so to present these one hundred and three processes (or more, if these rules were came out of several experiences) as rules totally misses the point and encourages the reader to question the world around her less, rather than more.

I have no intention on picking on James. In fact, I am grateful to him for coming up with his 100+3 rules. I was staring at my own advice for more than a year and failed to see what was wrong with it. I needed to see someone else's advice to really get it.

- - - 

People ask me why go to business school. After all, you can read all about accounting, marketing, finance, and management in books (many of these are sold at the airports or at Fedex Office). You can borrow all the cases from a friend and read them cover to cover. But in this case as well, all you would be getting is dead knowledge. Business school is not about the books you read or the cases you cover. It's about being immersed in the context of business. It's about being exposed to the lingo over and over until you become proficient; being a part of a community that discusses business issues over and over until you work out your intuition; thinking about business over and over until you start looking at the world in a different way. That takes context, time and effort. You can't pick that up in a book, or in a cheat sheet.

Even then, it's not enough. I realized that first hand: equipped in this wonderful toolbox, I set out to put my knowledge into practice over the summer, working on a project with a couple of classmates of mine. And we did everything we weren't supposed to do. As I go over my 20,000-word business advice, I can highlight dozens of bullet points that I violated. The problem was not only that there was a lot of advice to absorb. More importantly, each of these bullet points comes with its little decision mechanism, and when you're on the ground, faced with an actual situation, with actual data, things don't look as black-and-white as they do in "business advice".

There truly is no free lunch. Yes, reading a book saves you time. But it's no lossless compression scheme. Reading a bullet point of advice might save you the 2 years (and $$$) of business school and 1 year of going out and trying, and failing. But by reading a bullet point, you sacrifice the mental focus that you would subject yourself to if you actually had to read that case, think about that issue, then discuss it with your classmates, then hear the guest speaker's synthesis (which by now has all this wonderful context that you'll hopefully remember, even partially), and then write it up as a bullet point in your own "business advice", and then try it in the world, and fail, and finally internalize what it means.

- - - 

I haven't deleted my "business advice" note. In fact, this note has a lot of value to me . It has a lot of value, because I do have the context. So long as my memory is good enough to trigger the circumstances that made me write down each piece of advice, I can use this advice as a starting point to making decisions.

And in fact, that's what advice is meant to be. It was never meant to replace good old thought process. But the more we expose ourselves to information digests, the more we skip the long article and skim over the TL;DR line, the more we shortcut our own thought process, seek comfort in our crutches wherever we go, and aim to become context-free. But – as your computer scientist friends will tell you – "context-free" is not very "intelligent".