Giving advice


Patri Friedman gives a very sensible hierarchy of advice. Cheap, individual experiences are useless. Right?

I think a lot of internet advice comes from the wrong place in the experience hierarchy, and that’s especially bad because advice has a power law distribution. Here is a draft hierarchy.

  1. I heard about this cool idea.
  2. I read for a few minutes about this cool idea...
  3. I actually considered trying this cool idea!
  4. I actually briefly tried this new thing!!
  5. I did this new thing for weeks or months and it so worked!!!
  6. I did this thing for years or decades and it’s deeply woven into my life.
  7. I’ve spoken with / taught a few others how to do the thing.
  8. I’ve studied most extant research about this thing & can summarize.
  9. I’ve spoken to / worked with / interviewed hundreds of people working on this thing (generally as a professional, or through net communities).

So many people preach shallow wisdom based on 1, 2, 3, or 4 (I used to do so a lot myself). But those are cheap, superficial, individual experiences. I have come to believe that 5 & 6 should usually be the minimum to give advice, and that 8 & 9 are vastly better.

Advice that has worked for someone long-term is easily 10x or 100x more valuable than 1,2,3,4,5. And advice based on a large cross-section of people is easily 10x or 100x more valuable than one person’s experience.

[...] Finally, I will admit this tweet is only a 6-7.

I will also admit that on the hierarchy of advice, this post (the one you are reading right now) is a zero. Where zero is defined as follows:

0) Based on my personal beliefs and biases, this sounds like a good idea so I would recommend it.”

That is: I already thought about “cheap, individual experiences seem useless” before and it sounds like a good thought, so here I am, quoting it at you, even though I have literally no datapoints concerning whether cheap experiences are useless or not.

Oh well.


So here is what else I think.

If people were not allowed to recommend anything based solely on their personal beliefs and biases, a lot of interesting things to try would never get recommended. Even if you are at the level 9 of expertise in some topic, what you probably learned is “half the people in my industry feel one way, and the other half feels the opposite way, and it’s a giant mess”.

And generally, in addition to advice people also need an environment in which they can generate their own thoughts – by sparring with others’ thoughts. It’s no fun to spar with “eh, maybe you should do X but I really really don’t know, sorry”. It’s also no fun to spar with “the scientific consensus is that you should do X”, because you would look stupid arguing with that.

Finally, giving advice is performative. Putting a piece of advice out there makes it easier to move on and admit that my advice is bullshit, which is kinda useful. (Hence this blog. Ha!)

Ranking these three points on the hierarchy of advice, I get 4, 5, and 6. Not that bad, but not great either. Perhaps in a few years I will be able to finally tell you whether the hierarchy of advice is good or not, but for now this is all I have.

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