Some problems with advice

15 January 2014

A few years ago someone gave me a warning about advice, particularly career advice: people tend to tell others to become younger versions of themselves.

When you think about it, it seems obvious. Professors tell you to go to graduate school. Coaches tell you to be passionate about the game. Managers tell you to climb the corporate ladder. This makes sense. People always feel comfortable giving advice on how to become themselves; they've already gone through the process of becoming themselves. They're qualified to comment by definition.

On another level, telling someone to follow your own career path is also an implict validation of your own choices. The professor telling his student to go get a PhD is also telling himself that he made the right decisions all those years ago. He's asserting that his student should aspire to have a life like his; in a subtle way, he's making the claim that his life is so great, others should emulate it.

I don't believe people consciously try to flatter their own choices when they give advice, but I do think it plays into things. Unfortunately though, the part of our brains that flatters our own choices also seems to be conspicuously unaware of selection biases, particularly survivorship bias.

Here's the problem: nobody asks unsuccessful people for career advice. Consequently, the set of people who give advice is already restricted to those people for whom the advice worked. You'll never hear the other side of the story. Because of this, it's hard to know how useful the advice you get really is.

To put it more concretely, nobody asks the professors who don't get tenure if they should go to graduate school. Those profesors don't have students anymore. So when your literature professor tells you how great his PhD program was, you already know that you're only going to hear the winner's side of the story.

I think we could all be more careful about giving and receiving advice. If you're giving advice, try to think outside of your own experiences. Sure, your choices worked out for you. Can you think of people for which those choices did not work out? And if you're thinking about your future and start asking for advice, remember: everyone is a narcissist about themselves. Take everything with a grain of salt.

(If you want to see someone really thoughtful give career advice, check out Thomas Benton's thoughts on graduate school in the humanities.)

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