7 Rules for detecting bad advice

We are inundated with opinion, theories, views, speculation, ‘cant’, nonsense, spin, flim flam, alternative facts and fiendish marketing treachery masquerading as ‘advice’.

Now that we are old and wise, the obvious stuff no longer fools us. But some of the tips that we get from magazines, newspaper headlines and motivational speakers seem plausible … or maybe they’re complete nonsense? It’s hard to tell. I mean, much of it you could say in a conversation and no one would correct you.

‘You should eat like cavemen did.’

‘Coffee causes cancer.’

‘Success requires attention to detail.’

Wouldn’t it be great to have some rules of thumb that could help to filter out the sneaky garbage or let us know when to be on guard?

These rules exist.

For example, here’s a fantastic rule a travel agent gave me – “When you’re planning a trip, never buy the ‘from’ offer”. What he means is that, when an ad says ‘5 nights in Fiji from $49 a night’ or ‘London return from $999’, you don’t want it. Yes, that place exists and it has bars on the windows. Yes, that flights exists and it routes through Kabul.

So here is my list of rules that I apply whenever I’m getting advice that I don’t know is useful or not, and I want to weed out the rubbish.

 Rule 1. If the opposite advice is also true – there’s something wrong with the original advice

I once heard a motivational speaker describe a multi-sport athlete who was so obsessive that he used to cut his shoelaces in half to save weight, sieve his muesli to remove the pumpkin seeds (which he replaced with chia seeds) and so on and so on. The speaker thundered, ‘If you want to succeed, you have to be down in the detail! Are YOU down in the detail?’

Is this good advice? Let’s apply the rule and imagine him giving the opposite advice. Like this:

“If you want to succeed you have to think big picture! The problem with you is that you’re lost in the detail!”

Yep, that sounds equally valid.

Aha! They both can’t be true. As the song goes, ‘If two men say they’re Jesus – one of them must be wrong.’ Perhaps the truth is in the middle somewhere, or applies only in certain circumstances, or the statement was just wrong to begin with.

Some more examples.

‘The secret to success is trying harder.’ Ok, let’s flip it around.

‘The secret to success is learning how to relax and let go’. Yes, that sounds perfectly reasonable too. Reject the original.

Here’s another. “You learn more from failure than you do from success”. Hang on, logically don’t we learn more from success than failure? If I succeed, I must have done most things right – I should keep it up! If I failed, then I did some things right and some things wrong – so which ones should I fix? This is BS advice.

Rule 2. Does it blame the victim?

I recently heard the CEO of a large bank say to hist staff, ‘If you want it enough, you’ll achieve it!’ People in the audience nodded their heads.

Is this good advice? Let’s apply the rule. Is the victim being blamed? Well, following this logic, if you don’t achieve then it’s because you didn’t want it enough. Your fault.

Verdict? This advice is bollocks. Any system that doesn’t acknowledge and allow for genuine frailties on behalf of the user is going to fail. Besides, it’s not even advice. If I’m not achieving, then how do I get more ‘want’?

In my goal-setting workshops I pick a suitably burly person to try to break a piece of twine. When they fail to do it, I offer them increasingly large amounts of money to incentivise them. I can offer them $20, $50, $100, they still can’t do it. WANTING to break the string is a great start – but what you really need is some skill. (Tip: you can twist the string so it cuts itself).

More examples:

‘If you want to lose weight it’s all about willpower!’

‘It’s all about persistence! Quitters never win, winners never quit!’

Rule 3. Naming it isn’t explaining it

There is a thing called the ‘nominal fallacy’. It’s the idea that by just putting a name on something you’ve explained it. (Editor: Explain it? You’ve just committed it!) I once had someone describe a situation as the ‘Ziegarnik effect’. Awesome. Now what? Unfortunately, putting a fancy name on it doesn’t actually help you do anything. More please.

Rule 4. The ‘Dopamine Too Soon’ Rule

Neuroscience is perennially sexy. Who wouldn’t want to learn about the limbic system squirting serotonin into the amygdala? But hearing about dopamine isn’t the same as providing you useful information to do something different. Learning about how combustion works inside a piston chamber doesn’t help me start my car. In my experience, when dopamine is rolled out too early and too often, then beware. They’re just waving something shiny in front of the monkeys.

Rule 5. The advice uses linguistic hair-splitting

A key part of learning is seeing a new distinction. Unfortunately, people turn that on its head and make a very fine distinction and then trumpet it as mind-boggling insight.

I’ll let you have ‘Efficiency vs effectiveness’, but not ‘complicated/complex’. Now you are just throwing sand in my eyes.

Rule 6. The ‘Great Men in First 20 Pages’ Rule

Some authors say that we need to live by the example of historical giants like Churchill, Ghandi or JFK. These people were extraordinary leaders but they also had their foibles. Churchill had his first drink (whisky and soda) by 9am. By 11:30am he was onto his third. The cognac after lunch helped settle the bottle of Pol Roger champagne that he had during lunch and it was only then that the serious drinking began. In his own autobiography, Ghandi was candid about beating his wife. JFK liked the ladies more than a little. Steve Jobs was a colossal prick to work for. You want to try any of those power tips in your life or organisation?

The lives of great historical figures are very interesting – the problem is these books almost never try to untangle correlation and causation. There might be things we can learn – but we need to be careful. And if a business book (not an autobiography) wheels out the great men within the first 20 pages to try and make a point then it’s a red flag that they are taking a logical shortcut.

Rule 7. The Bogus Benchmarking Rule

The most famous example is ‘In Search of Excellence’ by Tom Peters who in 1985 looked at a series of high flying companies to distil the lessons of success. Those companies included the white-hot blazing star power of corporate titans such as Xerox, Wang and Atari, whose subsequent failures in retrospect rather taint the message. Other books of this ilk are ‘Good to Great’, ‘What Really Works’ and ‘Built to Last’.

They are all fatally flawed because they look at the winners and see what they have in common. They never then look at the failures and see if they had the same characteristics. That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from successful companies – It’s just that you’ve got to be very careful that you’re comparing like with like.


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Kevin Biggar

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