The quantum mechanics of advice – or – “you’re not Steve Jobs”

can't credit this image, it was posted anonymously

I’ve been podcasting for a few weeks now.  I haven’t published one yet, because it’s taken me a while to get a handle on it, but I think now I pretty much have it cracked, at least, I’m happier with the results.

It felt like a natural part of the Man Vs Brain project, a complimentary strand to the blog posts (short, informal pieces like this), the essays (longer, stand-alone, more structured arguments) and the ebook projects (the first of which, Screwproof, is now available, by the way).

The problem is, though, podcasting is one of those things where it’s hard to take advice.  You have the old school that likes to do it sotto voce, you have the new school which is like a radio show.  You get the guy who insists you’ve got to script it, word for word, you have the people who like to jam it, improv stylee.  There’s sound effects, music, length, topic, how to categorise it, how to network it, where to host it… decisions, decisions.

Following advice demonstrates a lot about the difficulties we face when we’re thinking, showing how complex it is to make any kind of decision at all, about anything.

All roads lead to confirmation bias:

My podcasting situation is a classic example of our confirmation biased way of thinking.  Confirmation bias is something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree, it’s a term that describes the way our rational minds don’t always analyse things our emotional or physical brains feel are good choices.  What this means for our rational decision making abilities is, simply put, our unconscious desire to be right means we look for arguments that support the choices we want to make, more than we look for arguments that contradict our preferred choices.  It’s the mechanics of seeing the world as we want it to be, not objectively how it is.  It is driven, emotionally, by our attraction to predictability in an unpredictable world, to know our future and feel ready for what’s just around the corner. 

Confirmation bias is the decision making equivalent seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses

In this context, a confirmation biased argument is a logical process, i.e a + b = c or a conditional process, i.e. if condition a and condition b are met, then event c will occur.  This kind of thinking is flawed, because in most circumstances a + b could equal lots of other letters, depending on a whole range of factors.  The result c is an assumption which ignores the universal phenomenon of cascading consequences.  It’s like this – you may well own a fast car and be an amazing driver, but if the road you take is closed by an accident, you’ll arrive late for your big meeting, which means in turn, you’ll miss out on the deal of a lifetime and, therefore, that million pound loan to buy your new yacht was a bad idea because you can’t afford the repayments.  In hindsight, you should have taken steps to reduce the chance of a random traffic accident from affecting the outcome of your plans, or to put it another way, a + b = oh fuck, I didn’t expect that to happen.

In the world of seeking, giving and taking advice, confirmation bias is a particularly tricky problem.  Let’s look at it in the context of getting advice from the internet and social media.  But it’s fraught with confirmation bias problems… here’s the top three and what do do about them:


1. You’re being selective and basically choosing advice that supports your point of view, which means it’s not really advice, it’s emotional support

You have, like me, probably typed a word into Google with a “how to” or “advice” style query, then been presented with thousands of links to advice and information.  Some of it you’ll expect to be good, some you’ll expect to be bad.  In both cases, you’ll know it when you see it, right?

Wrong.  On the internet, all information has a certain type of equality to it.  Anyone can publish advice.  How popular the advice is, and how high it ranks on Google doesn’t mean it’s good advice, it just means it is popular and ranking highly on Google.  Just because a greater numerical volume of people like some pieces of advice better than others, but that doesn’t make it better advice.  You’ll have a confirmation bias situation that means you gravitate toward the advice that supports your gut feelings, hopes and preferences.  You can’t rely on your reaction to let you know if the advice is any good.

For example, if we shopped based solely on how popular product reviews were, we wouldn’t buy luxury products or services because for every expensive, exclusive item there is a lot more advice that you can do it / get it / get better value with a cheaper option.  Apple would lose to Dell, Ferrari would lose to Ford, Rolex would lose to Casio, Private jets would lose to cut-price airlines, Harrods would lose to Tesco… we explain the reasons why that doesn’t happen by acknowledging the enhanced value of luxury materials, of the social status conferred by wealth, of the ethereal qualities of the experience and emotions we feel when enjoying special treatment.  We don’t shop with utilitarian principles, and  we don’t take advice based on utility either, we take advice like we shop, supporting our emotional needs.

2. You look for reasons to support your selective choices with objective criteria which are chosen selectively, so they’re not objective at all

Let’s say you’re a bit more critical than your average advice shopper.  Let’s say you check out the source, the author of the piece, their website, other things they’ve written about.  After all, if it’s coming from someone who is an expert, it must be good advice, right?

Wrong.  That doesn’t tell you anything about the advice, just the person giving it.  Again, it’s more opportunity for confirmation bias to work on you.  You might think you’re being objective and scientific, but you’re not, you’re seeking out reasons to justify your bias to yourself.  It’s hard to get a handle on that argument, so let’s take an example like Steve Jobs…

When his biography came out, practically everyone I knew (except me) read it and talked about it a lot.  For months, every little thing that happened in the companies I was involved with had some bright spark round the studio quoting a pearl of wisdom from Steve Jobs, as though it were written for just such an occasion, which, of course, it wasn’t.  After a while, it became comical.

It reached a stage, where I was talking about a member of staff at my company (a project manager, who was basically a lazy sod and kept screwing stuff up) with a mate who said

yeah, well Steve Jobs said you’ve got to pick the ‘a players’, you can’t build a business with ‘b players’’.

I smiled (a  bit confused as to why he’d mentioned it) and said

this guy is basically a lazy sod, he needs a tune-up”

…and tried to get back to talking about my project manager, rather than Steve Jobs, only to get a full twenty minutes of Steve Jobs’ knowledge and insight into how the right team will help you build a world beating enterprise.

My friend finished and looked at me, as though all I needed to know had been explained.  But it didn’t help at all, given the fact I wasn’t building a world beating enterprise, and didn’t need vision and innovation, just needed this guy to stop fucking stuff up all the time.  It turns out Steve didn’t put a chapter in his book about what to do if you’ve got a lazy, sloppy guy who keeps missing deadlines, forgetting to answer emails to clients and generally spends more time chatting up the women in the office than doing his job.

In fact, I wouldn’t have asked Steve for advice on that problem, because he’d probably have said

Who gives a fuck? I’m Steve Jobs for Christ’s sake, don’t bother me with this crap”.

He was, after all, Steve Jobs, maverick genius, not Steve Jobs the HR consultant, or Steve Jobs the small office manager.

So the fact someone with impeccable credentials publishes advice about something doesn’t make it relevant or applicable to your particular situation, no matter how many people read it, like it and pass it on.  It raises the problem that advice is seldom new, it’s always second hand, filtered, edited and repurposed.  That doesn’t make it bad advice, but it doesn’t mean it’s right for you, either.  Steve Jobs, passed on through a friend, wasn’t very helpful.  My friend, an experienced businessman, wasn’t very helpful either.  I had to work it out for myself.

3. You use advice to address your own uncertainty, but because you are uncertain you can’t really be sure what you actually need advice about

Let’s get back to my podcasting.  Having listened to lots of advice, I set about doing my own podcast.  The idea I’d originally had was this vague notion I could just talk, record my thoughts, and it would be done.  Quick, simple, easy.  Then I was told I needed to script it – because even the best radio shows are scripted (said one expert).  Then I learned I needed licensed music, I needed some sound effects, a decent microphone, a quiet room to record it, I needed to burn an RSS feed, I needed to get it into iTunes, I needed this, I needed that.

That wasn’t really advice.  It was a useful list of production techniques.  It was a useful set of insights into how other people produced their own podcasts, but it didn’t help me find my voice or create interesting content, which is the soul of a podcast.  It was a mix of practical examples of home recording, and anecdotes about other people’s personal experience.  Which has value.  But it’s not advice.  It’s more like one of those awful books like “The Joy of Sex”, which doesn’t explain anything about the joy of sex, it explains things sexual things you can do, might do and in some cases, won’t be able to do because it takes concentration and sensitivity, which is lacking when you’re horny like a goat or blind drunk.

The result of following advice, in the end, meant my podcasts sounded like someone else.  I needed to take the advice that helped with producing a good quality podcast recording, but as far as creating something that expressed me was concerned, I couldn’t get advice for that.

What this shows is the basic problem of seeking advice in the first place, advice cascades very quickly into instructions, which cascade into copying the person who wrote the instructions.  I needed advice, as it turns out, on recording and producing, but what I got was a heap of advice on what to record and produce, which is impossible to give without knowing what I want to do, or indeed, knowing who I am at all.

So how do you take advice?  Or give it?

The answer, of course, is simple.  Advice increases in value the more specific it becomes.   Let’s express that with the example of knitting a sweater:

  1. Do you need advice on how to design a sweater?
  2.  Do you need to know how to do a certain kind of stitch?

The first question is phoney.  It’s trying to address all kinds of things like personal taste, aesthetics, colour, fashion, the person who’ll be wearing it and so on.  As a result, unless it’s a book about designing knitwear for all ages and genders, it’s going to be generic and won’t tell you what you need to know.

The second question is useful.  It’s granular, specific and gives you practical instruction.  It will facilitate the production of a sweater in a way the answers to the first question can’t.

In my own life I haven’t knitted a sweater before, but this example holds for everything.  I’ve started a few companies over the years and been given lots of advice, most of it was vague and generic, it’s only ever been really useful when relating to a specific example, like “how do I organise the share pool to incentivise these guys?” or “what’s the best way to manage our cash-flow accounting?”.  When I asked people “Is this a good idea for a business” I was met with “yes, but you should really do this…” or “no, that will never work because of x, y and z” (both of which turned out to be wrong).

I’ve sought opinions, and heard them.  But to call them advice is to label them as useful without making a qualitative judgement is merely confirmation bias at work.

Quantum advice vs. Macro Advice – advice mechanics

Advice decays from the quantum level (small, specific and granular) to the macro world (general, big picture and vague).  Both can be useful, but in very different ways.  Quantum advice gives you instruction, it’s a reliable medium for turning someone else’s experience into value to you.  Macro advice is a useful tool to help you work out your own ideas, it provides a sounding board against which you can bounce your own ideas.  But taking it as anything more than that will lead you down a dead end.

Quantum advice empowers you to explore your own ideas.  Macro advice is slightly toxic, it dismantles your own ideas unless you resolve, no matter how much you like it, you’re not going to take it as anything more than opinion.  Regardless of who wrote it, how many people follow it and how aware you are of needing it, the only way to compensate for your confirmation bias towards advice is to limit the advice you take to very specific, practical steps.  The rest, is background information that can only really help you work out what you really think, so you can take your own advice.

Because you’re not Steve Jobs, his book won’t help you be Steve Jobs.