The biggest mistake in giving advices

If 5+ years as entrepreneur has made me wary of one thing in life – it is advice. Although the experience is nothing unique to entrepreneurship, but I mention this because being an entrepreneur makes you especially prone to getting advices. It comes from every quarter starting from parents, relatives, friends, ex-colleagues, venture capitalists, earlier successful and failed entrepreneurs, mentors, gurus to the random person you meet on the train. It’s not like that you do not get advice as a student, an IIT aspirant, a recent graduate, a new recruit, a newly-wed, a new parent etc. etc. But I will take examples as an entrepreneur because I have personally seen maximum number of advices in that quarter.

Now, there is a kind of advice that is useless, but also harmless. It is the obvious one. When you show the newly launched website for your company, people will comment on the colors and fonts. How it isn’t appealing enough for people to stay. How the register button is not prominent enough to attract attention. How you should measure and optimize. They would ignore that you don’t have enough traffic to measure and optimize yet. What they would ignore to tell you even more importantly is that your offering makes no sense. There are people in the world who are happy with generating ideas. There are people who are happy applauding happily generated ideas. If only you would get the colors right…

These kind of advices are harmless because you might spend a little time tinkering with fonts and colors, but would soon realize what people are not telling you. That the offering does not make sense. Or that it does :)

Another example of such useless, but harmless advice is the expression “look at random.choice(x) company’s random.choice(y)”. Yes. I felt like writing some outrageously out-of-place pseudo python code in a wordpress editor. x and y are lists and I will define x and y with some more outrageously out-of-place pseudo python code:

  • x = [z where z is an ostensibly successful startup and z has hardly anything in common with the issues you have at hand]
  • y = [customer support, marketing, PR, sales, operations, technology, partnerships, funding, team, processes]

Does the above example make sense. Don’t worry, if it doesn’t. Particularly don’t get stuck up on the code-syntax. It is not supposed to be correct. There are other examples. But let us go back to the original intent of this article. The type of advices which come out of the biggest mistake in giving advices. The mistake of over-generalizing personal experiences. It is the biggest mistake and it is the easiest to make. Because advice, after all, is supposed to come from personal experience, right? Right. An advice coming from personal experience is a genuine one. An advice coming from over-generalized personal experience is a wrong one.

I remember two such experience vividly

  • Speaking on the podium of a rather big-name startup event, someone had proclaimed that you should do three startups, because it will take you those many attempts to get your startup right. He had said something about what exactly will happen to the first two and how the third one will take you to stellar heights. And why? Because that is what had happened with him. What??!! How long does it take for anyone to think of ample examples where people have gotten the first startup right? Or where many more than three attempts have not produced anything significant? The audience was pretty savvy. But it never got questioned. Probably it was too big a platform for individuals to speak. Probably people didn’t bother. Probably they weren’t listening. What I sincerely hope hadn’t happened was anyone taking that advice seriously.
  • In a smaller event, a bigger-name-adviser had gone all “Do social media. Do social media. Do social media. Forget everything else for marketing.”  Huh? Whatever happened to the idea of identifying your audience, evaluating your offering and then figuring out what channels work the best? Thankfully in this particular event, the adviser did get questioned. Some digging up revealed that he wasn’t over-generalizing his personal experience. He was over-generalizing his recent-most personal experience. Because in another company in past, he had to do the “dirty” old-world sales & marketing. Social media wouldn’t have worked in those circumstances.

There would be no dearth of such advices once you start noticing them. Hire/Don’t hire, Raise funds/Don’t raise funds, Hire-only-IITians/Never-hire-IITians, Hire-needy-relatives/Never-work-with-family-members, Marry-before-starting-up/Don’t-marry-if-starting-up, Start-early/Start-after-experience and so on…

Next time you are giving an advice, please stop for a moment and think. Is you advice based on solely your personal experience? Even worse, is it based on a single personal experience? If so, don’t blurt out a generic advice. I am not saying that you should not give advice based on personal experience. In fact, what I said earlier is that advice based on personal experience is a genuine one. Personal experience is the best, and probably the only source of genuine advice. Reading out of a self-help book is hardly ever useful. But what you do need to do is think it through and qualify it. What were the circumstances under which something did or did not work for you? For example

  1. Instead of a generic hire or don’t hire IITians, consider something like following: I did not have resources or people to interview a large number of candidates. So, I focused on candidates from top-tier institutes. They are more likely to be technically good. But it is not like people from other places are not good. The noise is likely to be higher. But if you can put together a reliable test to weed out the wrong candidates, you should be able to find as good or even better employees.
  2. Instead of a “get it right the first time” or “do three startups”, consider this: You might hit it right with the first startup itself. If that happens, its great. If not, don’t give up on entrepreneurship. While there are people who have gotten it right in the first go, there are many, many more who got it right in second, third, fourth or fifth attempt.

Agreed! The modified advice starts sounding “weak”. You can’t feel like a know-it-all guru, who can give people the exact, precise directions to success. But it is better this way. By giving the exact, precise direction, you are more likely to mislead anyone who trusts you.

If you are an advice-taker, “think for yourself” is the best advice I can give. Actually it is better expressed in a phrase in Hindi – “Suno sab ki. Karo apne man ki.” It roughly translates into – “Listen to everybody’s advice. But do what you believe in.” It does not ask you to ignore everyone’s advice. But take that as an input. If the advice you are receiving does not come with proper if’s and but’s, tempting as it might be to have such precise instructions, please do not take it at face value.

Am I over-generalizing my personal experiences here? You decide :)

By the way, what I have said about the problems of over-generalization is applicable for advices related to personal life too. Not all marriages succeed in the same way. Not all kids can be brought up the same way. And there is no guarantee that what has worked for the advice-giver till now is going to work forever even for him. So, please! Think for yourself.

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2 thoughts on “The biggest mistake in giving advices

  1. From what (little) I’ve seen, when getting advice some of the main red flags seem to be
    a) advice based off too few data points (as you discussed)
    b) advice based off a good number of data points but they have a high distance from the current situation (e.g. applying large company advice to startups / applying advice that worked in the 90s to 2013 or recession to a boom/ applying things that worked in the US to India)
    c) advice that assumes that both parties are equal on the analytic vs touchy feely / influential vs non-influential (and other) spectrums

    On the other side of the table, as you wrote, it’s interesting that the answers with a lot of “it depends” clauses somehow seem weak compared to “you should do X like Y did”. The approach I’m testing currently is around making giving advice an exercise in transferring relevant data from my head to the other person’s so that they can make the decision and also this thing that I’m calling “data driven anecdotes”.

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