Expertise makes people weirder, not more alike


Taking advice is a fraught activity. As you become more skilled in a field, the advice you need to advance becomes more specific to you, and as such harder to find. At some point, depending on the field, it somehow becomes unwise to take general advice at all, since taking advice will at best do nothing, or at worst, be a reversion to the mean.

A great book is Writers at Work, where interviewers ask a set of esteemed writers about their particular experience and solicit advice about writing. The surface level reading is to take away the advice, especially if you’re a writer. One other reading, though, is to notice that the advice is very different from author to author, and sometimes even contradictory.

Here’s one example on inspiration. Moravia needs “genuine” inspiration, saying that “one doesn’t go on” without it:

INTERVIEWERS: Have there been times when characters have got out of hand?

ALBERTO MORAVIA: Not in anything I’ve published. Whenever characters get out of control, it’s a sign that the work has not arisen from genuine inspiration. One doesn’t go on then.

Inspiration sounds big! Yet earlier on, Faulkner totally dismisses it, not even knowing what it is:

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned experience, observation, and imagination as being important for the writer. Would you include inspiration?

WILLIAM FAULKNER: I don’t know anything about inspiration, because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.

What do you take away from this? Inspiration is totally necessary only sometimes?

It’s easy to look at respected figures and acknowledge the variance in how they behave as natural, noting that each person is different. Accomplished writers are weird, first and foremost. But we rarely do the same thing looking forward: if we are trying to become great, it’s nonobvious that one of the first things to be done is to stop taking advice.

One way you could phrase it is to say that this all begins as a journey to learn advice, and then you eventually learn enough to start unlearning advice. You realise the flawed nature of all general models, and become able to let go of all the memorized rules about inspiration or work ethic.

Everybody knows you ought to be passionate about your job and love it in your bones, to the point that this has become the standard course of advice for graduation ceremonies. Now listen to Georges Simenon:

SIMENON: Writing is considered a profession, and I don’t think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.

Advice is so context dependent that even entirely reversing advice sometimes reveals a genuine, correct new piece of advice. This should give you pause for thought. This is what I believe Peter Thiel means when he references the idea of the zen-like opposites that occur in particularly good founders, who have two seemingly opposing traits that are revealed at different times.

What should scare you most is not the prospect of taking advice that ends up obviously failing, or advice that is easily reversed. It’s advice that ends up working. Because if the advice leads you to settle on a local maximum – that is someone else’s global maximum – you silently miss the true north of finding the particular way of working that plays to your uniqueness.

This is the risk with things like merely satisfactory jobs. The gains accrue to the people who are the best fit for the job, and so merely satisfactory jobs bite you twice: the first, by taking away the incredible value of having a well-fitting career, and a second time, by preventing you from building up enough dissatisfaction to leave.

I think that just as people underestimate how fast they can grow in the percentiles of a skill, they also correspondingly underestimate how fast the common advice floating around in the air stops applying, especially with regards to non-context-specific generalities.

Alexey Guzey’s perspective

Elsewhere, Alexey Guzey does a good job at mentioning ways advice is fraught: we are more different than we think, and we don’t understand each other through these differences; we have no idea why we do things we do, and if we think we do, we probably don’t; the simplest problems are often the most complicated.

Though Guzey just about damns advice, I would venture to say that even he seems to stop short.

Knowledge that is specific and hard-to-come-by tends to become more valuable the less people know about it, and in fields where people compete, great advice is closely guarded. That means that the popular advice that everybody shares can sometimes be misleading. Maybe this is pessimistic, but if so, only a smidgen. Consider this: if the common advice was so good, why doesn’t everybody eventually become extraordinary? Could it be the advice that stops them?

Here’s another problem: even in fields that aren’t a zero-sum competition, there could be a social stigma against weird advice. If you have a particularly weird trick in your line of work, it’s hard to share without people giving you strange looks. And as a lot of highly valuable knowledge is very weird, this bias against weird-sounding yet correct advice probably does much to harm the entire project of seeking advice. Common, impersonal advice has to conform to some archetype of what advice should sound like. In this way, it all tends to grow to empty platitudes that are easy to share and harm nobody’s sensibilities.

I’m not pessimistic about all advice, however. There remains the ability for a small group of people, sometimes just two, to develop context through repeated interactions. When there is context, there can be differentiated and uniquely helpful advice. But perhaps that type of information does not really deserve to be called advice at all: instead, the most valuable advice is more accurately merely the result of a process of communal problem solving.