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What to do with too much advice (ycombinator.com)
118 points by akharris 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

There a lot of great points on this thread. We need more distinction between contextual and non-contextual advice. If one is ‘at the board’ working through a problem — then a hint or solution, moves the problem forward. On the other hand, if one is just ‘leisurely browsing advice listicles’ without being at the board, facing the problem, then most likely you are just ingesting dopamine-flavored noise.

Advice without context from anyone — whether it is PG, pmarca or Richard Feynman or {_your_fav_successful_survivor_} - would be useless, unless you are working/thinking about the problem that they are giving solutions for. Help only works if you are looking for something. Also sometimes it is good to just enjoy problem-solving and figuring things out. We are too quick to look for advice — and I get why: because no one wants to “reinvent the wheel”; There are too many standardized administrative things with startups that can be just solved by looking up advice; no problem with that; but sometimes it is worth struggling through a problem even though geniuses like PG and pmarca can give a solution quickly.

Abundant capital has led to too many VCs with too many blog posts looking to differentiate with their advice, under the guise of differentiation, content marketing, “proprietary deal flow” etc. If content is “bait” then you are at the bad end of the line.

When faced with a problem, find someone who can help — All other times, just do the work and enjoy problems :-)

(Did I just give advice? Can’t tell)

> Advice without context from anyone...would be useless, unless you are working/thinking about the problem that they are giving solutions for.

Totally agree. In my opinion, this can be a real reason to give advisors equity: to incentivize them to keep the context of your company in their head.

In many cases, you can get equally qualified (non-contextual) advice, for free, from tons of other folks (around SV, at least). But few will have the extended context that advisors who have been around for a while will.

> most likely you are just ingesting dopamine-flavored noise.

I hope you don't mind if I steal that phrase. Well put.

I like that distinction. I find that the best "non-contextual" advice is best when delivered as a model for how to think about a given problem, where the answers are more evidence/examples than diktats of what to do.

I think the single most important thing I've learned in my career, for my startup, and for my life is that I'm the only one responsible.

The fact is, everyone can give you advice, it's cheap. However, it's only based off their experience and their responsibility. You can never have too much advice, you just have to see how similar the situation is to see if it's useful.

What exemplified this in my mind, was when I received advice to not go down a particular path with my technical architecture. Yet, 6 months down the line, the architecture works very well, and that same "advisor" has since changed their mind.

Because it's only based off personal experience, and no one can experience things that haven't happened, it's worth weighting advice based on a situation-by-situation basis.

I often find myself telling founders "you're the boss, you decide." This is a core operating principle for how we think about advice to startups at YC.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those that supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the last from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than its worth.

You should at least credit Baz Luhrmann if you're going to quote that. At least put it in quotes so it doesn't look like you're trying to take credit for it.

It was actually mary schmich, but i thought the song was universally known at this point.

Huh! TIL!

> What exemplified this in my mind, was when I received advice to not go down a particular path with my technical architecture. Yet, 6 months down the line, the architecture works very well, and that same "advisor" has since changed their mind.

Do you have perhaps other examples where you would have much better off or better served had you did listen to someone maybe potentially wiser/more experienced/older than you? I sure have. I know we remember the things we remember, but I bet the times where I didn't listen and should have are a thousand to one, I just choose to remember that one more vividly for some reason.

I gel with the sentiment, but then looking at some other comments on this subject, it does seem to be a very westernized, "American individualism" view on the matter. I wonder what Japanese business leaders would say about the subject?

I think my point, was:

A. All advice, is just a prediction of the future, based on prior results. As we don't know the future, we should be cautious of making business decisions solely from advice.

B. Advisors are making predictions off their prior knowledge. As each persons prior knowledge doesn't fit the exact situation, you have to weight the advice based on how close the match is.

There are times where someone has suggested - "You can do X to test assumption Y." OR "Why not pivot into Z?" Of course there have been good outcomes and counter examples, but that wasn't the point. The point of my statement and the article, was you are the one responsible, so don't passively accept advice; actively think about it's merits.

Also, as an aside there's no reason to bring up "American Individualism". IMO that comes off like you're looking through a lens, specifically against it. As opposed to looking at merits of the discussion and questioning them. There's no point in thinking what a Japanese business leader would think, vs a Syrian refugee or American Entrepreneur - the advice in the article and my comment is to be wary of advice (laying out reasons). This is all regardless of culture, race, or creed.

Your aside might sound nice in theory, but it isn't reality. Everything is viewed through some lens or another, hell, it's how our brains work. If it comes off that way, you misinterpreted my intention. Not understanding the lens that you are looking through is how you end up with lack of understanding or not having a holistic viewpoint.

Agreed, and I think that's the blog post's ultimate conclusion: Don't find an adviser that makes decisions for you, but an adviser that helps you make your own decisions.

A good adviser won't even reveal their thoughts and feelings on the subject.

For a founder, this means picking a single adviser who can inform your thinking, rather than someone who makes decisions for you.

I would call this a sounding board. A good sounding board is really valuable. It should be someone you trust, like talking with and communicate well with. They don't necessarily need to know your problem space all that well.

I often serve as a sounding board for my 31 year old son. He talks a lot, I occasionally comment on something he said and he walks away with a valuable insight on where to go next. I'm not even in a position to give advice per se because I don't really know what he's talking about. But even in the course of trying to understand what he is saying, I can ask questions that help clarify something in his mind.

I'm really not a big fan of either getting nor giving advice. I try to get people to engage me in discussion in a meaty way, but advice per se presumes one person knows what is best for another and I think that is generally not true. The person seeking advice typically has "local" information that simply never really gets shared and this means the person giving advice is frequently doing so without knowledge critical to the decision-making process.

When I was raising my kids, I operated on the assumption that they knew a bajillion things about their little world that I would never know -- if they were hot, if their tummy hurt but they were too young to communicate it, etc -- but I knew a lot more about life, the universe and everything generally. I tried to bridge the gap between my larger knowledge base and their smaller one for the problem space in question while leaving as much decision-making in their hands as possible.

So, for example, the summer my oldest turned two and we got a hand-me-down winter coat in the mail that perfectly matched his new shoes and he was enamored that they matched and wanted to wear them together, I didn't tell him "No, you can't wear a winter coat in summer." (It was Germany and it was fairly cool that summer anyway.) Instead, I told him "Don't put the hood on and don't zip it closed. Half your heat escapes from your head. If you leave the hood off, you should be okay." And he then put the hood on and off a dozen times to test what he had just been told.

Because of this incident, years later in elementary school in Kansas -- which was colder than Germany -- he was better at keeping himself warm while playing outside in winter than his classmates. He was typically the last child still outside for recess. Everyone else went in before recess was over because they were too cold.

The idea that it's better to just do something quickly and learn from mistakes, rather than take your time, get a lot of good advice, and do it right, seems very accepted but I think it is not always generalizable. In particular, in biotech the cost of a failed experiment is much higher and one poorly designed experiment can kill a company. It's best to get an advisory board with relevant yet diverse experiences to really dig through the details of the experimental design and critically think about what you do and don't know about the biology

I know a few biotech founders who have the tech startup mindset of just getting some money and rushing into an experiment, except they need $200k and 6 months for that experiment. If you realize three months in when it's too late to stop that one of your assumptions was wrong, or you used the wrong model, that's a terrible feeling

There's certainly a significant amount of context dependence on the amount of advice that's "right" for any given situation. I think the important thing is to make sure you know that there is an "enough" rather than endlessly chase more.

Well put.

There's probably a theory that better explains this, but I think of it as getting to 60%. How can I get to 60% certainty without wasting too much time?

I'll never get to 100% (likely not even the 60% I think I am getting to) but how can I uncover just enough information to feel confidence in my decision? (edit: to add the "?")

The rest is just assessing past decisions and asking the same questions until we get satisfied with the result.

Advice is sort of the first derivative of what you should be making decisions based off, i.e.:

- How have people solved similar problems in the past? How have things gone wrong for people facing similar issues?

- How is the world different now? How is the world going to look in five and ten years?

IMHO advice is only useful to the extent that you can deconstruct the thought process behind it.

Paul Bucheit nailed the problem: "Limited life experience + over-generalization = advice". Most startup advice is horroscope-like in its applicability and utility. It's very easy for advice to seem entirely right but be entirely wrong. Having a single teacher is no answer to this problem.

The solution is to have a single "anchor" or goal that all incoming advice is supposed to serve.

For standup comedians there's a great anchor: make people laugh. If crowds laughs at a comedian's routine, they're succeeding. If crowds don't laugh, they're failing.

Paul Graham described the founder's anchor: make something people want. If users are using a startup's product, it's succeeding. If people are not using it, it's failing.

This eliminates most (but not all) room for self-delusion and misjudgment. All advice for comedians should serve them in "making people laugh" and all startup advice should serve founders in "making something people want".

A comedian can ask: "How will this advice help me make more people laugh, or how will it make people laugh more?"

A founder can ask: "How will this advice help me make more people want our product, or how will it make people want it more?"

And then its their responsibility to judge which course of action will best further their goal.

I suppose the essence of being an entrepreneur is being the one to make decisions no one else has made. It seems to be helpful to be data informed with your decisions, but I suppose the moral of this article is that advice can only help with general rules of thumb. In order to solve specific problems that haven't been solved before, you have to carve your own path with your own decisions.

Richard Feynman, "DISREGARD!"

http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/563/2/Goodstein.pdf (End of page 20 and beginning of page 21.)

The truth about advice: advice is always flawed because the person giving it doesn't have to live with the consequences. That alone should make you take any advice with a grain of salt.

We faced the same issue before pivoting our design services from a local shop to a productized service (http://draftss.com). We had tons of advice about how design on subscription model won't work or that we should have pay per task model or we shouldn't productize our service at all. After A/B testing we narrowed down to the current model where we are catering to 10+ clients every month generating $3000+ in MRR.

Your comment sounds like a plug. You provide no value in your comments as to why certain advice worked and other didn’t. It seems that the purpose was to link your business on HN and then find a way to make it relevant to the discussion.

Audience loses at the expense of your company’s promotion.

Very relevant, edw519 evergreen:


I’ve previously commented on what Sam Altman’s startup articles, presentations and talks sound like.

Sam, if you’re reading this - you do such an excellent job of interviewing successful startup entrepreneurs. Please do that more as the advice you provide to others creates more confusion/harm than anything else.

The comment aside, holy shit that article is super dark in retrospect.

For a founder, this means picking a single adviser who can inform your thinking, rather than someone who makes decisions for you.

I've been incredibly fortunate to have met someone locally who has the same level of tech and business expertise as I do. And appreciates the value and insight from multitude of industries. I really don't get along with many people at that deep of a level, so this was extremely rare.

Truthfully I have never had anyone I would call mentor nearly my entire life. I've always figured everything out myself since that's just how I was raised.

We're both mentors to each other, he has a difficult outlier upbringing like I have had, different but similar. I've never really realized what my true weaknesses were until the 5+ hour talks we have discussing everything from how youtube should learn UX from a pornsite, how to run a political campaign, psychology theories, neuroscience, chemistry, frontend development, leadership issues, project management, world education, dealing with nonprofit leaders, making money playing video games as kids. The talks vary with a really big open degree of openness, and changes every couple of minutes.

I don't see eye to eye on his visions for the future, but I understand where he's coming from though. So I appreciate the value he has. I tend to think extremely short term and grab the "lowest hanging fruit" is what he tells me, but his visions are all about "planting seeds" which I don't really bother doing but should be

All his skills complement mine in some weird backwards way and its nice to know that there's someone out there.

I tend to think tech first before anything and he tends to think business first so its a nice mix of skills. I tend to be extremely assertive about my solutions since I've had to do hard sales pitches but his is more gradual and methodical.

I don't know how well we work coding together though that might be a different story but we do see eye to eye on many management practice principles, I met him while doing nonprofit project management.

Anyways, I just wanted to mention this because I find most if not all the advice I get is really not helpful. Unless you understand the logic behind why I am doing something before you say something "Seek to understand before commenting", then its hard for me to appreciate the value of input given. I appreciate the sentinment and thought process though.

How did the two of you originally connect?

I went to my local techmeetup to volunteer and do some nonprofit work. There were 8 nonprofit companies that presented technical challenges they were facing. They wanted local devs to contribute to their missions as volunteer work. I met him there, said pleasantries and exchanges / what not. Didn't really learn much about him then

The week after I had to attend a strategy meetup to actually do a mini "hackathon" of sorts for projects. Again the 8 companies would do their spiel, I immediately identified which projects were worth taking and which were not. Some were just beyond my skillsets others were too much in infancy, etc. I ended up finding the same guy at the meeting, we were talking silently about all our opinions about these nonprofits. How competent were they, how far along were they, etc

He ended up picking the same 2 projects as I did before I knew about it. We split in groups, I noticed immediately all he did starting off was setting 8 seperate slack channels. He immediately knew communication was vital and capitalized on it. His company also does a lot of webdev / wordpress dev for nonprofits so it makes sense for him to do things this way.

I got to learn and see his leadership and management skills in action. In many ways, they mirrored me own, but were different. While I think tech first and the solution at hand, his focus was more business oriented. I tend to have a blunder of just tossing the solution on a plate without getting all the requirements, and he recognized this instantly and kept things from going off topic.

We started to hit it off and met up a few times on a 1:1 talking about life. He would have all these extremely absurd visions about how he wanted to build a social enterprise and making future impacts, but I couldn't see the motivation.

Later as I got to know him better he told me of his hardships growing up (not going go into detail here), but they closely resembled my own. I have a debilitating hidden disability growing up that I have not really told anyone because I never wanted to be treated differently. He has terminal cancer and probably may or may not have a long lifespan. He hadn't really told anyone but a handful of people including me.

I have never met someone so intelligent in my life in so many fields. He's been homeless at one point, worked in politics and legal / litigation, is a great developer, and is one of the best leaders and managers I have seen. I have pretty low expectations of people and rarely give compliments like this if that means anything.

For the longest time in my life I've always wondered if I would meet a person like me. I didn't think it would happen because (1) I would probably never know enough about the person to know (2) my background experiences and hardships are a really far outlier that I think maybe one in a million people have experienced. The chances of meeting someone like me is almost next to impossible

My rule of thumb is: Only take advice from people you're willing to switch places with.

Willing to switch places with them regarding the topic of advice, that is. You probably aren’t going to get the best technical advice and the best relationship advice from the same person (unless you have some extraordinarily wise people around you).

Is it possible to get the best of both worlds?

1) Advice from a variety of sources.

2) Not being slowed down by all of the advice.

My impression from the article is that this usually doesn't happen in practice, but I can't help thinking that it is very doable in theory.

When I was a young entrepreneur I started out believing all the advice I was given - big mistake.

I learned eventually to listen to advice and consider it and form my own opinion about whether or not it is correct for me and my circumstances.

I've learned to discount advice that starts with "I'm not an expert, but..." or "All you have to do is ...".

I thought of Naval Ravikant of the word 'Rav'.

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