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This guy has gone to the zoo and interviewed all the animals. The tiger says that the secret to success is to live alone, be well disguised, have sharp claws and know how to stalk. The snail says that the secret is to live inside a solid shell, stay small, hide under dead trees and move slowly around at night. The parrot says that success lies in eating fruit, being alert, packing light, moving fast by air when necessary, and always sticking by your friends.

His conclusion: These animals are giving contradictory advice! And that's because they're all "outliers".

But both of these points are subtly misleading. Yes, the advice is contradictory, but that's only a problem if you imagine that the animal kingdom is like a giant arena in which all the world's animals battle for the Animal Best Practices championship [1], after which all the losing animals will go extinct and the entire world will adopt the winning ways of the One True Best Animal. But, in fact, there are a hell of a lot of different ways to be a successful animal, and they coexist nicely. Indeed, they form an ecosystem in which all animals require other, much different animals to exist.

And it's insane to regard the tiger and the parrot and the snail as "outliers". Sure, they're unique, just as snowflakes are unique. But, in fact, there are a lot of different kinds of cats and birds and mollusks, not just these three. Indeed, there are creatures that employ some cat strategies and some bird strategies (lions: be a sharp-eyed predator with claws, but live in communal packs). The only way to argue that tigers and parrots and snails are "outliers" is to ignore the existence of all the other creatures in the world, the ones that bridge the gaps in animal-design space and that ultimately relate every known animal to every other known animal.

So, yes, it's insane to try to follow all the advice on the Internet simultaneously. But that doesn't mean it's insane to listen to 37signals advice, or Godin's advice, or some other company's advice. You just have to figure out which part of the animal kingdom you're in, and seek out the best practices which apply to creatures like you. If you want to be a stalker, you could do worse than to ask the tiger for some advice.


[1] The ants are gonna win. Hölldobler and Wilson told me so.

Bravo! claps An exceedingly well written response with a superb analogy.

I'll just chip in that it's the same for pretty much all advice about how to do stuff... Another example is project management "best practices". The truth is, no practice is "best", they're only appropriate in certain conditions, and you have to use your brains to figure out which ones apply to your project at this particular stage.

The same is true for testing practices - you have to adapt to the situation.

Etc... Advice is like design patterns. You can't, and shouldn't, try to use them all at the same time.

This is absolutely right: Strategies are situational as well as species-dependent. There are times when the ant colony's strategy breaks down, such as when it invades my back porch and I call the exterminator.

As humans our overriding goal is to use our big brains to switch strategies when needed -- but not to switch too often lest we go insane trying to follow all the good advice on the Internet at once. Nobody said it was easy.

offtopic, speaking of ants and their expanding colonies - have you seen this?


very interesting.

A hammer is not a best practice for peeling potatoes.

The concept of "best practices" is insidious. "Best" for what? We need to know what we are, our context, and our objective before we can consider the practices that will optimize our objective. Are we a tiger or a snail? Are we in a cage or a forest? Are we trying to eat or mate?

Practices provide the know-how. To provide the know-why, we must understand ourselves, our context, and our objective.

We also need to understand whether we (our system and sub-systems) and our context (our super-system) are purposeful: can any of these systems select their own means and ends. Don't ask me why—I'm still figuring this piece out myself.

For more, see Russell Ackoff: http://bit.ly/iHwQ.

I've turned down job prospects where the hiring manager wanted an on-the-spot "this is what I'll do" rundown.

Of course I know how your company is SIMILAR to other companies in the industry - do you really want a copycat strategy? "Best practices" may keep a company from crashing+burning, but without creativity and context won't get you any acceleration.

I've always wanted to have a beer with mechanical_fish ever since I got on to HN. His comments are always pretty solid. I wish you could follow people on HN like you can on twitter, and only see on the front page stories submitted by those you follow. Or alternatively, you follow those whose stories you consistently upvote on the front page.

I've always wanted to have a beer with mechanical_fish ever since I got on to HN.

Now this is my kind of upvote! ;)

It's a good analogy, especially since the guy is talking to animals in the zoo, instead of out in the wild interviewing the real survivalists. People who ask everyone for answers rarely want to leave the comfort of their safety net to go out and find them.

Thought the cockroaches are gonna win...

Good analogy, but 37s and Joel would probably be mutant half lion half ants. So following their advice may or may not be useful - interesting to know how a lion-ant lives, but may not be totally applicable if you're a horse.

I agree though - If you know what species you are, it's better to follow advice of similar companies...

God, this comment earned more karma than I earned during entire stay with HN community (which is more than a year).

BTW, I really like threads where comments earn more karma than the article.

This has to be a record for single comment upmods. Well deserved though, by a solid community contributor.

"But that doesn't mean it's insane to listen to 37signals advice"

unless you're after advice on writing markup.

I wonder if your score is an all time high on HN. Anyone know of any higher ranked comment?

Great response! You know, there's nothing wrong with 37 Signals' advice, but they imply that their advice is for everyone, and I am not sure it is. It's good advice, excellent advice, especially if your business intentions are similar to theirs. But we have to beware of any advice that's supposed to be universal. As in all things, your mileage may vary.

they imply that their advice is for everyone, and I am not sure it is...

I think it was Greenspun, but it might have been Strunk and White, who taught me this secret: Don't equivocate in print. Don't write like this:

"Here's some advice, which may not apply in your particular case: Do X."

or this (which you're more likely to see in actual writing):

"I think X."

Better to write:

"Do X."



Readers tend to understand that your writing comes from you, that it reflects a certain perspective and is unlikely to be universal truth. It's usually unnecessary to hammer this point home at the cost of cluttering up your sentences with clunky disclaimers that are always the same.

When you write, say what you think, straight out. [1] Don't settle for dull accuracy. If people get mad because something you say is wrong or overgeneralized, ask forgiveness, not permission.

37signals' work gets read and cited all the time because it is well written. One of the things that makes it so well written is that it's not larded up with apologies, disclaimers, and caveats. They assume that their readers are smart enough to figure out, without being told, that 37signals writes from a 37signals perspective and that your mileage may vary.


[1] Interestingly, speaking can be a different game. There's more room for artful equivocation. You can sell things with body language. You can vary the pace between telling it short and straight and telling it long and rambling. Novel-length writing is also different. We're talking about essays, here.

Fantastic point about the distinction between writing and speaking. Benjamin Franklin famously trained himself to speak in terms of "modest diffidence":


That is Strunk and White, most definitely.

Exactly. There are a lot of circumstantial aspects that leads to success which cannot be captured in advice at all. Those cannot be recreated, of course. 37Signals' advice is solid, but many times when they imply that its the best way to do something, I tend to disagree.

there are countless attempts to reinvent Carnegie's books, which are the reader's digest concept transformed to the action book. (of course, those books are well-writen and briliantly adopted to the mentality of a tupical army officer) It works well as self-advertisement when you have someone to listen. Most of the blogs are exploiting this simple idea. this is my 2c.

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