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How I learned to stop giving advice (jamesavery.io)
266 points by javery on Feb 7, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 119 comments

I like some kinds of advice. I am a very recent founder who knows very little about a lot of things. But sure, there are two types of advice that annoys me, for one I learned to have patience for the other I learned to ignore.

I learned to be patient with who knows absolutly nothing about my business, my sector, my technology or startups in general. Friends of friends and relatives in general. It is good to have patience because most of time they give you ridiculous ideas (because they know nothing of your business), but every few times you realize you got a very interesting idea, something that you would never thought, precisely because they have a completely different background and experiences.

But the type of advice I learned to ignore are the ones from "experts". Such as the case of the OP. They are usually founders and mentors, both experienced and newbies. The problem is that they think they know what is your problem, and they know what would be the solution. And worst, usually the solution comes with a lecture about how you suck on doing something you obviously should be doing, ie, following a famous advice from a famous person: "get out of the building", "do something people want", recently the "do things that don't scale".

TL;DR If the advice comes from some random person and starts with "What if.." or "Have you tried...", be patient, you will hear a lot of nonsense, but sometimes it will pay off. But if the advice comes from someone who think they are better than you on what you are doing, and starts with "You are not doing X right.." or "you must do <famous advice> more", forget it, it is BS.

I like the term "Idea Fairy" - people who toss ideas that cost you time to analyze and refute, but who don't actually provide anything like time or money to implement them. It is good to keep an open mind, but if you pay too much attention to too many Idea Fairies, you'll never get anything done.

I've not had this experience personally. The odd start-up maybr but if i generally dont know the answer i'll be very honest about the advice i give. Most people i've mentored it's been either that they've never even heard the idea before or they've heard it but want someone to confirm it to stop them from going insane from their own doubt.

Mentoring isn't just about knowledge expertise it can often be about helping people gain perspective.

Last week I had a call with a new start-up founder. I didn't tell him anything new but the fact that i was able to be there for him to bounce ideas with him and help remove doubts or confirm trains of thought was invaluable for him and he wants to come back for more.

Do you mind explaining why you think such advice is BS? I assume there are at least some people who are exerts, or who have experience, who're worth talking to?

Not with a 10 minute talk. The point is the one the OP learned. Talk about their own lessons learned. When you read Paul Graham and Steve Blank you read someone who has passed through a lot and spent a lot of time thinking about it. So when you read one of these essays you can understand how that apply to your business. Is the same when you start a conversation with someone and he says "When I tried to sell to big corporates I did this and worked and I did that and that didn't work".

That is a good thing to listen to from an expert. I should have maked explicit in my comment that I thought it was a great thing to do from the author.

But the key point is that is always BS when the person you are talking to thinks he knows better about your business than you. And that there are some obvious thing you should and you aren't doing it that will fix your startup. This could happen with random people too - the same way an expert can be humble as the author new attitude - only is more common with experts.

I think the objective answer of why I think is BS is that an arrogant interlocutor, almost by definition, lacks empathy. If someone is sure about what your problem is, it is probably because he didn't actually listen to you, he is picturing you as a straw man and giving advice to it.

The objective answer of why I think is BS is that an arrogant interlocutor, almost by definition, lacks empathy

This is an interesting formulation, and I think there is something to it. "Fake" experts are (all to often) merely people with "too much self-esteem" and too little comprehension of context. "Expertise" is too often a crutch for those looking to assert some sort of claim to social rank or status. Or, polish their "brand" for future 'business opportunities'.

The flipside of the analysis, however, is the juxtaposition of "objective" with "lacking empathy". Both are two ways to de-emotionalize a subject, and it is a good rule-of-thumb to ask if what you are seeing is one or the other. Also, to make sure you have enough resolution to distinquish the two variations. After all, it is quite common empirically for people to become emotionally attached to home-grown ideas,[0,1] and this is in fact quite common with startup founders [2].

What is juxtaposed here are insiders and the outsiders both of which are fighting for credibility and influence. And ultimately, the prize of "being right". There are times when having high-powered incentives and/or low-powered incentives either work or don't work in bringing to bear a new light on the subject.

Ultimately one needs to be a ~visionary (not run of the mill), or truly from left-field.

[0] "Not invented here syndrome"

[1] There is an emprical behavioural bias about "switching" opinions, even on trivially important positions, provided that the information on the position has bee made public to a peer group.

[2] Which, if unchecked, classically leads to the installation of a new CEO.

I find something similar with parenting advice. When another parent says "you should do this" or "you're doing that wrong", as if they know your kid better than you after a five minute conversation, their advice is essentially useless [0]. They don't actually understand the situational dynamic, they're just imagining something that's vaguely similar and then giving advice based on their imagination.

But when they say "here are the things I tried in this circumstance, and here's how they went" then they're reporting their actual experience (rather than imagining yours) and you are able to take their actual experience and apply lessons learned to your actual experience.

[0] in aggregate -- while any given piece of advice may be helpful, other advice may be the opposite, and there is no reliable way to determine which is which.

This is why I always try to make a business case when filling out feedback forms. If I don't understand the business enough to know the ugly details of implementing the suggestion, I'm probably wasting their time with something they already rejected for non-technical reasons.

If you mean a form for user feedback, I think that's a different case. The point of a company soliciting user feedback is for them to gather information about what people who use their product want, so that they can make better decisions. The baseline presumption with user feedback is not normally that you should build whatever any user suggests, but that you should treat requests as raw data that needs to be aggregated, considered, filtered, and prioritized.

When I use a product, whether it's a blender or a website, the producer's business goals aren't really my problem. If I communicate to them at all as a customer, my only relevant area of expertise is how I use their product. (And possibly how I would like to use their product, if it were improved in some way I would prefer.)

So as someone who helps with website optimisation, If I said that perhaps you should increase the size of your font on your site from 13 to 14 if not 16 to make it more readable - http://conversionxl.com/9-key-steps-to-improve-website-reada...

Is that advice you would ignore or should I instead show you experiences or link to other sites who do something similar?

That's all very well, but often people haven't thought of whatever you might tell them. By saving them from possible offence[1] you're limiting what ideas they have available to use. When I was running a startup I was more than happy to hear the same advice and ideas over and over again from mentors because just occasionally you got something that was new that you'd not considered before. That was far better than being saved from listening to people who might be suggesting things I'd already considered.

Advice and ideas that came from proven and experienced people were often better and more useful but only because that meant I didn't have to spend so much time researching them to see if they might work for me or figuring out the potential pitfalls - the ideas themselves were no better or worse than if they'd come from someone "unqualified".

Regarding the 'impostor syndrome' problem, that doesn't really enter into the equation if the person listening to your ideas and advice is sensible. No one just blindly goes and does what someone outside of their startup tells them to do, regardless of how much respect they might have for that individual.

[1] Anyone who gets offended by someone offering well-meaning advice is an idiot and probably wouldn't have listened even if that advice was based on a mountain of prior experience.

> That's all very well, but often people haven't thought of whatever you might tell them.

I don't think the point was, "Don't tell them about things that might help them." I understood it more as, "Tell them things, but do it in reference of what worked in your experience. Then let them decide whether that might work in their experience."

Before: "You should try (this thing). It's awesome for (whatever it does) because (x, y, z)."

After: "At (my place), we use (this thing). It's been great for us at (whatever it does) because (x, y, z)."

Basically, you're removing the implicit assumption that you know better than the person you're speaking with about what would work for their business.

>Basically, you're removing the implicit assumption that you know better than the person you're speaking with about what would work for their business.

Bingo. I feel that that from a psychological perspective the way you word advice can dictate how well it's received.

"I think you should do X", or even worse "You're doing that wrong, you should be doing X" isn't generally something that people digest hearing that well.

"I've done X in that exact situation and it worked really well for me" can be much more palatable.

Sure, a person who can discuss how, in his experience, it's been possible to get clients to pay for X by doing Y, which to some extent overlaps with your domain Z is potentially offering you much more valuable insight than someone who simply asks "have you considered doing Y?"

But the usefulness of the insight you're able to provide is an essentially separate issue from coming across as a jerk who blithely insists they can fix others' business. It's possible to discuss your experiences with Y in great detail and still be that jerk (because you come across as assuming that experience must be relevant and your way of doing it was right), and conversely possible to have no experience of Y whatsoever other than reading an article on it and still be asking a very reasonable question

If someone thinks you're an asshole for simply for asking whether they'd considered a Salesforce integration, they're almost certainly the asshole.

If they ask for advice that is one thing; if it is offered "For free" it can be a huge pain.

Honestly; I've founded many different businesses over the past 20 years (of varying levels of success), and I get really tired of people telling me everything I'm doing wrong.

If I wanted to hear what I'm doing wrong, I'd call my parents or talk to the wife.

> If I wanted to hear what I'm doing wrong, I'd call my parents or talk to the wife.

Interesting because I think generally the experience is quite the opposite. Parents & spouses (never had one) tend to be over encouraging and much less critical. So I can see how you found that redundant since the critiquing was coming from another source in your life.

You have very different relationships with your parents than I have with mine, then.

It took 10 years for my mom to stop asking when I was going to get a "real" job.

You got what he is saying right? It want meant to be taken literally.

It probably depends on the person, but in my case, my parents' work life has been so diametrically opposite to mine that this rings quite true.

That's the basic intent behind Non-Violent Communications. Stating opinions and experience is fine, but when you start speaking for someone's (or their company's) interests, you end up crossing a line that causes the recipient to react negatively.

Nobody wants to be told what they are doing is wrong. They must choose to figure it out on their own.

When running a business; "wrong" is open to interpretation. There are a million things to do and you can't do all of them so you have to balance your time with other priorities.

It seems unlikely that after 10 minutes someone would understand your situation enough to be able to judge.

It's not advice at that point though - it's essentially brainstorming. I can't speak intelligently about if something is going to work for your startup or not because I have just heard about it 10 minutes ago. I can throw out random ideas and suggestions but in my experience that is much less valuable than sharing what has worked for Adzerk.

The basic idea I'm getting is that advice is meaningful and actionable when it comes from a place of domain expertise and prior experience.

"You should allow people to log in using Twitter" doesn't mean as much from someone that doesn't have experience or knowledge of running a system that uses Twitter to log in.

It might be a valuable idea, but it is an idea rather than advice.

Even still, phrasing the advice as a reference rather than a moral imperative can be productive. (Avoiding the word 'should', for example...)

Main quote from the article:

> "Members don’t give advice; they speak from priorexperience, letting you draw your own conclusions on how to best proceed.”

I can totally relate from when I was teaching programming or explaining math related stuff to other people. Telling what to do is like giving the solution right away: they will solve the problem but without making the mental connection for it to be able to reproduce the reasoning.

As a wannabe teacher, I just try to make sure people I teach encounter bugs, or make wrong computation, or biased proofs. He forgot a semi-colon? Good, let the compiler throw an error at him so that he actually gets negative feedback; if he does not understand what the compiler says, I'll help him get it and, when he fixes the typo and get the source to compiler, he'll get the positive feedback for himself.

There is a common bias when teaching. You don't expect to be waiting, so you try to drive people's thinking in the right direction. But good teachers make sure you don't give up in front of an error. Great teachers make you want to get errors.

Algrith, it was not exactly business-related, but I think it connects someway.

tl;dr: teaching is about catalyzing the process of encountering errors, not avoiding them

I remember a class back in tech school. The teacher sent us off for a break, mangled the insides of our work computers, and had us fix them. I think I got a loose video card. Someone else had to reassemble the whole thing.

We learned a lot from experience and observation. This was the same class where we had to plan a new server room together even though the course was aimed at desktop support. And the same teacher who had us break our Fedora installs just to see if we could fix them. That was where I got comfortable with Linux.

I have the same problem. I'm an asshole. I pray every day that I won't get anyone angry.

Last in date: I subscribe to a coworking space, and on Sunday I couldn't find the IP of the printer. The next Monday when the agent gives it to me, I immediately write it on a label on the printer, to help the next guy who would have the problem. She hates me since then.

Previous one. Accepted in a (young) incubator. I sat there and there's a cold stream of air in my feet. On day 3, I asked the president (they're just 6 volunteers) to take care of the heating (Well, members participate 350€ to the fees so I feel entitled). I has ass-kicked out and she discredited me to other colleagues.

So yes, I give advice, tell opinions, take initiatives, have requirements and more generally feel entitled when I should. It really is hard to balance between taking the room that you're entitled to while not hurting others. If you have experience to share, I'm listening.

The situations you describe.. I would have acted the same and cannot imagine anyone getting offended over it (as per experience from comparable situations). Did you find out why exactly you caused problems and what their feelings were and why? People can be hurt when they are made to feel incompetent or looked down upon, for example. Sometimes they have a bad day. Maybe it was the precious new printer and you put an ugly sticky label on it without asking (some people are like that with 'their' stuff). If you understand what exactly the problem is/was, you're half-way to fixing it and/or doing better next time.

(Note that I'm living in a hippy scientist bubble where you have to work hard to make people take something personal, so I'm playing on the easiest level.. (plus, young woman bonus))

Why would the agent hate you for labeling the printer with its IP address? I'm confused.

I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that he labeled the printer and everything to do with how he did it.

Agreed - a simple "Do you mind if I write this down? This way I won't need to bother you again next time!" wouldn't have done any harm..

Some people don't like other people fixing their stuff/problems. It hurts their pride.

That could have been her job. Also it's not my printer, I'm not supposed to change anything. Of course I'm half guessing since she didn't talk much with me after that first day.

Maybe she enjoyed the power of being the gatekeeper to the printer.

>I'm an asshole. I pray every day that I won't get anyone angry.

These two statements are in conflict.

The worst are assholes that know they are assholes and make no attempt to change, only warn you that they are in fact an asshole. Assholes are only tolerated, never respected.


I'm assuming you're referencing Jobs as an example of the type of asshole I'm referring to and not the exception. I doubt a single person respected Jobs because of his assholeness. They might re-brand it as being "passionate" or "disciplined" or "uncompromising" but most first hand accounts of his interactions were anything but positive.

People tolerated him because of his recent success but history was not always so forgiving to his brand of leadership.

I don't mean to imply that aragot is an asshole, but no, I would expect an asshole to say something along those lines.

> I would expect an asshole to say something along those lines.

An asshole doesn't care if they offend, irritate or otherwise cause problems.

But some assholes do claim to care. It's a clever way of avoiding blame, by saying "I don't _want_ people to get angry, so it's not my fault when they get angry at the horrible things I say or do."

Giving advice like this is awfully tempting. But I've learned that even if I am right, which I probably am not, it doesn't do any good. When I take my hard-won rule and follow it to a good outcome, it generally works not because of the rule, but because of all the thinking and experimenting I took to get to the rule.

What I try to do now is to ask good questions. If I suspect something is wrong with their business model, instead of saying, "You should do X", I'll try to ask questions that help them uncover the flaw in their thinking. Sometimes that actually happens. Sometimes they just aren't ready to learn the lesson, which is fine; maybe they'll remember the question. And sometimes I uncover a flaw in my thinking. That's valuable twice over: not only did I learn something about the domain, but I learned to be a little more humble.

And for the record, I started out writing that very comment in advice mode. I've been trying to correct that habit for maybe 3 years at this point. Changing behavior is hard. Especially behaviors with a short-term win (asserting status, getting to feel smart) and a long-term loss (irritating people, not helping them as much as I'd like, feeling like an asshole when I think back on my blowhard behavior). But given that I spent 30 years building the habit, as long as I break it in less than that I'll count it as a win.

Not just with startups, but with life in general.

It's good practice to not give out advice unless someone specifically ask for it.

The only time I break this rule is with my parents. Most people will not feel any gratitude if your advice turns out to be good.

They will, however, mentally blame you if it turns out to be bad advice, whether justified or not.

>It's good practice to not give out advice unless someone specifically ask for it.

Most times people just want to chat or vent. As engineers and hackers we tend to want to "fix" things, to come up with solutions. Most of the time people don't want unsolicited solutions or to be told what to do, they just want someone to listen.

Slightly off topic, I have a very dear friend who calls me up all the time to talk about his constant life drama. It seemed to me for a long time he was framing the conversation as looking for advice, since when advice was given the conversation seemed to move along rather well.

The thing about advice is it almost requires you to invest yourself a little in the other person's problem and advice starts turning into involvement, which can be frustrating when the other party doesn't follow the advice, as my friend almost never does. Over the years I found that he'd typically ignore good advice, get himself into trouble, come back for more advice/a way out of his disaster and then repeat until I was getting way too involved in his business. Which left me in a foul mood and our friendship on the rocks.

It's tempting for the receiver to take that advice/involvement as most people are looking for a little bit of help through problem areas.

But I've learned from him that it's often better to not get involved at all in other people's business, even if it's just advice,...no matter how tempting it is. They have to make the mistakes and learn from the experience themselves. And if they can't learn from that experience, maybe they shouldn't be involved in doing whatever it is they're doing.

This is really hard to do though, especially for engineer types who view the world as a sequence of problems. There's a lot of pop-sociology that men like to fix things and women like to talk about things, which is used to explain the constant need for guys to give advice, and often results in relationship counseling like "just listen to your girlfriend/wife, that's all she wants, she's emotionally processing".

I think it's a bit too gender biased so I've taken that idea and reworked it to "most people just want to vent or verbally process their issues". Just listen to them, nod a bit, if you have a similar situation try and and talk about it too, but don't focus on how you solved it, just dialog. For many people, it's about ordering their thoughts so the solution presents itself to them.

For my friend, he's started to realize where lots of his life faults are, and is slowly coming to the realization that they aren't good long-term things to carry around. He's looking at lots of digging to get himself out of some bad problems he's gotten into, so he keeps looking for an easier alternative/other way out. But letting him talk things out helps him see that he's really only got one choice, and it's going to take a long time to do it.

> I have a very dear friend who calls me up all the time to talk about his constant life drama.

There exists a certain type of person who believes deep down that this behavior serves as the basis of friendship. And more, that anyone not willing to listen is not a friend.

The sad part is that without the drama, they wouldn't really know how to connect to others. To someone who enjoys the notion of seeming supportive, compassionate, these ne'er-do-wells offer a unique opportunity to give constantly - one gives time, attention, advice, support, and it just disappears down a deep, dark well.

This is where "assistance" crosses over into "enablement". The most compassionate thing you can do is cut such a person off, and force them to deal with their drama on their own. They may feel isolated at first, alone, friendless. They will feel helpless and unable to solve their problems. But that feeling of helplessness is their primary problem - and it's not true. The human mind, every human mind, is powerful. In the depths of their despair, they can and will discover their agency in this world, and more often than not will emerge from their isolation with a newfound strength with which they may be able to participate in a relationship, rather than just consume the goodwill of others.

It may seem like self-serving advice, as listening to someone endlessly speak of their fears, doubts, injustices, etc is frustrating and annoying. But it is far worse for them - you only endure it on occasion, but this litany of negativity is constantly rolling around in their head. The real motivation of talking to you is that talking to you will get the words out of their head and make them stop. They aren't looking for advice, just the chance of a brief respite from the incessantly negative thinking. This is the same way in which drug users start using the drugs just to get a brief respite from the pain of not doing the drug. And the solution is the same: stop using, go through the horrible pain of withdrawal, and claim your dignity as human being. Then rejoice together, as real friends do.

It is gender-biased, since generally everyone is emotionally processing in some way or another. It's just that, typically (but not always), men have a habit of "fixing the problem" as a way to avoid emotional processing.

Before you can solve a problem or take action, you first have to accept that there is a problem and action needs to be taken. That acceptance is an emotional thing. It isn't a product of reason or intellect. It's not so much that men do not emotionally process, but rather, people who are not in tune with their emotions and suck at it will try to use reason to talk themselves into acceptance. And it never works.

For people who are more in tuned with the heart of things, watching someone like that is like watching someone going around and around in circles, using the wrong part of their consciousness. Furthermore, the only way to be in tune with your emotion is to acknowledge and experience those emotions. You cannot force someone to fully experience something. The powers of human denial and aversion are very creative.

However, once you've emotionally accepted that there is a problem and action needs to be taken, it is from there that reasoning and problem solving skills allows you to quickly get stuff done.

Mindfully listening to someone as they speak allows them to feel safe to touch those emotions within themselves. It's called "holding space". And this practice requires you to stop "waiting for the other person to speak". You are simply witnessing someone work this stuff out.

So here's an example of what I mean.

There have been countless times when I wanted to go up to an attractive woman and just start talking to her. But, I feared rejection. So usually I sit there, mulling over about it while watching her from the corner of my eyes. (Which is really creepy for the women). My mind comes up with any number of scenarios, reasons, narratives to try to get me to go talk with her. Or, perhaps, I try to come up with worst case scenarios.

I recognize now that, those thoughts I come up with are ways for me to avoid feeling fear that is arising in that moment. It was much more comfortable coming up with ideas or thinking about things than it is to touch that fear of rejection. I'm used to thinking.

These days, the attitude I have is simply that I'm being friendly, and there's no expectation of that. I'm making an invitation to be friendly and leaving it at that superficial chit-chat. Someone might decline the invitation, and that's ok.

To get to that point though, I've made deep dives into the fear, into the things this touches.

Being able to chit-chat with strangers is nice. What is nicer is when I come to a technical decision that involve things like cutting out code I've vested a lot of effort in, because it does not work. Rather than trying to come up with why it does not work, I now know how to emotionally accept that this needs to happen. Then I cut it away and move on to getting it done.

I've actually found tremendous comfort in the Litany Against Fear. One of the greatest verses in literature IMHO.


I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

After I hear it or say it, I feel icy cold and extremely rational. I'm aware of emotion, but it fades into the background and I'm "freed" of it to make decisions and think through complex problems.

I know. Lots of folks feel the same. The description itself is more or less how you learn to let fear arise and pass when practicing Vipassana.

Just reciting the Litany has never worked for me, but that has more to do with obscurations from my own mind.

I write to process my concerns, and usually come to a set of solutions from it. Some people talk for the same reason, and they need an ear for it.

I mentor alot of startups. This is exactly how I work. Also the peer to peer coaching i did with Joel from Buffer uses similar principles. we only asked each other prodding questions but never gave an actual answer. It was all about leading them to a discovery that could work for them.

Since I am looking for more external advice I would like to know how startups or companies usually recompense the advise?

It's a fixed fee per session. Some start-ups like to have a session every week/2 weeks, others prefer to do it on an ad-hoc basis. The pricing scales based on the size of the start-up.

If you'd like a free session as a trial you're most welcome. There's no obligation or commitment necessary.

Contact details: krmmalik.com/me

Are you describing a kind of socratic questioning ? I am just curious about your method.

I devised the system and iterated it with Joel. It was originally inspired by the "toyota way" but i've just read up on the socractic method which is very much like what we did. It's all about getting to the root cause of a problem and finding a way to eliminate it. The key thing is the discovery has to come from the person being questioned.

Hope that helps?

How would you rephrase your question so that your suggestion of Socratic Questioning isn't pushed into the answer?

eg: I'm curious about your method, could you give me an example or two of a prodding question?

To be honest our method sounds similar to the socratic method.

A simple example would be:

Person A: I have to fire my new employee, i dont feel i can do it

Person B:

- Why do you need to fire him? - Can someone else do it? - What would happen if you didn't? - Is it the method of firing, the person, or you?

etc etc

But obviously the questions adapt based on the responses.

Does that help? Happy to explain further via email or on skype if you like. Contact details in profile

How I learned that HN-whoring bloggers are deluding themselves to keep blogging.

Paul Buchheit said something similar at startup school years ago and I watch the video every once in a while to remind myself not to be similarly prescriptive when I meet new people.

His key takeaway slide was a simple equation:

Limited Life Experience + Overgeneralization = Advice

The full video has more info on how to get past the advice you hear and actually process feedback:


I'm very careful with advice. Even more so in personal contexts. The challenge is that there's a four square matrix of outcomes: they follow vs they don't follow; the outcome is a success vs a failure.

If they follow and have success they're a genius for evaluating options and coming to proper conclusions. You don't get any credit for the advice.

If they ignore your advice and it works out well then they just remember you're an idiot who can't be trusted.

If they don't follow your advice and things work out well they can resent you for the imagined "I told you so".

But worst is if they act consistently with your advice (or at least believe they have) and have a negative outcome. Your advice can cause people to avoid accepting their own agency in the outcome, and fail to learn key lessons while passing the blame to you.

Giving advice offers little upside with a lot of downside particularly in relationships you value. I like the suggested approach of talking anecdotally about similar situations in my own life or career, and my thinking and choices, and as far as possible some objective accounting for outcomes.

Humility and support is better than overconfident prescriptions.

This is a confusing article. He's giving advice about the best way to stop giving advice?

I didn't seem to find any imperatives even saying that you should follow the same method. So, in essence, he is doing exactly what the article says: telling his experience (about telling experiences instead of giving advice), and letting the readers figure it out if they will take any action based on that by themselves.

Fair comment.

The title is "How I learned to...", so I think he's following his own advice here.

It's confusing that you don't understand the difference of a blog that you have to click on and choose to read vs a personal interaction or meeting where you can't leave.

This reminds me of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Stereotype Woman wants to talk about her problems, for the sake of venting. Stereotype Man wants to offer solutions and fix things. Hilarity ensues and sitcom writers get rich.

I wrote "Stereotype" because all of us can be in either role. As a founder, sometimes you just need to vent to someone who can empathize. The only "help" you want is for someone to listen. You're not asking for fixes.

Whereas engineer/founders are especially likely to go into problem-solving mode automatically. Even when that's not really what someone wants, or needs from you.

EDIT: After writing this, I realized it's a bunch of unsolicited advice. So....yeah.

The older I get, the more I understand and believe the stereotypes in that book.

This is one of the reasons I decided to start up this blog again. I stopped blogging largely because I learned how much I didn’t know and felt I had no right to be telling others what to do when there are more knowledgeable people out there.

Thanks for that. I never started blogging although I wanted to, because whenever I write a blog post, I feel it's kind of obsolete already, because it has a view point that's too limited, too narrow. I "outgrew" my blog post in the moment I finished it.

Maybe by framing it as stories and experiences, they get more valuable.

I appreciate the humility in this post. I have often had much the same reaction the author mentions - annoyance with some asshole's "obvious" suggestions after thinking about something for three minutes that other people think about for large portions of their lives. And of course you can always come up with ways to make a fundamental lack of humility and empathy sound anodyne ("well who knows, maybe they didn't think of it!"). Good post.

A couple of things come to my mind when I start reading this.

It frustrates me when I start telling a story and people interject to try and solve a problem that I don't have based on a partial story. Sometimes I'm just relating an anecdote, there is no overall problem, I don't need 3 suggestions on what to do next. The next is already solved. You just haven't let me finish the story.

This is possibly not related but the article says to speak from experience. Can this be applied to job interviews? In previous interviews I've started with my experience stating what I've done in the past only to be interrupted and told they don't care about what I've done in the past, how would I do it in the future. When I explain my approach to Project Management or QA Testing, or whatever, sometimes I get asked if that's how I've done things in the past and when I say yes the interview is very short.

Maybe that second paragraph is how I phrase things, but if you've got experience in a subject matter you're going to base what you would do, on what your experience has taught you.

Sometimes it sounds like people want a completely new process that's never been done before, or at least isn't attributed to some other company having done.

I don't take advise from guy's who come from rich families. Yes--it might sound like envy, or class warfare, but I have found their world is very differnt than mine. What worked for them usually won't work for me. My world is loaded with wealthy know-it-alls. They always leave out the part where Daddy paid for this, or that--or the family lawyer quietly set up everything. I have found one truth; It seems like the most ingenious ideas, and talent came from individuals with modest upbringings. This goes 10 fold for artists and writers. I once hear George Soros complain that his writing isn't taken seriously because of his wealth. I read some of his rants and that's not the reason George. At least you were honest about how you made your money though? (George Soros is one of the 1 %'s). I once heard the best advise is no advise. I think that is way too extreme. I just wish people with the real talent, or insight would step forward. But no, they always seem to be at the back of a room, or quietly trying to hold on their own sanity. Yea--but this is about programming, and basking in the glory of a great Start-Up. The Gold Rush?

The following kinds of interactions are useful to founders:

1) Simply talking about another person's startup with them for more than an hour makes that person feel like they are not alone in a world seemingly filled with Googlers and Facebookers. I think the feeling of solidarity here sometimes even trumps whatever silly advice you might be giving.

2) Making meetings feel more like brainstorm sessions helps. I think there is value in "experience" and "expertise" or even just raw intelligence. I'm pretty sure that it's wise to listen to PG's thoughts on your idea even if it's to sharpen your views and beliefs. But the key to these being productive is people asking questions, thinking from first principles and being honest about the experiences they are trying to relate to each other. Needless to say people shouldn't force things on founders and founders should be smart enough to test things quickly and discard them if they are silly.

Good stuff, @javery. But you know I'm always down to hear your advice, or stories, or whatever!

That said, the biggest thing I agree with here is this: You can't really gain a proper appreciation of someone's problems, their thought processes, and the full context of what they've already tried, thought of, discarded, considered, reconsidered, etc., in a few minutes. Of the "annoying" advice I've gotten, it's usually been the kind that leaves me going "Dude, that totally has nothing to do with the business we're in" OR "Yeah, yeah, we already tried that and it doesn't work" or whatever.

That's why I like your (current) approach. I pretty much never mind hearing somebody relate a story, and if it isn't helpful, well, whatever. But at least it doesn't present the air of presumptuousness and arrogance that just blasting into "oh, do this" and "oh, do that" does.

Furthermore, narratives are powerful ways of communicating. In the old days, we had teaching stories around the campfire. We have folklore, myths, and origin stories. These days, they are now novels, and inspirational speakers relating experiences.

It's fun to sit around a campfire in the dark, though I suppose the smell of coffee is a good substitute :-)

To followup on my comments above and respond a bit to some of the other comments. I used to do exactly what that guy did a lot, though the advice I dispensed were not with startups.

Now, I am relating from my experience, partly because I have experience to relate to, and partly because the attitude I assume is one of offering or making available the experience. It's an invitation to hear it, rather than me trying to be a hero and fix something that's wrong.

One tricky thing is that it doesn't appeal to everyone. There are a class of people who are so inside their own narratives, they resent it when someone brings up their narrative. They feel that I am trying to horn in on their drama.

Typically, these days, I've been practicing the acceptance of people as they are, right now. If someone actually asks me for advice, I do the best I can. I still sometimes slip and say something, but (with the kind of inner work I am doing) that has been becoming less and less frequent. It does screen out the people who are still inside their drama; I watch them, practice compassionate witnessing, and just let 'em be.

I like your approach, and you've helped me understand something just now about the 'invitation to hear'. The 'inside their own narratives' makes sense too.

The talk "How I learned to stop fixing and start facilitating" from DareConf 2013 [1] really describes the core issue here very well.

No matter how much you want to, you just can't always fix things for people in the small interactions that you have with them.

And even fixing it for them isn't actually helpful unless you'll be there in the long run to take that responsibility for them.

That's why, even though it's hard and will make you feel less powerful, all you can do in these small moments is facilitate.

It's about not asking the question "How should (s)he fix this?" but "What can I do in this amount of time we have together to have the greatest positive impact on you?"

[1] http://2013.dareconf.com/videos/wachter-boettcher

I'm a member of EO (entrepreneurs' organization) to which he referred in the article. He's referring to the "gestalt protocol". You can read more about it here: http://www.chiefoptimizer.com/357/entrepreneur/gestalt-proto...

Another value is, when speaking in a group (we call it 'forum'), experiences benefit everyone who listens whereas advice is only applicable to the intended listener.

An illustrative example is "I did X and Y was the outcome" vs. "You should X".

Sometimes we find it limiting however, and ask that people not use the gestalt protocol. That's the exception to the rule.

That link is a 404, both in your comment and in the updated post.

odd. it worked when i posted it and it's still in google search results. maybe they pulled it today. here's another one: http://www.stathakis.com/blog/leadership/bid/320702/What-is-...

I believe I learn nothing from failure, and a ton from success. When something fails, I don't know if it was a bad idea, bad execution, bad timing, the wrong people, etc. When something works, I generally learn a ton and it inspires other good ideas.

It is not until you have racked up a bunch of failures and successes that you realize an idea braindump isn't particularly helpful. When someone starts offering a braindump of ideas, I generally assume the person just hasn't had a bunch of success and failures that are relevant.

I think the author's change is natural, as you can't say "Here is what worked for us..." until you have actually had some wins.

isn't this actually veiled advice-giving, i.e. "don't give advice" ?

I think the author's point is more along the lines of "don't offer ideas veiled as advice" and that advice is rooted in experience.

EO (where the OP first heard of this concept) was life changing for me.

The key thing that I learned was that gestalt (as Don't Give Advice is called in EO) helps conversations stay positive rather than defensive. When I receive advice, I sometimes perceive it as "why haven't you done this yet" and my internal response might be "hey, I'm friggin' busy'

Experience sharing gives me the opportunity to say, "hey, that makes sense. I'd like to do [X] and can you help me explore how to do it?"

Since EO, my conversations, both on the giving and receiving end of advice, have been far far more productive.

>"such an asshole", "had the nerve", "What an asshole"

In my experience, only the most cocksure of people would react to the kind of simple brainstorming suggestion cited in that way.

Perhaps those people are over-represented among those who have self-selected as entrepreneurs and this is appropriate for that context.

For dealing the rest of the world I'll go ahead and be a flaming asshole by advising that learning to stop being mortally offended by well-meaning, benign suggestions might be worth looking into.

I dunno. If you don't know what you're talking about, its that much more important to talk about it. Otherwise, you'll forever be ignorant.

It sucks when you talk about something and then learn that you're an idiot. But more importantly, you _learn_ that you're a dumb idiot, and then you try to do something about it.

Teaching someone else (even if they know the subject better than you) is sometimes the best way to learn a subject.

So continue being the dumb guy who gives advice. It helps you become smarter.

His whole post is one long advice :D

Actually it isn't - it's a story about how I learned to better help others. :)

It's great advice not to be that type of asshole when you've done nothing, but it's also true that one of the pillars of YC success is someone who doesn't necessarily know your niche telling you what you're doing right/wrong.

Sometimes advice is about the niche, sometimes it's about time management, time-to-market, hiring, firing, whatever. The answer has to be about balance - sometimes you know better, sometimes you don't.

Is it just me, or does any one else here actually enjoy brainstorming solutions to issues, even if the issues are my own?

I think the difference is that if someone gives you advice you don't agree with, it's important to (politely) say why you see things differently. Perhaps the problem is less that people share their advice, and more that there is a reluctance to engage with others to work something out. I really enjoy a good debate.

This is a really good, thoughtful article. I've had the same experience as more founders reach out and seek advice, but rarely do I strongly suggest a path that hasn't already been considered. Even if they disagree, just telling them to go a different way for xyz conceptual reasons isn't going to change their mind. Given them specific experiences to compare against is much more effective.

Thanks for putting this out there.

This impatience to project my own point of view onto everything cost me a lot. I don't dismiss my ideas now, but I try to investigate people's history and current state of affairs. Maybe they didn't think about it, but even then, they're not in a position to handle a change, or even the idea of a flaw that may be fixable.

This is probably why speakers at YC tell stories based on their experiences - and thus do not just give blanket advice.

This is very similar to the tactic Ben Franklin would use to avoid mindless back-and-forth arguments with people that put ego ahead of rationale. He'd simply try to show by example and leave it at that. I'm not sure it works very well online all the time, but in person it does work, IMO.

Giving advice doesn't make OP an asshole. In fact, listening and making adjustments to a life strategy is one of the hardest things to do on a personal level, in my opinion.

Glad to see you are blogging again and quite effectively at that. This was at the top spot on HN this morning.

Unsolicited advice are a pain in the ass 99% of the time.

The biggest problematic with advice is that you gave them against information you have received. Vision is much more than a few sentences.

Outsiders' short-term advice are most of the time contradictory to long-term vision.

"But the key point is that is always BS when the person you are talking to thinks he knows better about your business than you. And that there are some obvious thing you should and you aren't doing it that will fix your startup."


James, have to say that I have shared this notion. I stopped taking meetings a little while ago for this reason. I think this is a great experience that you have related here, and I love the conclusion you arrived at.

I don't think this guy was being an asshole for offering advice when people sought him out as an expert. Perhaps he is being more tactful with his new approach, but he definitely wasn't being an asshole imo.

Though I agree, I think many people mistakenly interpret direct suggestions as being commentary on the junior-person/company Y's flaws and might be seen as more aggressive (asshole-ish)than having a senior-person/company X point out their own flaws. That makes X seem more humble, and more importantly, depicts success in the face of struggle as more attainable. I really think that's what provides the most benefit from his new approach; successful person/company X is not some mysterious deity that simply exists, it is the product of actions taken throughout the same process junior person/company Y has recently faced, is facing, or will face. Junior person/company Y may make, or have already made, different decisions or actions at various steps and, for better or worse, will be different because of it.

Listen to everyone and do what I find best, this has been my philosophy in life. I hate self-helps, I think you are better off not trying to tell people your way of live thinking them to follow. Crap!

Wow. This is a really interesting article, probably the most I've seen for a while on here (guess you can see what I value). I've been on both sides of this issue.

Thanks for the post.

You sir need to read "How to Win Friends ... " ... what you describe/realized is but a basic communication rule .... though you describe a nice result ...

I guess this is good advertising for Adzerk, I never heard of that and never knew there were that many people banging down the door to get at its founders. Interesting.


I saw a lot of advice in that article, but not one recount of an actual experience where it worked well.


isn't this a sort of indirect form of advice? reminds me of this: http://imgur.com/NIqQB

Adzerk ? Seriously!

fixable by sticking to a simple rule: never give help (including advice) nobody asked for.

One last one to end them all.

advice is opinion, experience fact

Good advice +1

There is a related phenomena called 'well actually'.


Heh. Some people I follow on twitter often get people responding to their jokes and intentionally non-factual tweets with "Well, actually…". Which led to their labeling this practice "#ACTUALLY" and the people who do it "#ACTUALLY twitter".

I really dig how people are starting to nail the social tone-deafness and misplaced pride in trivial knowledge this involves. It doesn't mean you're smart, it means you're dumb in a way you probably don't even grasp.

also known as Oppositional Conversation Style http://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/09/ever-...

Nice diary entry. How'd this get to the top of HN?

I’m guessing a lot of readers feel that this is helpful information to keep in mind when they are asked for help by others.

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