Translating bad advice

by Sophronius2 min read14th Apr 201517 comments


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While writing my Magnum Opus I came across this piece of writing advice by Neil Gaiman:

“When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

And it struck me how true it was, even in other areas of life. People are terrible at giving advice on how to improve yourself, or on how to improve anything really. To illustrate this, here is what you would expect advice from a good rationalist friend to look like:

1)      “Hey, I’ve noticed you tend to do X.”

2)      “It’s been bugging me for a while, though I’m not really sure why. It’s possible other people think X is bad as well, you should ask them about it.”

3)      Paragon option: “Maybe you could do Y instead? I dunno, just think about it.”  

4)      Renegade option: “From now on I will slap you every time you do X, in order to help you stop being retarded about X.”

I wish I had more friends who gave advice like that, especially the renegade option. Instead, here is what I get in practice:

1)      Thinking: Argh, he is doing X again. That annoys me, but I don’t want to be rude.

2)      Thinking: Okay, he is doing Z now, which is kind of like X and a good enough excuse to vent my anger about X

3)      *Complains about Z in an irritated manner, and immediately forgets that there’s even a difference between X and Z*

4)      Thinking: Oh shit, that was rude. I better give some arbitrary advice on how to fix Z so I sound more productive.

As you can see, social rules and poor epistemology really get in the way of good advice, which is incredibly frustrating if you genuinely want to improve yourself! (Needless to say, ignoring badly phrased advice is incredibly stupid and you should never do this. See HPMOR for a fictional example of what happens if you try to survive on your wits alone.) A naïve solution is to tell everybody that you are the sort of person who loves to hear criticism in the hope that they will tell you what they really think. This never works because A) Nobody will believe you since everyone says this and it’s always a lie, and B) It’s a lie, you hate hearing real criticism just like everybody else.

The best solution I have found is to make it a habit to translate bad advice into good advice, in the spirit of what Neil Gaiman said above: Always be on the lookout for people giving subtle clues that you are doing something wrong and ask them about it (preferably without making yourself sound insecure in the process, or they’ll just tell you that you need to be more confident). When they give you some bullshit response that is designed to sound nice, keep at it and convince them to give you their real reasons for bringing it up in the first place. Once you have recovered the original information that lead them to give the poor advice, you can rewrite it as good advice in the format used above. Here is an example from my own work experience:

1)      Bad advice person: “You know, you may have your truth, but someone else may have their own truth.”

2)      Me, confused and trying not to be angry at bad epistemology: “That’s interesting. What makes you say that?”

3)      *5 minutes later*. “Holy shit, my insecurity is being read as arrogance, and as a result people feel threatened by my intelligence which makes them defensive? I never knew that!”

Seriously, apply this lesson. And get a good friend to slap you every time you don’t.

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