Learning to think for yourself (aka. the problem with ‘how to’ advice)

Advice is everywhere, everyone has an opinion. It’s what to do with it that’s hard. If we really want to become our best selves, then we should stop listening to what everyone else tells us and start learning to think for ourselves. Let’s explore what that means, including the problem with “how to” advice and the benefits of becoming an independent thinker in a complex world.

Don't tell entrepreneurs what to do, help them think

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter… When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

Solitude & Leadership, by William Deresiewicz

The problem with (most) advice

It’s not that we don’t all need good, timely advice. We can’t know everything! But it’s really important to be discerning. Almost all the literature, and there is plenty of it, provides prescriptive solutions based on previous experiences. It mostly goes like this:

How To
Do these 3 things…
Avoid doing these 3 things…
Adopt these rules to…
This secret formula will guarantee…
These 5 steps will guarantee…
Follow this [Playbook / Blueprint / Formula] in order to…

The inference is simple: ‘follow this advice and you’ll be just fine’. But for the complex task of business building, there are no hard and fast rules, no secret formulas, and certainly no guarantees.

Any advice comes with nuance that’s rarely discussed by the authors. Advice is always highly context dependent: just because a particular strategy, tactic, or other course of action led to success in the past, doesn’t mean that it was the only reason for previous success, that it will work again in the future, or that it accounts for luck, randomness or other features of the complex world we live in.

Here’s what three experienced founders, executives and investors have to say:

This is what’s wrong with most of the business literature as they try to put it into some framework like here are the three steps you need to go Good to Great, be a Built to Last , or whatever Jim Collins says. Because it’s not like… it’s very situational. It’s very specific to your company and your product and your market and your people and all these kinds of things.

And so, yes, the things that you are doing, you have to understand it at a different level [emphasis added]. There’s not the ABCs of building a company. You can follow the 30 steps of building a company that anybody puts out and get nowhere all the time.

Ben Horowitz, on the Masters in Business podcast

In my fourteen years on the executive team at Netflix, we constantly faced such daunting growth challenges, sometimes existential ones, and in technologies and services that were pioneering. That was no playbook; we had to make it up.

Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, in Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility (Amazon UK, US)

You can ask for tips, but you can’t adopt someone else’s approach in aggregate. More than anything else, the journey of building a company is really the construction of your own one-of-a-kind playbook to build a team, culture, and product.

Scott Belsky, in the introduction to A Dozen Lessons for Entrepreneurs (Amazon UK, US)

Thinking for yourself

Much advice caters for solving technical problems. That’s helpful and necessary, but even then (broken record alert), it’s important to remember that all advice is context dependent and, just because something worked in the past, doesn’t mean it will work in the future. Here’s some questions to ask yourself next time you read a “How To” article:

  • Who is giving it? Are they reputable?
  • What’s the context against which this advice was written? Is it relevant to me and my business right now?
  • What about this article do I agree with? What don’t I agree with?
  • Which bits are helpful and might I want to use? Which bits aren’t relevant and do I want to ignore or discard?
  • How might this article be wrong?
  • Is this advice to black and white? How might I think about this in a more nuanced way?
  • If I follow this advice, what might the second, and third, and fourth order effects be?
  • Thinking about the answers to all these questions, what do I really think and what am I going to do?

How to think for yourself, by Paul Graham.

Reality Without Frameworks“Reality is messy and disorganised. Frameworks are anything but. Frameworks promise to bring order to reality in pleasing ways. They blunt the chaos and give you buckets with which to categorise your observations. Frameworks are so compelling to the human mind because the mind is a sense-making tool, and sense-making tools abhor not making sense of information. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that frameworks feel like they are the Right Way To Think About Things™”.

Using the Cynefin framework to become a better leader in a complex world explores a different approach to leadership, to help you navigate a complex, not complicated, world.

What’s the difference between a coach, mentor & therapist explains why, like any high-performing individual, new leaders need to wrap a professional support team around them to give themselves the best chance of success.