“Too much knowledge can make a person too old, too soon.”
– Old proverb
It’s amazing how much we can learn from other people. In fact, imitation is one of the primary ways in which humans learn. Just by reading a free article like this one, we can gain insights that can potentially change the trajectory of our lives.
Many of us are on a constant pursuit of these insights. And I think that’s a good thing. But there is something we are all missing in this knowledge-porn we engage in online. Like regular porn, there are side-effects. And I have learned that the hard way.
From an early age, I was thinking ahead and philosophizing about the future. I was determined to figure out how I could get to the life I wanted as quickly as possible. I didn’t just want to know how to be successful, I also wanted to understand how to live a good life — to find what’s actually worth pursuing in the first place.
I learned to follow advice from people who had gone before me, mostly through reading books and listening to my role models speak in interviews and podcasts. But I also found mentors in real life.
Now that I have lived through most of my twenties, I have enjoyed many benefits from taking advice. But I’ve also experienced the side-effects of relying too heavily on it.
It turns out, I am not the first person to learn that lesson.
In his book Siddhartha, Herman Hesse lets us follow the life of a young man who will later become the Buddha.
In the story, Siddhartha leaves his best friend behind after they have traveled together to join the following of a Holy Man who is said to have reached total spiritual enlightenment (Nirvana).
This happens after Siddharta notices a contradiction in the Holy Man’s teachings:
“This is what I have thought and realized when I have heard your teachings, this is why I am continuing my travels — not to seek better teachings, but to depart from all teachings and all teachers, and to reach my goals by myself, or die.”
Siddhartha realized that no matter how perfect the wisdom, there was still something inherently missing: the experience that led to that wisdom. Without the experience, the teachings would always be somewhat hollow and lifeless. That is why he moved on: to live, to experience, to end up with his own teachings.
I have noticed the same thing about my own life.
The knowledge I’ve gained from experience is like a foundation that I no longer need to revisit in order to trust. It has become part of me and how I view the world. Regardless of how good or bad the experience.
The knowledge I’ve gained from taking advice is still knowledge, but there is often something missing. It is like the mind knows something is true, but the soul has no idea and still desperately wants to know.
Worst case scenario, this can turn into regret.
Advice is another person’s conclusion on an experience they’ve had. That’s it. We all know how complex the world is. So inferring causation from correlation is near impossible most of the time. A single person’s assessment of an experience is rarely accurate.
The truth is that even if plenty of people have been in your situation before, no one has been YOU in your situation before.
Advice is also limiting. It is conservative in nature. It says: this is the way things have been done before… this is what’s possible. But no one actually knows what’s possible!
With this in mind, I have figured out an important distinction in the utility of good advice.
Good advice that’s generic and broad sounds useful but contains too many variables. Broad advice is usually associated with big life decisions, intended for guidance on a macro-level.
An example of this is to generically say: “everyone should go to university and get a degree”. It sounds like good advice, but it doesn’t apply to any specific situation or person.
For it to be useful, good advice must be specific and contain few variables.
In this case, good advice with fewer variables would be for one person who has already gone to a specific school, to say to another person who is planning on going to that same school: “In this program at this specific school, you should do x to improve y of your experience there.”
When I look back at the times in my life when following advice turned out to be the right thing to do, I notice a pattern. From this I have come to the following conclusion:
Good advice should only be used to more successfully have the experiences we already want to have.
We tend to look for broad advice to guide us through life. But the more we rely on advice to make choices about what experiences to have in the first place, the more something dies inside of us. We need other tools, such as intuition, for that.
We should only listen to good advice about specific things that could improve the quality of, or help avoid things that could get in the way of the experiences we already want.
Goals are ultimately experiences, too.
I want to run a hugely successful company, for example. Achieving that by both objective and subjective metrics is a goal. But the process of building and running that company is still an experience.
In contrast, here is when not to listen to good advice:
We should not listen to good advice when it will prevent us from having the experiences we want to have in the first place.
This seems obvious. But keep in mind, we don’t understand ourselves very well. Many of the things we truly want are challenging and our mind is actively looking for excuses.
Good advice is the best possible excuse not to do something, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
In the words of sex-architect Ted Mosby:
“Sometimes, even when we know something is a mistake, we’ve got to do it anyway.”
That is what I have learned.