Keep Doing What Doesn’t Work

I often think about the usability of advice versus its “absolute value.”

For instance, let’s say I ask you “What’s the fastest way to get to San Francisco?” You could answer “fly the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird” and technically be correct. You would also be wildly unhelpful, since there’s zero chance of me doing that. More practical but less “technically correct” advice would be to book a non-stop flight on a commercial airline.

In that example, it’s easy to see the difference between the “best” answer and the most helpful answer. It’s not always that easy, though. One of our big hangups is when we give advice that is both good in an absolute sense, and easy for us to follow personally, but that the person receiving the advice can’t utilize fully for some reason.

Here’s an example: you’ve lost a lot of weight and gotten healthy lately, and your friend asks you for advice. You tell them that you joined a gym with a pool because swimming is super good exercise, and you went swimming every day. This is good advice, and it clearly worked for you. Your friend, however, is deathly afraid of water.

The advice is still good in the “absolute value” sense. But your friend can’t use it. Now, you can try to force the issue by trying to convince your friend that a fear of water is unfounded, that logically they’re in no danger in an indoor pool in a gym with a lifeguard on duty, and that their phobia is standing in the way of their progress. And you’d be wasting your breath.

Instead, just give them the best advice that’s actually useful for them. That might be #4 on the actual list, but if it’s the one they can use, it’s the best one.

A really common version of this that I encounter follows this pattern. Let’s say Bob comes to me for advice. Bob says, “I’m doing X, and I’ve been doing it a hundred times a week for 6 months, and it isn’t working. Help me out here.”

I say: “No problem. Stop doing X; it isn’t working. Instead, do Y and you’ll get good results.”

And then Bob says back: “But that’s really strange! All the standard wisdom says do X!”

I used to get really frustrated. I used to waste a lot of breath trying to explain to people the faulty logic of telling me that X had been failing again and again but then defending it as a good option because the “conventional wisdom” said to do it. I used to try to actually get into all the deeper reasons behind why X might have been a good idea once before, but times have changed, blah blah blah.

That didn’t help me, it didn’t help Bob.

Here’s what I started saying that helped a lot: “Okay, then keep doing X too. Just also do Y. That way you get the best of both worlds.”

In this case “keep doing the thing that isn’t working” actually became good advice, because it was the only thing that made them also do the thing that would work. The sunk cost fallacy and “conventional wisdom” bias are both huge influences on people’s ability to think clearly, so instead of fighting it, just work around it. As long as the thing that isn’t working isn’t directly countering the thing that will work, doing both is fine. They’ll gradually abandon X when they see Y is working all on their own.

Give the best advice someone can use, and help the person they are.

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