Alternative Sources of Advice

May 6 2020

With slowly increasing frequency, I am asked for my advice on life or careers, or something similar. Let us put aside worries about this sign of my increasing decrepitude or the poor taste that some people show in those from whom they seek advice. The brutal truth is that most of the advice that I’ve received as an adult – nearly all of which has been well intentioned – has not been right for me. I therefore assume that any advice I might give others would be equally wrong, and so I try and avoid doing so. In this blog post, I will try to enumerate the problems I have with advice as it is commonly given and look at one way that we can do things differently.

In the context of this article, what I mean by “advice” is the guidance given by one adult (generally older) to others (generally younger) [1]. Advice can be solicited or unsolicited and it can come through many mediums such as one-on-one conversations, listening to a talk, or reading a book.

A common way that advice is given is as a series of commands such as “you should do X” or “you should never do X”. Commands can be expressed bluntly (“you must always do X”) or diplomatically (“in my opinion it is always wise to do X”); they can be general (“you should travel to as many places as possible”) or specific (“you should avoid person P”); and so on.

My issue is not with the form of advice-as-commands, it is that such advice is bad much more often than it is good. The reason for that is simple: most advice tends to generalise from a case of one (“I did X so everyone should do X”) or, worse, from a case of zero (more commonly referred to as “do as I say, not as I do”). The latter is so clearly foolish that it doesn't require explanation. However, I believe there are three issues with the former.

First, generalising from a case of one tends to lead to over-generalisation: if the only sheep I’ve seen happened to be black then I might confidently tell other people that all sheep are black. It took me years to realise how much advice falls into this category, and to have gained enough general knowledge to spot cases that are clearly at odds with reality.

Second, we inevitably generalise from our own back story, and our memories can be astonishingly faulty. I have seemingly clear memories of something happening in my past that other people have been able to definitively prove did not happen. More commonly, we forget challenges we faced in the past, overlook the times that we succeeded through luck rather than judgement, and exaggerate our contributions relative to others’ [2]. When we give advice, we take these faulty memories, generalise, and then simplify: it is hardly wonder that we often mislead.

Third – and there isn’t a nice way to say this – most of us have not led a sufficiently interesting life to be able to generalise from. Like everyone, I have faced challenges here and there, but compared to those faced by most people throughout history, I have led a comfortable, undemanding existence. Generally speaking, the fewer challenges we’ve faced, and the less demanding those challenges were, the less reliable the advice we derive from it is likely to be.

Real-world advice

Let me start with a real, though ludicrous, example. When I was doing my PhD, I was advised by a number of people that PhD theses must have an odd number of chapters. I was absolutely baffled by this but, since everything about the situation I was in was unfamiliar, I assumed that I must be missing something obvious. It took at least a couple of years before I had enough confidence to ignore this bit of advice [3]. Though I never found its source, I assume that someone saw a successful, and beautifully written, thesis that had an odd number of chapters and generalised from there. I was astonished to find only last year that a recent PhD graduate had heard this same bit of advice!

Arguably more dangerous than ludicrous advice is advice that is not just plausible, but which might be right for many people — but not us. For example, the most common advice I receive these days – perhaps two or three times a year from different people on average – is to write more research papers. I understand why I’m being told this. If you look at my list of publications, you’ll see that the number of papers I produce has slowed down from 2014 onwards — and that despite the fact that, after many years being a solo researcher, in 2013 I started leading a research group that’s never dipped below four people in size. I’ve come to realise that, when I’m given this advice, it isn’t because people doubt my work ethic, but because they assume that I’m doing something wrong and that if I only acknowledged that then I could be productive again.

What’s not obvious is that this is the inevitable result of decisions I made several years ago. In about 2012 I looked back at my past work and realised how little of it I felt proud of: I had too often been happy to aim for the mediocre. By the end of 2013 I had realised that I would have to consistently raise the level I was working at and had developed a rough plan to do so. Most significantly, I had decided that since the thing I enjoy most is programming, I might as well focus almost exclusively on research that required a good deal of programming. Since creating viable software systems is not a quick matter, I simply can’t produce a large volume of publications. This is not to say that the advice I’m given is wrong for other people, but it isn’t right for me given the niche I’ve chosen to focus on [4].

Generalising from other people’s experiences

When someone asks me for advice, what should I say? Perhaps I should advise them to grow up in the countryside to hone their focus? Make them realise that they can't learn properly in a class and that the sooner they plough through things on their own, the quicker they'll learn? That they'll be more efficient if they use OpenBSD? That they should study Entombed's Eyemaster until they understand why the point at 0:48, when the false introduction suddenly transitions to the dumb yet joyous main riff, is one of the pinnacles of musical achievement?

I could go on, but hopefully the point is fairly clear: I'm generally unsure what things I've done, or experienced, have been beneficial or not; and even when I am sure, it's generally because the observation is either trivial or hard to repeat. My favourite example of the latter came from the late Duke of Westminster, the UK’s then-richest man: when asked what advice he would give to a young entrepreneur, he replied “make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.”

What are we to do? Are we all condemned to learn everything from scratch? At best, that would be highly inefficient.

In my case, the model I have accidentally gravitated towards is to try and derive advice from (mostly) historical figures. This started in earnest my late twenties when I realised that I had very little understanding of continental European history and started studying the history of Prussia. At first, so much was unfamiliar that I was just trying to build up enough context to understand major events, places, and players. At some point, though, I realised that I had stumbled upon something deeper than that: I was starting, without realising it, to derive advice from history. That advice was not command-esque – “if you find a wooden horse at your gates, don’t let it in”, for example, is not very useful advice for me. Instead I was picking up a more abstract sense of the situations people can find themselves in and how they’ve chosen to address the problems they've faced — stretching the Troy analogy a bit, one might conclude that “if something seems too good to be true then, unless carefully investigated from angles, it can lead to disaster”.

I’m going to give you two concrete examples of people I learnt from. I’m deliberately choosing people who are long dead, from a country that no longer exists, and whose experiences were in a hugely different field than my own. Hopefully that makes it a little easier to see that there is no need to stick with the familiar when deriving advice.

I’ll start with Moltke the Elder, who led the Prussian army to victory in three separate wars in the mid/late 19th century, changing European and world history in ways that are still with us today [5]. It goes without saying that war has little direct relationship to computing research. Furthermore, Moltke was a cultured, reserved, man of whom it was said that he could be quiet in seven languages: I am a cultural heathen, can only speak English, and tend to bellow. What could I learn from such a fellow?

The thing that intrigued me most about Moltke was that he challenged a fundamental idea I had somehow imbibed, which is that it’s possible for the leader of an organisation to design and carry out a perfect plan. This is not to say that Moltke was not good at planning. He was, by some distance, the best military planner in the second half of the 19th century: he was the first to realise that railways allowed the unprecedentedly large armies he was commanding to be split up and combined on the battlefield. His focus on that alone would make him a major historical figure.

However, Moltke did two things very unlike most army commanders. First, he expected the situations he found himself in to be unclear and ever-changing: he knew that he would have to continually reevaluate and change his plans. It is hard to beat the summary found in two of his own quotes: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force” and “strategy is a system of expedients”. Second, he realised that when you are managing competent people, micromanagement reduces efficiency. He continually informed the generals under his command about his overall intent but allowed them significant flexibility in how they went about addressing that intent [6].

These two concepts changed how I wanted to lead a research group. First, I realised that while I might be able to have a fairly consistent high-level aim over time, the concrete methods I employed to meet that aim would change frequently and in ways that I would not be able to anticipate. I have therefore consciously tried to improve my willingness to be flexible, both at a day-to-day and at a strategic level. Second, if I wanted to get the best out of people, I would need to dampen my natural inclination to work in detail with people. This is not easy, because sometimes my age has led to experience which can make a big boost to someone else’s productivity, but it’s all too easy for me to forget to back off at the appropriate point. I’ve therefore consciously tried to back off sooner rather than later, and when possible not to get involved in the details at all. Inevitably, I have not always succeeded in implementing either of these concepts. Indeed, I have made some horrible mistakes along the way — but I think I would have made more, and much worse, mistakes if I hadn’t used the advice I’d derived from Moltke as a guide.

My second example reaches even further back in time: Clausewitz is more widely quoted than Moltke though, for me at least, harder to understand. His major contribution is On War, an unfinished, often abstract, book on the nature of war. The part of that which changed the way I think most significantly is his concept of friction:

Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction... Imagine a traveller who late in the day decides to cover two more stages before nightfall. Only four or five hours more, on a paved highway with relays of horses: it should be an easy trip. But at the next station he finds no fresh horses, or only poor ones; the country grows hilly, the road bad, night falls, and finally after many difficulties he is only too glad to reach a resting place with ... primitive accommodation. It is much the same in war. Countless minor incidents – the kind you can never really foresee – combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal. Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.
That first sentence baffled me for years, but when taken with the rest of the paragraph, three profound truths eventually made themselves clear to me:
  1. When we state a goal we wish to achieve, we simplify the route we expect to take, partly because we must and partly because we don't know all the issues we will encounter [7]. However, when we try and carry out that goal, those issues are more numerous and collectively more damaging to performance than we could have imagined.
  2. Chance is a significant factor in success and failure.
  3. Organisations are like mechanical machines: in the short-term we can make people work harder than normal but doing so in the long-term burns them out.

When written out like that, it can make On War seem a bit like a self-help book or, perhaps even worse, a case of generalising from a case of one. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth: Clausewitz's work is the result of generalising from many cases over many years. His observation of friction, his explanation of it, and his terminology for it are, for me, astonishing intellectual achievements. It fundamentally changed how I operate: I expect my plans to be disrupted in both time and direction; and, except in short, rare situations, I do not expect those disruptions to be solved by increasing people’s workloads. Put another way, I’ve realised that I’m involved in a marathon, not a series of sprints, and that I need to moderate my expectations of the route and my effort accordingly.

Summary

I’ve been given a lot of advice over the years, but I think that which I’ve derived from history has had the greatest influence on me. It has given me access to experiences and perspectives that I would never have come across in my normal life. Furthermore, it is rooted in experience: I continue to be amazed at the things that real people have achieved in adverse circumstances. It also seems to me that the more peoples’ stories that I read and understand, the more profound the truths that I seem to alight upon: generalising seems to involve some sort of compound interest that I don’t fully understand, but whose effects I hope continue!

For me, this alternative source of advice has been crucial, but it doesn't mean that you should suddenly start devouring Prussian history for similar lessons. It seems to me that the key is to seek out sources of advice in areas different to those we normally have access to, but the sources of advice that might resonate with you could be very different to me. For example, in the past I learnt a lot about how people deal with stressful situations through watching professional cricket, and more recently through professional road cycling. Others might find their most effective sources to come through very different avenues, such as fiction or film.

That said, I am not dogmatic enough to think that this technique is the only way that one should give or receive advice. For example, there are occasions when advice-as-command really is the right thing, especially when someone is about to do something actively harmful to their best interests. But, in general, when I'm asked to give advice, I try instead to tell people a bit about possibly relevant parts of my story. If some parts of my story give them a useful insight, then that is wonderful; if not, then I hope that someone else’s story (perhaps in conjunction with mine) might prove more useful to them at some point in the future. Fortunately, no matter who you are, and no matter what times you are living through, it seems to me that you can never seek out too many different perspectives.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Chun Nolan for comments.

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Footnotes

[1] There are other types of advice – notably the guidance that parents give children on a regular basis – but let’s exclude those from consideration.
[2] Inversely, humans have an astonishing tendency to ascribe all failures to other people’s malice. My failures have almost solely been due to my own stupidity; the remaining few have mostly been due to other’s incompetence or laziness, not malice.
[3] I had to double check this, but my thesis did end up with an odd number of chapters, so perhaps subliminally I did take the advice on board, despite thinking that I'd rejected it!
[4] Although I can’t be certain, my suspicion is that’s an indirect result of there not being many people working in the same niche these days: the idea that someone might voluntarily devote large chunks of time to programming is thus a rarer one in computing research than it used to be. Interestingly, in some non-computing research fields, the opposite phenomenon seems to be occurring. At its most extreme, there are 5,154 authors on the paper about the Higgs Boson experiments!
[5] None of this would have been possible without Bismarck. His influence on history might, perhaps, be greater than any other single person’s. I fear that the lessons one can draw from Bismarck are more powerful, but they are far darker. I sometimes think that the English-speaking world’s general ignorance of his approach is a good thing.
[6] The concept that Moltke pioneered ultimately developed into Auftragstaktik (the English term for this has become “mission command”, but that has never resonated with me: it feels both too specific and too easily misunderstood). Moltke motivated the need for devolved responsibility, though not in particular detail, and didn't push it down beyond the top ranks of commanders as later exponents of this concept did.
[7] When I wrote “Confusing problems whose solutions are easy to state with problems whose solutions are easy to realise”, I was covering fairly similar ground. I had read Clausewitz, and some associated work, by that point although I hadn't really understood much of it.
There are other types of advice – notably the guidance that parents give children on a regular basis – but let’s exclude those from consideration.
Inversely, humans have an astonishing tendency to ascribe all failures to other people’s malice. My failures have almost solely been due to my own stupidity; the remaining few have mostly been due to other’s incompetence or laziness, not malice.
I had to double check this, but my thesis did end up with an odd number of chapters, so perhaps subliminally I did take the advice on board, despite thinking that I'd rejected it!
Although I can’t be certain, my suspicion is that’s an indirect result of there not being many people working in the same niche these days: the idea that someone might voluntarily devote large chunks of time to programming is thus a rarer one in computing research than it used to be. Interestingly, in some non-computing research fields, the opposite phenomenon seems to be occurring. At its most extreme, there are 5,154 authors on the paper about the Higgs Boson experiments!
None of this would have been possible without Bismarck. His influence on history might, perhaps, be greater than any other single person’s. I fear that the lessons one can draw from Bismarck are more powerful, but they are far darker. I sometimes think that the English-speaking world’s general ignorance of his approach is a good thing.
The concept that Moltke pioneered ultimately developed into Auftragstaktik (the English term for this has become “mission command”, but that has never resonated with me: it feels both too specific and too easily misunderstood). Moltke motivated the need for devolved responsibility, though not in particular detail, and didn't push it down beyond the top ranks of commanders as later exponents of this concept did.
When I wrote “Confusing problems whose solutions are easy to state with problems whose solutions are easy to realise”, I was covering fairly similar ground. I had read Clausewitz, and some associated work, by that point although I hadn't really understood much of it.

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