What the Elves can teach us about advice

I came to an uncomfortable realisation: I only ask for advice when I don’t like the answers I already have and want someone to show me an easier way forward.​

That’s what I learned when I had an opportunity to spend an hour talking with someone whose work has significantly impacted my life.

Advice is a dangerous commodity.

I use the word “commodity” deliberately. Consider this definition I pulled up from Investopedia, emphasis mine:

“Commodities are most often used as inputs in the production of other goods or services. The quality of a given commodity may differ slightly, but it is essentially uniform across producers.”

I went across to Quora and asked, “How can I be successful?” Have a look through some of the answers. It doesn’t take long to spot the common patterns and themes amongst all the answers.

It seems like we all know the answers, but like myself, we still ask, because we think there is another, easier way. We imagine that there’s some secret and we’re being duped. Like when you’re in a group and everyone is in on the joke and they’re all laughing and you just stand there, half-laughing, playing along, pretending to understand.

Another reason we ask for advice? According to Athos, one of the three musketeers: “In general, people ask for advice,” he used to say, “only so as not to follow it; or, if they do follow it, it’s only so as to have someone to blame for having given it.”

There’s two reasons there.

The first is that when we ask for advice, we aren’t seeking advice, we’re seeking confirmation for what we have already decided to do. We see the obvious course of action, but we ask someone because we want them to see that we’ve seen it. We want them to say, “oh, how clever of you!” We want someone to pat us on the back for our incredible powers of reason.

Or if they disagree, we invent some reason why what they said is wrong.

I’ve been guilty of this. I’ll have a problem, decide how to confront it, ask Molly for her input, and then do whatever it was I decided to do in the first place.

The second is interesting. We ask for advice so that should we fail, someone is complicit in the failure with us. We ask advice so that we can share the uncomfortably heavy load of responsibility. We ask because if someone is in our corner and giving us counsel, the personal risk is somehow lessened. “If I’m going down, you’re coming with me” we say to ourselves.

Another aspect of advice is how we choose to ask. I assure you, this can make a big difference.

Taleb makes the point in Antifragile that you shouldn’t ask a financial adviser how you should manage your money, you should ask how he manages his own money.

Gerd Gigenrenzer has a similar approach when asking doctors for recommendations. Rather than asking what he should do, he asks what treatment would the doctor advise if it was his mother who was suffering.

These two examples raise a significant point about advice. When we give it, we have nothing at stake, so we can be careless. Unless the relationship between the asker and the giver is deep and strong, advice is given with little forethought for the specifics of the situation and the potential impact of it’s application.

There’s also different types of advice.

In Thinking and Deciding, Jonathan Baron describes the difference between three types of conceptual models: normative, descriptive and prescriptive.

A normative model is the ideal, the gold standard. Socrates is a normative model. So is homo economicus. We can aspire but can never reach them. A descriptive model is how something actually is. It illustrates real life behaviour. A prescriptive model is what we should do, how we should behave.

Advice is, in an ideal world, prescriptive. It tells us what we should do and why. But the catch is that this type of advice requires a complete grasp of the situation, of all the factors at play, of the potential payoffs and of our motivations in asking and in seeking a specific outcome.

Rarely does advice given satisfy this lofty standard.

Most advice is either so abstract that it is inapplicable to our situation. Examples: “Be a good person.” “Work hard.” “Do what you love.” They are great, but they require deep thought over many years. They raise more questions than they answer.

At the other end of the spectrum is advice that is so specific that it is non-transferable. This isn’t advice, it’s a logbook of events imparted without any analysis. Here’s what happened.

The best advice is somewhere between those two poles. Abstract enough to be transferable, but specific enough to be actionable.

But why do we need advice in the first place? Because pure empiricism is not a good way to live.

​Charlie Munger gave a commencement address at Harvard in 1986 called “Prescriptions for Guaranteed Misery in Life.” His second prescription was:

“to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement.

If we look closely, counsel on how to act and what to do and where to go can be fond in the writings and accounts of all that have gone before us. From them, we can learn the fire is hot without sticking our face in it.

Another man, Theodore Roosevelt, understood, like Charlie Munger, that other people’s knowledge and understanding far outstripped his in certain domains. But he played a different game. Rather than asking for advice, he would ask for information.

The difference is subtle but significant. He was brave enough to make the decision for himself and take responsibility for the outcome. The opposite of what Athos observed.

But perhaps the most memorable piece of advice about advice I’ve read comes from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo, who is waiting to leave the Shire, has been expecting Gandalf to arrive but he is two days late. He asks the Elves that have crossed his path what he should do. Gildor answers:

“The choice is yours: to go or wait.’
‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘(i)Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.)’
‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you?

Advice is to be considered, not relied upon. It is just one of many inputs that go in to making a decision. Your experience, the experience of the greatest and the worst to come before you, the counsel of close friends, this is all evidence we must weigh before we choose which course to adopt.

And choose we must.

Entire lifetimes could be spent searching and contemplating answers to the questions we ask. But that search has to be limited. At some point, we must make the transition from seeking advice to taking action, from seeking knowledge to applying it in the world around us.