Go out and err
The advice-seeking obsession
“What advice would you give your younger self?” might be the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.
I’m watching Charlie Munger being interviewed for the millionth time on YouTube. Great guy, still going strong at ninety-eight. I must have watched thousands of his interviews and, although I know some of his answers by heart, I still pay attention -- he has more wisdom in his pinky nail than I have in my entire being. The interviewer seems prepared, is giving the dialogue a nice rhythm, and is actually listening (a basic yet rare skill). Suddenly, he asks “What advice would you give your younger self?”, and I am as disappointed as when I catch a typo in a book.
Such a stupid question. Yet it gets asked all the time, especially in interviews with highly successful people (where highly successful is defined, by the values of today’s world, as rich). It has become kind of fashionable. Journalists love it.
If I am highly successful, I must have done something right in my life. Actually, chances are that I’ve done a lot right. Almost everything. Would I then advise my younger self to do things differently? If I did, I would risk ending up as a less successful person, or not successful at all. So I would just say “don’t touch anything, you’re doing great”.
You might object that this is just a way to frame the question, that your younger self really means any younger self. I get it. But my point here is not about that question per se, as stupid as I think it is. It’s that that very question is just the tip of the advice-seeking obsession iceberg.
People seem to be overly fixated with advice-seeking practices -- they send cold emails to billionaires, spend tremendous amounts of time trying to deconstruct their lives and habits, and would give a kidney to get the chance to talk to them even for a few minutes. Today, it looks like you can’t start anything without having first secured as many bits of advice from successful people as you possibly can. You should have a mentor whose word you should follow as religiously as an Apostle. Someone who will light the way, open their bag of tricks to you, and help you minimize the risk of making mistakes so that you can develop your professional life in the safest way possible.
I guess it has to do with this paranoia of having to optimize everything, with the (understandable) perception that we should take advantage of the immense amount of information that’s out there before making a move. After all, such wealth of knowledge and experience should be put to work somehow, or else we risk making the same mistakes that those who came before us made. It’s all about mitigating -- or eliminating -- risk.
But risk cannot be eliminated. It can only be assessed.
To get better at assessing risk, you have to have experienced it in concrete, real-life situations. The more these situations, the better your risk-assessment skills become. Translation: you have to be ready to suck at making decisions for some time, to get good at it. No life script will do that for you. Tough times are as unavoidable as turbulence on a flight -- you just have to go through them, no matter how many billionaires you were able to talk to.
My view is that mentoring and advice-seeking activities are way overrated, simply because they are useless. As there’s no shortcut to first-hand experience, they are a waste of time for both the advice-seekers and the advice-givers. Making mistakes is such an essential part of every human being’s learning journey that no advice could ever replace it.
I remember when I myself got asked that stupid question for the first time. This one was no interview, though, and I was (am) no highly successful person (I was/am not rich). It was a simple conversation with the son of a friend, one of the many I would often be asked to have as if I were some sort of an oracle -- Can you talk with my son? He’s gonna be off to college this Fall, and could use some advice from you. And so I premised that I was going to be honest.
Look, I said, if I had the chance to talk with my younger self, I’d say that he shouldn’t waste time seeking advice from older, more experienced people, as successful as they might have turned out to be. So, I continued, I won’t give you any advice. Actually, there is something I’d recommend you do: try to figure it all out on your own and make as many mistakes as you can in the process (and as soon as I finished saying this, I realized that I just gave him advice).
So, how did Charlie Munger reply? By telling a story about a twenty-year-old man who wants to know from Mozart how to compose symphonies, and Mozart tells him that he’s too young for that; so the guy replies that actually Mozart was ten when he composed his first symphony; “Yes, that’s true” says Mozart, “but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it”.
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Silvio, this spoke to me. At work, I find myself asking for advice in effort to mitigate risk. But it's the risk taking and the mistakes we make along the way that define the contours of our experience.
I smiled at the Mozart. I imagine it being said by the movie version of him in Amadeus!