How to Recognize Bullshit Advice
Updated: Jul 22, 2019
Good advice has two qualities: It’s true. And it’s useful.
Bad advice fails on one of those axes.
And bullshit advice fails on both.
T.A. McCann, a serial entrepreneur who’s built, advised, and invested in a bunch of startups, once suggested that I create custom lead-scoring algorithms at my startups because every successful startup he’s been involved with had a custom lead-scoring algorithm. Of course, it’s not true that every single startup that’s ever succeeded has had a custom lead-scoring algorithm. But—as a general principle—creating one can make it easier to succeed.
T.A.’s pattern recognition doesn’t mean he’s automatically right. But his odds of being right go way up. That’s worth taking seriously. (As it turns out, his advice was well-calibrated to reality in my experience, too.)
His advice was useful because I could apply it. He talked me through the steps of creating a custom lead-scoring algorithm, so - by the end of the meeting - I knew exactly what to do next.
Good advice is both true and useful. Bam.
So when someone makes a suggestion, I ask:
Why do you believe that’s true?*
What are the specific next steps I need to take to put this advice into practice?
The answers to those questions help me evaluate the advice.
I’ve found that roughly 20% of the advice I receive is good, and 80% is bad. That’s been true across conversations, within a single conversation, and sometimes even within individual snippets of advice.
I always want to learn whatever I can - even from bad advice. Let’s unpack that.
Someone who will remain nameless once told me that the goal of a startup is to survive through the next round of funding.
Capital is often necessary but insufficient for startups to succeed. This advice leads founders to shoot at the wrong targets and miss the right ones. Moving from round to round is a great way to feel successful while failing slowly.
This advice wasn’t true, but it was still useful.
Capital can be necessary for some startups to succeed. And founders have to hit benchmarks between rounds to raise the next round.
So when s/he-who-shall-not-be-named told me that the goal of every startup is to survive through the next round of funding, I extracted the 20% that might be useful while discarding the untrue parts. I learned: Set realistic benchmarks and timelines for fundraising, so lack of capital doesn’t kill the opportunity.
Someone else once told me to reply to all networking emails immediately because social capital is valuable.
The core of this concept was true: social capital is valuable. And seamless communication keeps social capital flowing.
But the advice wasn’t useful. One glance at email (or social media or the news) degrades cognitive function for 20 minutes on average. So - if I check email more often than every 20 minutes - I can’t sustain focus on cognitively demanding tasks. I might have mountains of social capital, but I can’t build anything worthwhile.
This advice was true but not useful - at least at face value. But I could still learn from it.
When s/he-who-shall-not-be-named told me to reply to all networking emails immediately, I learned: be aware of how communicative speed impacts social capital. So I started prioritizing and batching emails every day. And I disregarded the part about replying immediately.
Of course, if something is untrue and useless, it’s bullshit.
Even bullshit advice teaches us something meaningful about the person who’s giving it.
So what about this post? Was it true? Was it useful? How could it improve? Please let us know in the comments.
*I evaluate the level of evidence behind each claim using the following levels of evidence:
Is this fabricated from thin air? If so, behavioral economics tells us that following this advice will underperform randomness.
Is this conventional wisdom from the startup world? If so, it might be better than making something up, but I discount it heavily. Startups fail at astronomical rates, so standard wisdom from the space should be taken with a pile of grains of salt.
Is there an internally consistent rationale behind the advice? This is starting to move in the right direction, but evidence is better.
Is this a single anecdote from one person’s experience? This is better than no evidence, but it’s still weak.
Is this based on a pattern of direct experiences? Now, we’re moving into stronger territory.
Can multiple people confirm this advice based on patterns across all of their direct experiences? Now, we’re in a zone that we should take very seriously.
Trying to get more rigorous than that isn’t useful on a day-to-day basis. Founders get so much advice that we have to use some shortcuts in evaluation.