field notes

21 pieces of unsolicited advice nobody else is willing to tell you

On New Year’s Day I happened to read this lovely blog post 100 Tips For A Better Life (which is not at all as generic as the title makes it sound) while having my first coffee of the year; and I thought—short pieces of advice without too much exposition, I could do that.. and I should do that, as an exercise in deviating from my default of extreme long-windedness.

By no means do I feel at all qualified to be handing out advice; but I don’t think that matters too much in the end. Good advice resonates with you in the moment when you most need it.

Hence: 21 pieces of advice to kick off 2021! Regarding the “nobody else is willing to tell you” part, I realized that’s the kind of advice I felt most compelled to include. So I’ve excluded things that everyone else would also tell you to do (exercise, get enough sleep, etc etc.); and I’ve focused on things I would love to tell the people I care about, but which may sound too harsh for me to feel comfortable telling them directly. So instead, I can just post them on my blog and feel like I’ve done my duty. It means I care about you, reader.

On living with yourself:

  1. You are not special. Until you’ve proven otherwise, assume you are not an exception to the rule or to the statistics. Your predictions about yourself will be more accurate this way.

  2. Nobody is paying any attention to you. When you realize that this is great news, the rest of your life can truly begin.

  3. When deciding what to do or not do, take into account the risk and the opportunity cost of doing nothing—of staying passive, of putting off the decision. It’s easy to unconsciously write off “doing nothing” as the safest option, when in some scenarios it is by far the riskiest and/or the costliest.

  4. If you’re agonizing over whether to get into a given activity or skill or field, just commit to actually trying it out for 20 hours first. If you don’t have 20 hours, commit to 2 hours. It’s going to answer a lot of questions for you that just imagining doing it, or reading about doing it, could never answer.

  5. If you feel stuck or like you’ve hit a plateau in getting better at something, consider the possibility that you haven’t tried enough times, you haven’t memorized enough things, or you haven’t practiced enough: in other words, that you’re avoiding “the grind” that is necessary for the basic motions of the skill (including mental motions) to become automatic for you. Are you a savant at this skill? If not, then: yes, it’s going to be a grind, and yes, it’s necessary if you want to get good at it. In light of this, it’s totally okay if you decide that it’s not worth it and that this isn’t the thing you want to spend your time getting good at.

  6. There is much to be said for what you can accomplish in the margins and the scraps of time in between the biggest priorities in your life—the little pebbles and grains of sand that fill the space around the big rocks in your jar, to use someone else’s analogy. But if you really want to get serious with something, there comes a point when that thing needs to become one of the big rocks: it needs to be one of the things that you place first, and shift other stuff around.

  7. Know your energy patterns, and take full advantage of them. Going straight into a headwind all day in the name of “willpower” isn’t commendable, it’s inefficient.

  8. Pay special attention to the specific things you fantasize about—in terms of work, environment, who you picture being around you, etc. It can reveal endless insights to you about what’s actually important to you and what’s making you unhappy. Don’t blindly suppress your unrealistic fantasies, and don’t blindly indulge them either—examine them for clues.

  9. The way your life goes will be disproportionately determined by your making certain moves at certain timings that are specific to you. Sometimes the window of opportunity is only open for an instant. (But often, things come back around in slightly different forms.) So you should spend the vast majority of your time getting prepared to go all in at the right moment. How do you know it’s the right moment to go all in? That’s what the preparation is for.

  10. Superior self-awareness wins every game there is. It’s a skill that can be cultivated. Cultivating more self-awareness is always a good use of time.

On living (and working) with other people:

  1. How to upgrade your friends: Every time you become friends with someone who’s more awesome than most or all of your current friends, think of the caliber of this awesome friend as the new minimum for what you expect from all your friends. Repeat until all your closest friends are maximum awesome (which is when you can’t even picture how they could be any more awesome). (This is my implementation related to an idea that Naval Ravikant calls the “five chimps theory”: the idea that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.)

  2. Every area of a project that’s important should have a single decision owner. This makes it safe for anyone else to disagree on things as strongly as they want to, without it ever becoming unclear who makes the final call. Consensus is overrated. (If you want to get stuff done.)

  3. Any given thing is probably going to happen the way it has consistently happened in the past. I’m not talking about Black Swan events or financial markets here, but for example, your next project is likely to play out in the way that your previous similar projects have, as well as in the way that previous similar projects by other people have played out. (See #1: You are not special. And neither is this project.)

  4. An immediately handy use of #13: To estimate a project timeline, just take your best estimate and double it. Your best estimate probably doesn’t include any surprises, so if there are any surprises, you’ll be late. I know it feels like giving yourself too much time, but you might find that it’s still barely enough. Just try it. (A sort of counter-suggestion: To simplify a project down to the essentials, think about what it would take to deliver it in half the time of your best estimate. Just maybe don’t promise that to your boss or client.)

  5. The counter to #3 about the risk/cost of doing nothing: It happens surprisingly often that you can do nothing and other people will solve their own problems (or their problems will solve themselves). There are even times when your stepping in to solve a problem can make it worse. (I know, it stings to admit it. But it’s true.) Sometimes the most heroic thing you can do is to refrain from jumping in to save the day.

  6. There comes a point in every career ladder where, if you have to ask someone to explain to you how to get to the next level up, that means you’re not ready yet. What’s required is for you to learn to see for yourself what needs to be done, and get it done. If you find yourself complaining that you don’t understand what a [title above yours] even does, and no one seems willing to explain it to you, consider that the answer may be: “Yes. Exactly.”

  7. It’s entirely possible that no one will ever thank you for the things you do that end up having the most positive impact (or preventing the most negative impact). People may even blame you for some side effect of what you’ve done. You’ll be happier if you choose to do those things because they’re consistent with your value system (in other words, because you consider them the right thing to do)—and because you want the results—not because you need the credit. (Not to say that you shouldn’t communicate what you’ve done, when it counts.)

  8. People love to be asked to help with things, if it makes them feel included in something good. Especially when it’s low-risk and low-cost, ask someone to help do something with you—then trust them with the thing that you asked. They may go to great lengths for you and may even thank you for the opportunity. This is a very underrated way to bond with people.

  9. Believe in someone’s best self and you’ll see a little more of it. Believe in them fully, genuinely, unfailingly—more than they believe in themselves, if needed. There is absolutely no need to be stingy about this. (But pair this with the next point, #20.)

  10. Every minute of every day, you are constantly teaching people how you’d like to be treated. Stop taking shit from people and they’ll stop giving it to you. Bullshit, like any gift, can’t be transferred unless it is accepted by the recipient, not just offered. (But pair this with the previous point, #19.)

  11. We are all mostly small, scared animals that don’t want to be left to die alone. Don’t attribute to intent or rationality what can be attributed to the limbic system or conditioned behavior—in yourself, or in other people.

Did any of those points make you think of someone you know? Now instead of confronting them directly, you can send them this post, hoping that they’ll get the hint! Of course, what’s most likely to happen is that instead of applying these to their own life, they’ll immediately think of someone they know, and pass it on…

Here’s to 2021!



Further reading: For my favorite collection of no-nonsense life advice that nobody else is willing to tell you—one that has influenced me greatly—read The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, which you can download for free at the link.

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