Stop Taking Advice From Strangers*

It’s killing your forward momentum.

It is absurd how much time we spend reading articles that teach us to be our best selves. And by we, I mean I. Although it is a pretty safe bet that the vast majority of self-help writers of the internet aren’t writing just for me.

Entire businesses have been built around teaching others how to find fulfillment. Many of these businesses are built around a foundation of compassion and a sincere desire to help others. These people, with their compassionate business practices, are wonderful precious cinnamon buns.

I don’t want to talk about cinnamon buns.

I want to talk about the other guys. The shiny, shortcut-to-success crowd that will help you change your life dramatically, with so much less effort than you thought was required.

They say they can teach us how to become millionaire entrepreneurs in just one year. That they can teach us the secret to accomplishing the 27 things we need to do before 9 am in order to set the tone for the rest of our lives. Or my favorite: that they can absolutely, with complete certainty, grow your email list to 1,000 engaged, non-spam-bot subscribers in 30 days for a modest investment of just a few hundred dollars.

It sucks us in.

Our rational minds know that reaching 1,000 subscribers from a starting point of zero is a lofty, difficult, unrealistic goal. But the promise of something better is there: a shortcut to get from where you are to where you want to be.

And where do we want to be? What is our goal?

A life we enjoy, with people we love, free from pain or suffering.

Human nature drives us seek out ways to better our lives, and by extension ourselves. This is a universally recognizable want, one that is unaffected by religious, political, or socioeconomic backgrounds.

Sometimes we stall out. Life gets in the way. We lose focus, or find ourselves unsure of how to get to Point B, when the path ahead is full of unknowable obstacles.

We seek out mentors. Mentors like the ones above. Sometimes we get lucky and find somebody that really, truly wants to help. Sometimes we get pulled in and fall for the thousand-dollar honey trap.

I think both, if not viewed objectively, can end up being detrimental to our progress.

Here’s what worries me about this eagerness to seek out mentors: the fact that a majority of the time, we haven’t met them before. Their advice may be tailored to a general demographic, but it isn’t built around you. It doesn’t cater to your life or your specific needs.

A stranger doesn’t know your values. They don’t know what you hold most dear, how you prioritize, whether or not religion or politics hold any influence in your search for fulfillment, if you’re a single parent without enough support to quit your day job to focus on your dream job.

The best advice I’ve ever received came from my guitar teacher, Al, when I was 12 years old. He said,

Learn all the theory you can. Then throw it out the window.

This advice came when I started to obsess over being able to perfectly emulate the songs as they were written. In the process of learning how to parrot another person’s work, I was neglecting my own budding skills. I could learn how to play You Oughta Know exactly like on the album (hey, it was the 90s), but where would that leave me?

Al didn’t want me to just parrot other musicians. He wanted me to build a foundation with the techniques and references to be a knowledgeable guitar player, so I could move on to developing my own preferences in musical styles and improvisation. By learning the principles of what I wanted to accomplish, I would be better equipped to experiment in the way I ultimately wanted to.

I wanted to be the next Alanis Morissette.

Music didn’t pan out, not the way I’d hoped at the time, but Al’s advice has followed me through the years. I apply it to any new skill or interest.

I’m not saying don’t take advice from strangers. Just take it with a grain of salt.

Listen to your influences. Find the parts of their stories that speak to you. Take some time to figure out where you want to be in one year, in five years, in twenty years. Learn as much as you can.

Then — and this is the important part — figure out how you can apply their advice or experiences to your own style.

Really, that’s all I’m saying.

I’m glad we’re all friends and want to help each other and that the internet is always a nice place to be.

Just remember that you have natural instincts. Trust them. Listen to the advice of others, but trust your instinct to guide you forward.

*That includes me