Why SOME smart people give bad advice?

Once I attended a conference where a serial entrepreneur was sharing his advice on what works now. The people in the audience were employees from high tech companies who wanted to be entrepreneurs. The speaker shared a lot of things that were counterintuitive but lot of  it was plain bad advice.

The speaker was very passionate and also totally believed in what he was sharing. I am sure he shared everything that worked for him. I am also sure that his intention was to help and not to hurt. The problem? He generalized the specifics as if what worked for his specific situation was the “general truth” in the world.

I do hope that everyone in the audience took the advice with care. I hope that they know that they were in a different “life stage” than where the speaker was at. So what works for the speaker “may not” work for them.

The above was one example of a smart person giving bad advice. Here are some reasons why some smart people engage in giving bad advice:

1. They have vested interest

This is unfortunate but true. In some cases, experts have a vested interest to make you believe something is true. Reason? By doing so either they can create fear or greed and in either cases they have a solution to address the resulting fear or greed. It is purely business. This typically happens when the expert is selling some sort of a solution, course, subscription service etc.

2. They generalize the specifics generously

Some people engage in what I call the “sweeping generalizations” – they start telling you how the world really works, how customers really behave, THE process for hiring superstars etc. These people tend to share “their truth” as the “truth for this world.” They forget that what worked yesterday may not work today and what worked in a set of circumstances may not be repeated with the same level of success with another set of circumstances.

3. They skip the details (especially the ones that are obvious to them)

When someone is asked for advice, there is an implicit acknowledgement of the person’s accomplishments and indirectly those accomplishments are in a big way related to their strengths. (Please read: Why MANY smart people don’t capitalize on their biggest strengths?)

Now, we know that one’s biggest strengths are invisible to them. Smart people are not immune to this rule. When something is invisible, they don’t pay much attention to that thing. This means that when they are giving some advice, the details related to the big strengths will go missing – not because they are not important but because they are too obvious to those that are sharing their advice.

4. They shine the right light on themselves where and when possible

Mark Pincus (founder of Zynga) once spoke at Startup@Berkeley where he shared stories of his early startup days. One of the things he did then was to make people download a toolbar called Zwinky ( malware disguised as software) just to get revenues. As you can imagine, it was not taken well by many people. Mark need not have shared the story but he chose to share it although it would put him in a bad light. Not everyone will follow the path. Most people would prefer to not share some things intentionally to ensure that they paint a better image for themselves. This means that the actual cause -> effect is skewed towards a “made up cause” -> effect. Ultimately, that kind of “imaginary cause” to produce the results is bad advice.

5. They forget the time lag factor

Sometimes they forget to incorporate the factor of time lag. They share what works now for them in the present circumstances and forget that they might have acted differently and used different approaches a few years ago. If you are reading that advice, always apply a “time lag” for that advice and adjust it to reflect for your current situation and capacity. Else you will be trying to do something that will “work” a few years from now when your situations and capacity are different.

6. They are counter-intuitive for the sake of being counter-intuitive

What is the best way to get attention? Say something counterintuitive. If the talk of the town is yin, they say yang. If the trend is to zig, they say the way to go is zag. When the world is going slow, they say go fast and when everyone is in a rush, they ask everyone to slow down. Being accomplished and being counter-intuitive is a fast way to get attention. But unfortunately, just being counter-intuitive alone has not helped anyone.

Being counter-intuitive for the sake of being counter-intuitive gets attention and it stops there.

7. They are accomplished and thus have a sense of  entitlement to say whatever they want (?)

Or at least that’s what some people think. I have seen this first-hand when highly accomplished and successful people come to talk at events without much preparation. Their reasoning – they have a “wealth of experience” that they can draw upon from so preparation is really optional. They mess up badly on their talk but they rarely get “real” feedback as to how badly they performed. This lack of real feedback gives them a feeling that everything is just fine and they continue on a slippery slope after that.

8. They are smart but not articulate

There are MANY smart people but only a SMALL subset of them are good teachers. Good teachers make complex things simple and easy to understand and digest. It is a skill that comes with practice. Yes, for a very small percentage of people it comes naturally but for most others, it is the result of a LOT of hard work. Not all smart people have the cycles to invest in developing these skills and that shows up on the stage.

9. Then, there’s the luck factor

There is a general feeling that “accomplishments” = “smartness.” While this is true, we all know that some people made it because they were just plain lucky. Of course, those lucky people won’t give a lot of credit to luck for their accomplishments. One can only imagine when they start sharing what all they did to get where they got. Minus luck, their strategies would have been flawed but they don’t know that.


So: Whenever you read any advice – think about it for a minute before accepting it as gospel.

Photo Courtesy: jjldickinson  on Flickr