Dear CMO:

Can I give you a piece of advice? Stop taking so much advice.

Really, you don’t need to know that a captain of industry attributes his success to his dogged determination. That he truly believes that, “you need to be true to yourself.” Of course, he doesn’t know much about you, your problem, or the consequences to you of your following his advice. You may have more first person knowledge about these things than he does. So you might want to listen to the expert more often. Meaning you.

I’m not talking about conventions here – chances are, you don’t need to ignore things like using proper grammar and following good hygiene, and there are many examples of proper methods of getting things done, from email campaigns to gift wrapping a package – I’m talking about “advice”. You know when someone’s giving you “advice”. This is what I’m talking about.

Hollow platitudes do two things, both of them bad. First, they give you the false impression that correlation implied causality in his or her life, and it will continue to do so in yours. Taken at face value, this is a very attractive notion, but it usually reveals itself to be pretty specious upon close review. Correlation might equal causality… and it might not. Your results may vary. So tread lightly.

Second, it suppresses your own instincts, which are often right. “Stick to it! Never give up!” and other meaningless and often disastrous pieces of advice suggest that you, the reader or unfortunate listener, can’t tell the difference between a mild setback and the floor disintegrating beneath your feet. Sometimes it’s absolutely the best possible course of action to run like hell. Sometimes you know when it’s time to do this. The figure sitting astride Mount Olympus, waxing poetic in his or her Pinnacle interview, doesn’t have much first person knowledge about your personal plight. Frankly, they don’t really care.

Think of it this way: if you line up every member of the human race and pit them against each other in a single elimination paper-scissors-rock face-off, one person will eventually win. That person will correctly outfox his opponents with ruthless precision thirty-three straight times, one after another. And at the end of this contest, the world press will mob this instant celebrity and ask them breathlessly to give us all The Secret of Their Success.

The winner, in all likelihood, will stumble a bit at first – I’m assuming the winner of the Global 6.5 Billion Person Roshambo-Off has never had the benefits of media training – but will soon, within hours, hit their stride with honorifics like, “I just believed in myself… I knew that the key to success was ‘paper… rock… and then paper again…” Thanks. I’ve learned a lot from this. Jack Welsh wants to hug you and Danny Deutch wants to interview you on his show.

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Key Takeaways:

> Remember – always be true to yourself. OK, I’m kidding. Sorry. Just seeing if you’re paying attention.

> How about this one instead: listen to your gut, yourself, and others, but always with a grain of salt. Just because it happened before doesn’t mean it will happen again. Just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it will (or won’t) work for you. Correlation and causality don’t always go together.

> “Best Practices” are only interesting. Nine times out of ten, they don’t apply to you or your problem. That doesn’t mean you should ignore them completely – it means you need to understand that what worked for Ghandi, Jack, Steve, and George Washington probably had more to do with their unique circumstances, skill sets, communication skills, and a thousand other intangibles than with the simple labels they or others apply to their success after the fact. We’re all brilliant historians and lousy fortune tellers.

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There’s nothing wrong with “best practices”. The combined learnings of others are interesting and often insightful data points. Understand, though, that they’re someone else’s data points – not yours. Insight is the best you can hope for. If someone else’s data points can spark insights that relate to you, then go forth and create your own data points. Just don’t turn them into more hollow platitudes in return.


Copyright © 2006 Stephen Denny