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Real Advice Hurts

In the wonderful Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about the incredible, ripping pain she felt after having her tonsils removed. All she wanted to do was chug pain killers and let the stupid thing heal, but, Anne's doctor gave her some advice that she found as unbelievable as it was painful: he told her to chew some gum.

Turns out that, as with a lot of injuries, the entirely sensible impulse to protect and baby a wounded area was the opposite of what Anne actually needed in order to fix the problem. So, by enduring the excruciating pain of chewing gum for just a few minutes, the muscles in her throat suddenly unclenched, and Anne's pain went away forever.

The advice Anne wanted wasn't the advice she needed. And, like we all eventually learn, the best advice you'll get in life hurts like hell at the time. Because it has to.

And, maybe that's part of what what bugs me about all the "tips."

Today, the web is littered with sites pumping out a high volume of advice on every conceivable topic. And a lot of the pathological patrons of these sites will tell you that a daily surfeit of snack-sized information helps them with what they really need in order to be successful and happy in life -- to be better at their job or to be a well-rounded person or to become a more talented programmer.

I don't doubt for a moment that the right tip at the right time can make all the difference in the world. And I have certainly been both a (reformed) producer as well as an ardent consumer of "tips," by any definition of the word. But, here's the problem:

In more instances than we want to admit, tips not only won't (and can't) help us to improve; they will actively get in the way of fundamental improvement by obscuring the advice we need with the advice that we enjoy. And, the advice that's easy to take is so rarely the advice that could really make a difference.

A tip is like...what? A little scrap of a map. Not only is it not the actual destination, but the part you can hold in your hand will only make sense when you understand its place in a much bigger picture.

So, sure, you might get a kick out of gazing at the pretty colors and reading the funny names to your cat, and, heck, once you've collected enough little maps, you may even start fancying yourself a gifted cartographer.

But, never for a minute start fantasizing that being a map collector means you've visited all the locations on those pieces of paper. If you ever decided to attempt them, your actual travels would very much benefit from a competent (and whole) map of where you're heading, but it necessarily requires movement, change, and enduring potentially long stretches in which you'll have to find your own bearings in three tip-free dimensions.

At their best, "tips" are a fine way to incrementally improve a process that you're already dedicated to practicing on a regular basis. And, in that context, tips work.

For example, a tip on your golf swing may be very useful if you're already playing three times a week and hitting a bucket of balls after work every day. But a subscription to a magazine about taekwondo will only be as useful as your decision to drag your fat ass into a dojo and start actually kicking people. Over and over. Otherwise, you're just buying shiny paper every month.

In my opinion, the problems with tip culture on the web are many, not least the evidence that most of the page-view-obsessed poopers of online tips seem to have zero real interest in solving any problem beyond their own need to generate repeat traffic from dazed information tourists. But, the common problem of all tip fixations traces back to a misunderstanding of how anybody ever got great at doing anything.

We can't get good at something solely by reading about it. And we'll never make giant leaps in any endeavor by treating it like a snack food that we munch on whenever we're getting bored. You get good at something by doing it repeatedly. And by listening to specific criticism from people who are already good at what you do. And by a dedication to getting better, even when it's inconvenient and may not involve a handy bulleted list.

If this strikes you as fancy talk, may I suggest that you approach the woman in your life who most enjoys sexual intercourse, and, in the nicest way possible, ask her whether she'd prefer to have congress with:

  1. a confident partner who has had a long career of safe and mutually-satisfying romps with a range of people who liked different things; or,
  2. a 50-year-old virgin who likes reading blogs about sex tips.

You know the answer, and so does she. There's probably more than one reason that poor #2 is still just a well-read dilettante, but a strong candidate for the top spot would be how he's allowed his ardor for acquiring "tips" to take the place of getting started in the actual, complicated, and sometimes very confusing craft of making ladyparts happy.

You should and will consume the web however you please, and if scanning lists of tips is a relaxing pastime for you, I'm the last person to begrudge you your fun. But, it's time to stop pretending that practical expertise at anything can take place in an RSS reader.

Next time you find yourself staring at another re-packaged post about all the "resources" for becoming great at whatever you're theoretically excited about, ask yourself for specific evidence -- things you can point to that you've done or made -- that reflect the improvement all those thousands of tips and resources brought you.

If you can shut me down with a hundred satisfied lovers, a pile of well-kicked opponents, or a passport full of countries you've walked through: well, more power to you and the tips that helped you get good.

But, if the countless, dreary hours of resource-hunting and tip-scarfing have primarily produced more RSS subscriptions and a giant ass print on your couch, maybe it's time to stand up, and start chewing some gum.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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