Paul Jarvis

The advice gold rush

We’re currently experiencing an advice gold rush. Everyone is buying up digital land and staking a claim on some expertise they’ve got that will quadruple your audience, monetize your passions and help you receive 104,355,974 visitors to your blog, all while riding a horse and eating a 7-course meal (the fifth course will truly shock you!).

The problem with this situation is much like the real Gold Rush: it’s mostly hype and bullshit, while a few people get rich off the misconceptions of the general public. You buy your own slice of land, pan for gold, and end up with a bunch of rocks, dirt as well as a hefty mortgage.

Advice isn’t inherently bad or evil. What I dislike is everyone’s rush to move away from doing things or making things and into peddling advice instead.

Advice is actually harder to sell than simply doing creative work anyway. Advice requires a critical mass of belief (otherwise known as domain expertise or authority). Yet we rush headlong towards it, hoping we’ll strike gold at any minute.

Sean Blanda wrote a great piece about the Bullshit Industrial Complex and how too many people are pushing their opinions on topics, not because they know and understand the topics, but because they’ve read about them, from someone else, who was quoting someone else.

Sure, we can blame content marketing and a global push to create more and more content at any price for causing people to run out of topics they fully understand and move into topics they think are popular and write about those in a series of pseudo-motivational quotes and tired business parables.

Which could all be renamed as: I don’t know how to do these things, but I read about them one time in a Medium article with a quote from Richard Branson!

It’s a snake, made out of shit eating its own shitty tail, in the shape of an infinity sign. And collectively, we’re buying into the hype and clicking, reading, sharing.

I wonder how many people take into account the end person consuming their advice? Or if it’s just a game to build themselves up on the back of more clicks, follows and subscribes. How much advice is simply warped by time, opinions or quirks?

There’s no harm in fully immersing yourself in your craft – not just to further your knowledge, skills and experience, but to truly figure out your own personal take on what you do or the industry you’re a part of.

The worst part is sometimes we inadvertently end up in the Bullshit Industrial Complex ourselves. It’s a slow but slippery slope that typically starts with “If I could just reach more people, I’d be set” and ends up with teaching a webinar about The 10 vaguest ways to become rich with passive income and hoping it converts like hell. (Note: I’d sign up to watch that.) And then we start believing our own bullshit.

There is such a fine line between knowing enough to be ready to dole out advice en masse and doubting yourself as a person who’s worthy of sharing. (I’d actually rather continue to doubt myself and my authority than believe my own bullshit.)

I’m not nearly immune either—I’ve been on both sides of the line and had to reel myself back and reconsider why I really do what I do several times in my career.

Before taking or following any sort of advice, it’s important to consider a few things:

What if all advice just stopped existing?

No longer are there any “5 easy steps” or “10 simple ways” articles (i.e. the Internet is now a much, much quieter place). There’s no more paid or free brain-picking sessions. Industry experts are not able to bestow their wisdom to their audience.

What would happen? Would we be better or worse for it?

I have been wondering about this a lot lately. What purpose does advice ultimately serve? Sometimes I think it’s crutch or just procrastination. Sometimes I think it’s the asker looking for an easy answer to a not-so-easy question. I’m guilty of that — I see someone who can do something I want to be able to do, so I ask them about it, hoping I can learn those same skills near-instantly.

I got to thinking about all the times I’ve been happy with accomplishing something. Every single time it happened because I just wanted to try something and thought, “What the hell, let’s do this!” I didn’t ask anyone first. I didn’t consult a mentor, advisor, oracle, or listicle. I just jumped in head-first.

When people ask me for advice, I do my best to give a quality answer. But really, for a lot of questions, I don’t have a good answer. For example, I don’t know how to get started with web design. I started so long ago the industry was very different — the biggest debate was Flash or HTML. The biggest challenge to overcome with getting clients was to explain to them what the Internet was and how it might serve their business.

My advice is warped by time, my own opinions, and personality quirks.

Advice is also heavily affected by the subconsciousness of expertise. Experts aren’t necessarily better than people starting out, they just know how things work and can do some tasks without thinking. They are able to think several steps ahead. If I asked a carpenter how she would build a house, she would only be aware of steps she has to think about. Not the thousands of steps her skill takes over and does for her subconsciously. She’s not thinking about how to hold the hammer or where to place a nail, she’s thinking about the house as a whole because she knows how to abstract her present to an intended outcome. Those small steps and skills are the important parts, however, when you’re learning something new.

Most of the time — due to stubbornness more than anything else — I prefer to figure something out on my own, rather than ask someone. If I’m going to fail, I’d rather fail my way. If I’m going to succeed, it has to be the same.

It seems like the only advice I’ve given someone else that I can truly stand behind is this: above anything else, listen to yourself. Sure, you’ve got to use external sources to learn. You need to have other people to lean on, gain knowledge from, and see how things could be done before doing them. But ultimately, and once that’s all finished, it’s your life, your choices, your ultimate decision.

So, how would you proceed with what you’re thinking about doing if you couldn’t rely on advice from others? And, how can we stop this advice gold rush?

To be clear, this isn’t an attempt to vanquish BuzzFeed-style listicles forever or put business coaches out of business. I actually think that everyone has a voice worthy of sharing and that everyone has something they can teach another person. What I’m speaking about here is people moving away from their own voice, their own thoughts, their own expertise and into spewing words to get an “AS SEEN ON” logo for their homepage or make a quick buck or add “best-selling author” to their Twitter bio.

Write, speak, share. But think about why you’re doing those things. Is it because you want more authority for the sake of authority (or for the sake of higher speaking fees)? Or is it to help others with what you’ve actually learned? The former may net short-term gains, but I don’t see it working out over the span of a career. Not in terms of sustaining your business and definitely not in terms of being able to look at yourself in the mirror and not wanting to vomit a little.

So before you go out and buy up all the land you can’t afford, in the hopes that gold will be tucked away in a stream, consider working the land you’ve already got, even if it’s small and without gold, and perhaps grow something you can be proud of (like squash or celery).

I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers—