Most advice is too prescriptive to be useful

There’s a computer programming language called Perl that has the motto: “Tim Toady”.

Which is an anagram for: “There's more than one way to do it.”

(I know, I know, the first letters of each word don’t line up and that’s not the point here).

Having a philosophy of not trying to tell a programmer how to program, the entire programming language was created with flexibility in mind. So syntax in Perl, unlike some other programming languages, doesn’t force you into a single way of coding. Instead, it lets you write code in a way that works for you.

But the point here isn’t about programming or Perl or even toads named Tim. The point is that we’re all quite different in various and amazing ways. Yet, we all want that one singular answer to problems, which if we cut deeper into them, aren’t completely similar (so why would they have similar answers?). It’s honestly why I try to stay away from “one size fits all” advice style writing. It does a disservice to you, the reader, because it attempts to remove the critical thinking of “how would this apply to my unique circumstances, or, more importantly, how would this not apply here?”

For example, I suck at meditating. Apparently it’s a great way to recharge and detach a little bit from work (or over-working). Indeed, every self-actualized blogger (the best kind, right?) says that meditation fixes basically everything wrong with your life. But I’ve tried and I just can’t sit with my eyes closed and not judge the thoughts that surface.

But luckily, like Perl’s programming practices, there’s not just one way to reach enlightenment…

When I want to recharge, the singular way to do it (as per self-actualized bloggers aka “mindfluencers” (ok, I made that last one up just now, but it’s good, right?)) doesn’t work for me. Which used to make me feel like shit, because I figured if “everyone else” was doing it and it was working for them, why wasn’t it working for me? What was broken about me that made it not work? Luckily I got over that, and realized I should just “Tim Toady” the whole thing.

The way I recharge won’t work for everyone, but it works for me. Taking a break to recharge, for me, doesn’t require doing nothing or sitting with my eyes closed. It involves throwing myself into something new and unrelated from work and normal life, where I am forced to be “present and mindful”. Like learning how to drive a race car (it’s quite difficult to not be present when you’re hurtling around a race track) or lifting weights (it’s also hard to have an existential crisis while doing squats holding more than your own body weight...true story). I seem to get the benefits of meditation by not following the specific steps of meditating.

I’ve written often about my struggles with internet advice and everything that comes with it. Both as a consumer of internet-ish things and as a person who shares information on the internet, which people consume. Even for my last book, Company of One, the publisher suggested that I end each chapter with a handful of directives to follow. And, while I can see how that would be helpful (and certainly some folks have asked that what I create and put out into the world include more specific steps to follow), it didn’t feel quite right for me. Instead (and I’m happy they went for it) I pitched that every chapter could end with a handful of questions to ask yourself about the content.

Some advice is just too prescriptive and we should probably stop feeling bad when we can’t make it fit. It may aim to solve a problem, but it gets too far into the weeds in telling you how to solve it. Nor does it account for the fact that we all possess the ability to critically think about things for ourselves and adjust for our own personal needs. That kind of step-by-step instruction probably works for fixing a car engine, but not for life advice. Instead, I prefer more descriptive things that lay out what the problem is and give a framework to solve it (like a programming language) instead of a step-by-step instructional guide.

An argument could be made against “Tim Toady”, as it’s certainly not the way most other programming languages work. Python, for example, is built around the idea that “There should be one—and preferably only one—obvious way to do it.” Yet if life were truly as simple as following some prescriptive advice from a mindfluencer (I’m really trying to get this to catch on, ha), it’d be much easier to solve all our issues and problems. But it’s not. So maybe we should stop feeling bad about simple solutions not fixing unique challenges.


Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: