Advice

I used to see a physical therapist twice a week in midtown Manhattan. This was years ago, when I was living in Brooklyn, and way before Brooklyn was cool.

Anyways, right next door to my physical therapist’s office was a fancy salon, named after the founder, a woman d’un certain age. The salon sold high-dollar youth creams and beauty potions.

One day, I shared the elevator with the founder of this beauty line. She must have been at least 50, but still had incredibly smooth, flawless skin. “You know, you really do have amazing skin,” I said. “What’s your secret?”

She smiled. “Genetics.”

And so she’d made a fortune selling creams and lotions, because her skin was her calling card — even though those products had nothing to do with her beauty.

This brings me back to something I’ve noticed many times: We always take advice from the wrong people.

If we want to lose weight, we’ll ask our skinny friend with the fast metabolism rather than our normal-size friend who actually lost weight.

We also prefer bad advice from charming people over good advice from boring people. We prefer to believe the  beautiful person holding court in the center of the room, and ignore the nerd in the back, who’s adding up the sums accurately and ruffling feathers when he says they’re wrong. This is because we trust advice based on who we want to be, rather than what we want to do.

This leads to all sorts of misperceptions in the world about how people actually got to where they are in life:

Tell me Ms. Jones, how did you become such a successful saleswoman and get those cold call sales?

Answer: “Self-confidence and a great work ethic”

Real Answer: “Model-perfect good looks”

Mr. Smith, you’ve become so very successful at business. To what do you attribute your success?

Answer: “Creativity and thinking outside the box”

Real Answer: “Family money”

People watching these interviews say to themselves, “That’s right! If I want to be a success like her, I just need to be more self-confident!”  Whereas they might get farther with major plastic surgery.**

So basically, as I said, most people have a natural instinct to trust advice based on who we want to be, rather than what we want to do. But, once we know that might be a pitfall, we can be aware of it, and try to compensate for it.

Also, this tendency to follow “winners” — even if they win for the wrong reasons — robs us of great wisdom, because failures often have excellent advice. People who fail multiple times in an undertaking know what doesn’t work – so you don’t have to try it yourself. And, when they do eventually make it past their roadblocks, they can actually tell you what they did, rather than bragging about what they thought they were doing while the universe took care of the rest. Failures often understand the process to success better than someone who’s naturally gifted. But still, we gravitate to the prodigy as the master, and ignore the person in the back, who struggled to learn everything they mastered…and so knows how to teach.

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** And no, I am not advising you to get plastic surgery. You have a great nose, don’t ever let anyone else tell you differently.

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