Applicable advice

Part 2:
Part 2 on lesswrong:

Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The Feynman Algorithm:
Write down the problem.
Think real hard.
Write down the solution.

There is a lot of advice out there on the internet. Any topic you can consider; there is probably advice about. The trouble with advice is that it can be just as often wrong as it is right. Often when people write advice; they are writing about what has worked for them in a very specific set of circumstances. I’m going to be lazy and use an easy example several times here – weight loss, but the overarching concept applies to any type of advice.

Generic: “eat less and exercise more” (obvious example is obvious)

Dieting as a problem is a big and complicated one. But the advice is probably effective to someone. Take any person who is looking to lose weight and this advice is probably applicable. Does this make it good advice? Heck no! It’s atrocious. If that’s all the dieting advice we needed we wouldn’t invent diets like Atkins, Grapefruit, 2&5, low carb and more.

So what does, “starve for two days a week”, have to it that “eat less and exercise more” doesn’t? Why does the damn advice exist?

Advice like, “eat less and exercise more”, is likely to work on someone in the situation of:
1. Eating too much
2. not exercising enough.
3. having those behaviours for no reason
4. having the willpower and desire to change those behaviours
5. never do them again.
6. the introspection to identify the problem as that, and start now.

With this understanding of the advice, you can say that this advice applies to some situations and not others. Hence the concept of “applicable advice”.

Given that the advice, “eat less and exercise more” exists, if you take the time to understand why it exists and how it works; you can better take advantage of what it offers.

Understand that if this advice worked for someone there was a way that it worked for that someone. And considering if there is a way to make it work for someone, you can maybe find a way to make it work for you too.

How not to use Applicable advice

When you consider that some advice will be able to be adapted, and some will not, you will sometimes end up in a failure mode of using an understanding of why advice worked to explain away the possibility of it working for you.

Example: “you need to speak your mind more often”.  Is advice.  If I decide that this advice is targeted at introverted people who like to be confident before they share what they have to say, but who often say nothing at all because of this lack of confidence.  I then assume that if I am not an introverted person then this advice is not applicable to me and should be ignored.

This is the wrong way to apply applicable advice.  First; the model of “why this advice worked”, could be wrong.  Second, this way of applying applicable advice is looking at the scientific process wrong.

Briefly the scientific method:

  1. Observe
  2. Hypothesis/prediction
  3. test
  4. analyse
  5. iterate
  6. conclude

Compared to the failure mode:

  1. You noticed the advice worked for someone else
  2. You came up with an explanation about why that advice worked and why it won’t work for you
  3. You decided not to test it because you already concluded it won’t work for you
  4. you never analyse
  5. you never iterate
  6. you never confirm your conclusion but still concluded the advice won’t work.

How to use applicable advice

Use the scientific method*.  As above:

  1. Observe
  2. Hypothesis/prediction
  3. test
  4. analyse
  5. iterate
  6. conclude


  1. Observe advice working
  2. Come up with an explanation for why it worked.  What world-state conditions are needed for successfully executing said advice, search for how it can be applicable to you.
  3. Try to make the world into a state such that this advice is applicable
  4. Evaluate if it worked
  5. Repeat a few times
  6. Decide if you can make it work.

*yes I realise this is a greatly simplified form of the scientific method.

Map and territory

Our observable difference – in how you should and should not be using applicable advice – comes from an understanding of what you are trying to change.  The map is what we carry around in our head to explain how the world works.  The territory is the real world.  Just by believing the sky is green I can’t change the sky.  But if I believed the sky is green, I could change my belief to be more in line with reality.

If you assume the advice you encounter is applicable to someone, AKA the advice suited their map and how it applied to their territory to successfully be useful.  Then when you compare your territory and their territory – they do not match.  Instead of concluding that your territory is immune – that the advice does not apply, you can try to modify your own map to make the advice work for your territory.


  • Where have you concluded that advice will not; or does not work for you?
  • Is that true?  And can you change yourself to make that advice apply?
  • Have other people ever failed to take your advice?  What was the advice? and why do you think they didn’t take the advice?
  • Have you recently not taken advice given to you?  (What was it? and) Why?  Is there a way to make that advice more useful?

Epistemic status: trying not to do it wrong.

Meta: I have been trying to write this for months and months.  Owing to my new writing processes, I am seeing a lot more success.  Writing this out has only taken 2 hours today, but that doesn’t count the 5 hours I had put into earlier versions that I nearly entirely deleted.  It also doesn’t count that passive time of thinking about how to explain this over the months and months that I have had this idea floating around in my head.  Including explaining it at a local Dojo and having a few conversations about it.  For this reason I would put the total time spent on this post at 22 hours.

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

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