The Fat Doctor Problem

A few weeks ago, I took an Uber from my apartment to a friend’s place in the Mission. On the way I was making small-talk with my driver. We started talking about his recent divorce and how it’s impacting his finances and his mental health. I felt bad for the guy.

He started giving me advice. It was pretty much what you’d expect – women can’t be trusted, never get married, not worth the risk, etc. It nicely illustrated something I’ve learned over the last few years:
Pay attention to the person behind any advice.

If you’re doing anything at all, you’ll likely be inundated with advice. Well-meaning friends, family members, co-workers and mentors will al chime in with their thoughts about things you should do. A lot of this advice will come from people smarter, richer, and more successful than you. How do you weed out the good advice from the bad?

My best heuristic for taking advice is simple: look at who it’s coming from. If that person is someone you’d like to emulate – if you want to be in their shoes when you reach their age – listen to their counsel. If not, ignore it.

This can be a bit more nuanced, but the general principle is useful. My taxi driver for example: I’ll listen to his input on anything he tells me about getting around the city, cool neighborhoods or restaurants worth checking out. He knows that stuff, and I’d love to have the same knowledge of San Francisco that he does.

His track record with women though? Not even close. I don’t want to be a 40 year old, twice-divorced father of two. Forget that. Why listen to someone who’s mental model of the world has gotten them to a place you don’t want to be?

Yes, this means you miss out on some good advice. You ignore the thoughts of some very smart people, especially those your age. It doesn’t matter. There are enough smart, successful people out there living the life you want to live. Find them, and take their advice to heart.

I call this the “fat doctor” heuristic. If my doctor is fat, I’ll ignore anything he or she has to say about eating habits. I’ll take that advice from someone who’s healthy, thank you.

Apply this rule of thumb everywhere. You’ll soon find yourself seeking better advice, and ignoring bad advice you previously considered.

8 responses

  1. You can improve the fat doctor heuristic. My rule of thumb is that if personal has any emotional attachment with the subject approach his advice with skepticism.
    Paul Graham had a great essay about “identity”.

  2. Well the problem with that approach is that often people’s advice is based on their own experience negated, and that advice is much more valuable.

    Example: lets consider two people; one handicapped because of a driving incident, the other perfectly healthy with no accident record. The first one had the habit of talking on the phone while driving, and that got him into an accident, and now advices you that accidents happen if you talk on the phone and drive. The second person never had an accident, but he thought it was because he was driving slow and never exceeding the speed limit. He didn’t realize that it was actually the fact that he did not have a phone and would thus never talk while driving, and that was the major factor keeping him accident-free. So he gives you the (presumably) wrong advice that you should drive slow.

    Forgive my English, but does this make sense?

    1. Does make sense, and I think it’s a good point. Thanks for sharing!

  3. A person who failed usually knows much more about how not to fail than a person who succeeded.

    1. I disagree, for reasons Jason Fried says here –

      Basically, I think people who fail have learned 1 way to fail. Those who have succeeded multiple times have learned what it takes to succeed. The latter is much more valuable.

  4. Since you’re in need of advice yourself, I’m going to ignore your giving advice 😉

  5. Dave Ramsey says not to take money advice from broke people. I think you can certainly take the advice too far, but it’s not a bad starting point in examining inputs.

    1. Totally can, but fortunately there’s no shortage of people willing to give advice 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.