I occasionally get requests for advice to include in an “expert roundup.” It’s one of those quick content generation / search-engine optimization techniques, and often goes something like this:
- Cold-email a bunch of famous and not-so-famous people who likely have opinions on something.
- Ask them for a quick answer to a simple question. Famous people probably already have soundbites ready to go, so it’s easy for them to reply.
- Reach out to more people and name-drop the famous people who have already responded.
- Other people feel flattered to be included in that kind of company, and add their own perspectives.
- Paste and format the quotes, add pictures or relevant stock images, and use a list-type headline.
If you’re lucky, those people will drop by your blog, read other posts, and maybe even comment or subscribe. If you’re really lucky, they’ll link to your post (“Look! I’m featured over here!”), which is good for broadening your audience and improving your reputation with search engines. Besides, your other readers will be able to read a post that indirectly demonstrates your social capital (“I got Bigname Expert to reply to me”) while possibly offering something to think about. (Although I don’t think it’s really the lack of advice that holds people back…)
On the plus side, at least an e-mail-based soundbite survey requires a little bit more effort than making a grab-bag of quotes harvested from one of the categories of those popular quotation marks (often misattributed and almost never with source links). So there’s something to be said for that. I still prefer posts that have more of the self infused into them, though, whether they’re the products of personal research and interpretation or (better yet) personal experience and insight.
But it’s much easier to write the first two types of posts rather than the third and fourth type of post. It takes less time. It seems less self-centred. It’s more generally applicable. You could even write books following that formula.
And if I think about it from the reader’s perspective, I can actually work to extract a little bit of value from stuff like that. Sometimes, when reading lists or blog posts, I come across an interesting name for a concept I’ve been having a hard time defining or expressing. The keywords help me search more. Other times, a short paragraph is enough to get me considering a different perspective, or thinking about the difference between what it says and what I want to say. Pithy sayings get me thinking about what makes something a memorable maxim. Noticing a collection of intriguing thoughts from one person can lead me to dig up more details on that person. And then there’s always the satisfaction of finding unexpected resonance or an authority you can enlist on your side (the more ancient, the better)…
Still, I want to see people apply the ideas and share their experiences. I want people to share what they struggled with and how they adapted things to fit their situation. Sure, it’s interesting to hear what Aristotle’s purported to have said (although that collection certainly does not include “Excellennce, then, is not an act, but a habit” – that’s Will Durant ccommenting on Aristotle), but it’s also interesting–possibly even more so–to hear what thoughts people distill from their own lives.
Most advice (especially for generic audiences) sounds pretty straightforward. Things like: Spend less than you earn. Live mindfully. Get rid of unnecessary tasks and things. But the challenge of change is hardly ever about hearing these things, is it? I think, if we want to make it easier for people to grow, it’s better to help people flesh out who they want to be, feel they can become that, and see how they can set themselves up for success and appreciate their progress.
A reflection on reading advice: I notice that I’ve grown to like books that dig into personal experience (especially if they avoid the trap of generalization) and books that interpret results from large research studies, but I feel less enlightened by books that rely on anecdotes (cherry-picked, possibly even modified). Since it seems pretty difficult to nail down reliable effects in psychological studies and it’s tempting to cherry-pick research too, that probably indicates that I should dig deeper into finding people with similarly open, experimental approaches to life, which probably means focusing on blogs rather than books. Hmm…
So that’s what I’ve been thinking as a reader. On the other side of the page, as a writer and a learner, what do I think about sharing advice?
Writing from my own life, I realize that I can hardly generalize from my life to other people’s lives: no “You should do this”, but rather, “This seems to work pretty well for me. You might want to consider it, but maybe something else will work even better for you. If so, I’d love to hear about that!” So I don’t have much in the way of generic advice that I can contribute to these advice round-ups.
In fact, thinking about some of the things I do that people have both expressed an interest in doing and have struggled with – even when I’m talking one-on-one with people who are half-open to the idea, it’s difficult to help them get over that first hump. Blogging, Emacs, tracking, mindsets… There’s some kind of an activation threshold. People tell me that sometimes hearing from people like me or others about what it’s like helps them resolve to go for it, but that’s not the majority of the push. Anyway, once people get past that, I like swapping notes: not really as a teacher, but as a peer.
Mm. Trade-off, but I think I can deal with it. I can write as a way to bring out the people who resonate. I can skip doling out advice until much later (if at all). Questions from other people are good ways to prompt further reflection, and ongoing blog relationships with people who post their thoughts are even better. It might take time to build that, but it’ll probably be interesting!