For as long as I can remember, my personal motto has been this: Never Give Up! Today I’m going to explore why this advice doesn’t work in every setting and what you can do to avoid falling for unhelpful advice.
The motto Never Give Up got me through college, law school, and business school. Never giving up got me to Wall Street, where I worked for leading law firms, and to the General Counsel position of an S&P 500 company, where I ran global legal affairs for twenty years.
Telling myself I would never give up got me through my first marathon on the way to running them every year for decades. It led me to think I could do an ultramarathon, and I did several.
That is until I started reading common advice about how to succeed as a writer.
Let me discuss writing advice for a moment before explaining why it's important to take all advice with a grain of salt.
Advice Abounds on How To Succeed as a Writer
A modest amount of searching yields much useful information about writing-related topics:
- How to pick topics worth writing about
- How to hook readers with well-designed titles
- How to format stories to be visually appealing
- How to keep readers engaged and reading to the end
- How to make tactical use of story tags and SEO optimization
Some Advice Is Less Helpful Than Others
You will also encounter well-meant but misguided advice. Unfortunately, I can see that my motto Never Give Up falls into this category.
Write every day. It doesn’t matter what you write. Just keep writing and you will get better.
What’s wrong with this advice?
- It tells you nothing about your odds of success. Will every person who takes up writing be successful? Obviously not. What distinguishes the people who succeed from those who do not? It’s not just a matter of putting in the time.
- It doesn’t tell you how hard you will have to work. Will an hour a week suffice? An hour a day? How about 12 hours a day?
- It tells you nothing about how long you will have to toil before seeing results. Will it take you a week, a month, a year, or a decade?
- It does not reflect your starting abilities or experience. Is English your native language? Do you write professionally for a living?
- It does not acknowledge that success as a writer is not entirely within your control. Circumstances and luck play a big role, in addition to hard work, talent, persistence, etc.
Telling someone to just write is like giving someone advice on how to win the lottery:
This is both true and terrible advice, and it fails only points 1, 3, and 5 above.
Personal Success Stories Are Interesting but Irrelevant
Anecdotal advice about one person’s success draws us in. After all, this person is speaking from experience.
But just because one person succeeded in following a certain method says nothing about whether you will succeed.
Does the person know what all the factors were contributing to their success? Have they been honest, even with themselves, about what drove their results?
Even if they have, are you in the same circumstances as that person? Are you competing in the same environment, with the same people, and in the same manner that they did?
The answer to these questions is inevitable: “No. Your circumstances, environment, and methods will all differ.”
Personal Advice Should Come With a Disclaimer
I’m a lawyer by trade and I know disclaimers are overused.
I nonetheless think anecdotal advice should come with a disclaimer as you see from investment advisors: past results are no guarantee of future performance.
Or a new favorite I saw someone use, "Your results might suck just as much as mine."
No one wants to hear this, because we think there has to be a system, a hack, or a shortcut. So, we keep on investing with last year’s winners and wonder why we don’t get the same results.
What’s an Aspiring Advice-Seeker To Do?
I recommend you continue reading lots of advice. You will come across good advice and less good advice. While reading, practice trying to distinguish good advice from bad advice.
This starts with you asking whether the advice you’re reading is a personal anecdote or whether it is generalizable. Then ask whether the advice applies to you in your particular circumstances.
Remember also that learning what not to do can be even more helpful than following affirmative advice.
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