Tim Ferris sent hundreds of successful people a list of the same 11 interview questions and collated the results of the 140 responses into a book, Tribe of Mentors. This is exactly the type of data a cybernetic approach is for. The interesting things here are less what any individual interviewee said, but patterns in what they said collectively. What were their roadblocks? What was important to them? How did they disagree with each other?
One of my favorite quotes directly attacks the premise of the book: “[Advice] is almost always driven by anecdotal experience, and thus has limited value and relevance .… Ignore advice, especially early in one’s career. There is no universal path to success.” (John Arnold, page 374) It should say something that when retraversing the book to find this quote I stumbled on five similar ones. I agree with the sentiment, but John Arnold misses a broader point, succinctly said by Matsuo Basho as “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” It is not that there is nothing to be learned by listening to advice, it is that advice is not transferable without understanding context or principles. The reasoning behind a conclusion is more useful than the conclusion, and patterns of reasoning across many mentors is even more so. From a single person’s reasoning you can follow their logic and determine how believable their conclusion is for yourself. From the reasoning of many people you have the opportunity to develop principles that you can apply to other contexts. So sure, there is no universal path or even a universal map. But in seeing how many others read the maps of their lives, maybe you can learn to read your own.
Conflicting advice is the best source of this sort of direction. Fortunately, Tribe of Mentors is full of conflicting advice. Tim did an excellent job positioning similar people with strong disagreements – at times I had the thought “didn’t they just say the opposite thing?”, but when I turned back a few pages I saw it was from a different interviewee. The myriad dissonant voices blur together into beautiful higher-order concepts.
For example, here’s a smattering of work life advice from the book:
- “You should set up your life so that it is as comfortable and happy as possible.” (Susan Cain, 13)
- “Ignore anyone who tells you to go for security over experience.” (Patton Oswalt, 106)
- “Advice they should ignore: … Avoid risk. Play it safe.” (Josh Waitzkin, 197)
- “I do not believe in work-life balance.” (Debbie Millman, 29)
- “Burnout is not the price you pay for success.” (Arianna Huffington, 214)
- “Growth and gains from from periods of rest.” (Amelia Boone, 130)
For this I’ll take the position that “The face is that when two extreme opinions meet, the truth lies generally somewhere in the middle.” (Annie Duke, 172) I’d go a step further and claim that not only does the truth of this lie somewhere in the middle, but everyone has to figure out where they fall on the spectrum themselves. Sure, I could be deluding myself that a sense of security is required for my creative work just as someone else might incorrectly think they perform best in adversity. Who are we to question someone else’s self-experience? The best we can do is show them that there are other paths and give them the tools for assessing the one they’re on.