Several times I’ve been asked about the best advice I ever received. This is a favorite topic in interviews, because it’s an interesting question that can be asked of anyone who claims to have wisdom to share. For example, a Google search on site:forbes.com “best advice” turns up over a thousand results. I was asked the same question in a National Science Foundation profile here.
The very first result of the above Google search is entitled Homeless Man Turned Millionaire Offers The Best Advice I Ever Got, where the advice was:
Here’s the secret to success: find something you love to do so much, you can’t wait for the sun to rise to do it all over again.
I don’t believe this really counts as advice. Instead, it’s a principle. As a principle, it may be wise, foolish, or nonsensical, but if it is meant to apply to everyone, regardless of their situation, then it’s a principle.
For me, advice is dependent on an individual’s circumstances, goals, and constraints. If it’s not, then it’s a principle, an example, method, or inspirational story – but it’s not advice.
Why does this distinction matter? Because it cements the idea that before advice is given, the advisor must learn about the advice seeker, for anything but the most generic problems. Since books and the web don’t typically learn anything about their readers (except for clickstreams etc. on the web), good advice is more likely to be gotten from others via personalized interactions rather than from reading material, which does of course offer up valuable principles and stories.