Taking advice

Skin in the right game

Whose advice should you take? There’s no shortage of it. And not all of it is helpful. Nassim Taleb is right that you should listen to people who have had skin in the game – where the results of their choices have mattered. Seek out advisers who have borne the consequences of their actions.

It is helpful if ‘the game’ has a clear way of defining success and has been repeated many times.

This is why I pay attention to people with active military service. The results of their choices are visible and of the highest possible consequences. Their theories and beliefs have been, sadly, tested over thousands of years. They are not speculating or theorising in the abstract.

By the same logic, you also want to pay attention to people with long tenure – their results have had a chance to catch up with them – rather than people who move every eighteen months, one step ahead of being discovered.

But skin in the right sort of game is not enough. The trouble with people who have skin in your game is that they may also have a vested interest. Most obviously, for example, it is unwise to follow a competitor’s advice, however successful that competitor is. You want to listen to people with skin in their game, not yours – who receive no personal benefit from your outcomes. It is surprising how often advice has ulterior motives even when there is no direct competition. Some people want you to suffer the way they suffered; others are jealous of success where they have failed. Some want allies; some want to stand out by culling the taller poppies.

Still not enough. Someone may have skin in their game. Their game may be a good one to learn from. They may be disinterested. But they may not know why they succeeded. They may not be able to be honest about how they achieved their results. Ironically, the more skilled the individual, the more their success may be unconscious to them as it becomes second nature. These may be good people to watch rather than listen to.

This is why I prefer some evidence of failure or struggle and recovery. Such people tend to be more honestly reflective, to have questioned themselves, to know the boundaries and the essentials. They have nothing to lose by coming clean.

Even with consequence, objectivity and self-knowledge, you need to consume advice with caution. Everything is contextual; what works in someone else’s time and place may not work in yours. This is especially true if you are seeking someone outside your field in order to maximise objectivity. It is always caveat emptor. Or is it caveat discipulus?

Now you need to decide whether you should follow my advice about following advice…


Some shorter considerations:

  • Management books. Read the article instead. Most of the new insight in these books can be summarised in six pages. I know the authors need the money from the book, but I’d generally be willing to pay more for the six page version.
  • Beware extremely neat and coherent stories. These are mostly stitched together with the benefit of hindsight. Real leadership is a lot messier. Most successes are partial and hard won.
  • Beware arguments that begin with the thesis that everything is changing ever more rapidly. This is a cliche. It is not universally true and often serves mainly to encourage people to buy things.
  • Beware today’s golden child. The reason some people get feted is because they are good at playing the political game. This is fine if you want to learn PR skills but it may not coincide with their ability to lead their institution. Of course, some people are feted because they are brilliant; judgement is required.
  • Some advisers are inherently contrarian. Whatever you do, they will recommend the opposite. You can use them to improve your plans, but don’t necessarily be deflected from your goals.
  • Some people see the world through a single theory; whatever happens can be explained – or solved – by a single cause. There is only one tool in their box. These people are dangerous guides.
  • Some people are too kind to tell you the truth. Their company is pleasurable, but their advice is lacking.
  • No advice can absolve you of personal responsibility. You have to decide if the source is credible and only you can apply the values against which to judge the advice.

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