Questions are better than advice
It may be bold to write an advice piece on why most advice sucks, yet here we are.
There are some pearls of wisdom–classics that stand the test of time and fit in many (but not all) scenarios. Beyond that, though, let’s explore why most advice is dog shit, and you should consider questions to be the true currency of lasting personal change. Questions allow someone to set their trail toward their very particular definition of success, while advice is a more generalized one-size-fits-all solution that only works in a vacuum.
The problem with advice
You need to wake up at 4 am every day, do an immediate cold plunge, go for a run, eat a 500-calorie breakfast, meditate for 30 minutes, journal for 30 more, be the first one in the office, use the Pomodoro technique to Crush. That. Shit all day until you get promoted, be extra social once work is done (you’ll get sick otherwise), be sure to follow the 50/30/20 rule of money so you spend 50%, allocate 30% to wants, and save the remaining 20%. Are you enjoying this run-on sentence? Good, because we’ve barely begun. Consider taking up a hobby rather than just watching Netflix, spend a lot of quality time with your kids because if you don’t they’ll turn into axe-murderers that never move out (a clear conundrum on two fronts) and get to bed early because without 8 hours of sleep you’re legally experiencing life as a drunk.
That’s a bit overwhelming. And there’s an obvious problem. Ready? Deep breath!
You need to find your optimal sleep amount, so allow your body to dictate when you wake up, take a warm shower because goddammit you’re too hard on yourself, and you deserve it, don’t worry about breakfast because if you’re not intermittent fasting you’re a punchline with pants, don’t worry about getting into the office early because it’ll just set unreasonable expectations in the eyes of the boss and fuck that guy forever, do not under any circumstance hang out with your workmates because they’re toxic, be mindful of your looming student debt so if you’re saving only 30% of your income you might as well die, you’re burnt-out so for god sake give yourself permission to order a pizza and watch Netflix tonight, say goodnight to your kids but please stop sacrificing your sanity for the ideal childhood that only exists in your mind.
Uh-oh spaghetti-o! Look at all the contradictions. The best part? None of it is all that wrong—the chronic workaholic needs to order that pizza and watch some Netflix. The underachiever who’s more afraid of failing than trying should dial things up a bit. The parent spending their weekends working “to make a better life for their kids” needs to watch a little league game, and the parent suffocating their kids with attention needs to give them some air.
We’ve all been shaped by millions of micro-moments, each sending us to a never-before-read page of our Choose Your Own Adventure, and this dance will continue until our adventure ends. And yet we pore over the actions of people we’d rather be in an effort to become them as if you could pull a building off a foundation, drop a new one in the hole and have things magically function.
Advice does not interface with the system that is you. We try to jam it in there, not realizing at times it’s like trying to play a DVD on a kitchen mixer. Perhaps if somebody is very much like you and has some actionable advice that fits your unique scenario it can be constructive. However, the same advice will have very different outcomes across a population.
Advice Ignores motivation
The following is the daily food consumption of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson:
“Power Breakfast” (meal #1)
flank steak (8 ounces)
eggs (whole and egg whites)
brown rice (1.5 cups)
sautéed mushrooms, onions, and peppers
Mid-morning (meal #2)
cod (8 ounces)
sweet potato (12 ounces)
vegetables (1 cup)
Lunch (meal #3)
chicken (8 ounces)
white rice (2 cups)
vegetables (1 cup)
Mid-afternoon (meal #4)
cod (8 ounces)
white rice (2 cups)
vegetables (1 cup)
fish oil (1 tbsp.)
Late afternoon (meal #5)
steak (8 ounces)
baked potato (12 ounces)
First dinner (meal #6)
cod (10 ounces)
white rice (2 cups)
salad (leafy greens)
Second dinner (meal #7)
egg white omelet (10 eggs)
vegetables (1 cup)
fish oil (1 tbsp.)
whey protein (30 grams)
He’s eating sEVeN aND a HaLf cUpS oF RiCE eVerY DAy. I don’t know why that particular stat from that train wreck stands out to me. Also, don’t think I didn’t notice that Breakfast #1 contains an indiscriminate number of eggs. Seeing as his second dinner contains 10, I bet it’s a lot. I also like how he’s eaten 16 oz of cod before the meal where he eats a lot of cod.
If you want to watch a man almost die, Sean Evans, current host of Hot Ones (an online interview show where celebrities eat increasingly hotter wings and answer questions), first became known as a guy who tried this very diet. If you don’t care to watch, here’s the main takeaway: he hurls by 2:30 pm.
You can argue that The Rock is a freak human, and we should acknowledge this. He’s a 51-year-old man who looks like the 30-year-old version of himself ate the 25-year-old version of himself. Perhaps he is the truest definition of an outlier that we have. However, that being true doesn’t take away from the fact that in bodybuilding circles, his diet isn’t all that strange. Dig into the world of these people (I dare you), and you’ll see that finding the line between eating until you want to throw up and eating until you actually do is a hobby for them.
Nobody would ever say a regular person should eat like a bodybuilder for one obvious reason: not everyone cares to be a bodybuilder. It makes sense for The Rock to do what he does because his entire life revolves around looking a certain way. If you’re trying to be the best dad you can be, there is no optimal amount of cod.
And yet this is not far off from what many of us do. We pick and choose the routines from fantastical people and become curious when the results don’t match up. All the while, one question seems to go unanswered: what is most important to you? If you’d report that family is your biggest concern while simultaneously integrating the routines of a CEO that memorizes quarterly earnings reports instead of their kids’ birthdays–you are steering your ship in a very curious direction.
When you think of the most significant achievement possible, is it to be a great parent, a great partner, or find enjoyment in life itself? If that’s the case, you likely won’t find it in the hundreds of people we idolize because we idolize people for strange reasons. The rockstar parent, incredibly caring partner, or all-around happy person aren’t noticeable in the same way the more traditionally “successful” people are who are giving us all this advice.
Advice remains constant in a fluid world
The ever-changing nature of life almost guarantees that what you optimize for today won’t be what you optimize for in several years. This can be both intentional and forced upon you. For example, if you have a toddler, what you optimize for won’t be necessary or valuable once that child becomes a teenager and begins striving for independence. Perhaps at some points in your life you need to put the blinders on and focus exclusively on your family, while at others the career will take centre stage.
Advice tends to ignore this complexity. Just glancing at my YouTube recommendations page, I can see the following titles: Start Each Day with 2 Focused Hours of Writing, Cardiovascular Health is the Key to Aging Well, Don’t Get a Job, and Teach Your Kids How to Fail. All those lines of advice have their place. The thing is, they don’t fit nicely into a life where you’re actively procrastinating at your job with writing, you need to focus more on your kids than your running routine, you actually do super need a job, and your kid is becoming concerningly adept at failing and needs a goddamn win.
Following advice too rigidly can keep us from adapting to what best fits the moment. So what works better?
The answer is in questions
If you’ve ever tried to make a toddler do anything, you know the secret trick is to make them think they came up with the idea themselves. Just as we can’t force our brains to do something, the solution must almost always come from within. It’s a problem of internal vs external motivations. The toddler doesn’t want to hurt their hands in the cold; they just want you to lose the battle of wills (because toddlers are fucking awful).
Solutions to problems almost always arise more naturally when they have an internal genesis. You can hear the same advice hundreds of times, but it never sticks until you believe it on a personal level. In short, we’re all angry toddlers, and the advice-givers are know-it-all parents who want to pretend they’re better than us.
Questions are how we trick the system. Questions allow us to generate the advice ourselves rather than some smug bastard who thinks they know us. Advice can be good, but it matters where it comes from, and ideally, it comes from within. Questions allow for agency and personal exploration. They allow us to hold up an idea against the one thing only we can possess as individuals: our complex and unique history. They create a dialogue to explore, almost like a mental journaling exercise.
Finding Blind Spots
Our unique experiences have given us all blindspots. When I was a child I was told–with much enthusiasm–how smart I was. See, my brother was very clever, so it was expected that I’d follow in his footsteps when I entered school. Every teacher had a story about my brother and how they expected big things from me, and for the most part, I delivered.
Then one day, we moved from our small town to a big city. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a tiny fish in an ocean. I arrived bright-eyed and enthusiastic to bestow my various wisdoms on my grade 8 class. I was, after all, a fucking genius.
It turns out nobody cared. Teachers suddenly weren’t grading my papers with an existing bias of expected brilliance, so they could see that my work wasn’t all that impressive. The top of the class was no longer ripe for the picking by a kid who could give a “good enough” effort–it was secured by 15 kids with fiercely serious parents and teams of tutors.
A light was shone on my normal, and it was humiliating. Coming face to face with my average grades was a lot for a kid used to impressing everybody, so I did what many do: I frantically looked for excuses. The tests were too hard, the teachers sucked, I’m just not a multiple-choice-test guy, it’s more important to focus on <random thing> than school, we’ll never use this stuff anyways, Mercury is in retrograde how do you expect me to handle that? You name it, I used it as an excuse—anything not to feel that discomfort. I became a machine that ran on slurpees and self-sabotage.
This thinking continued for about two decades, always accompanied by the ever-present understanding that I wasn’t very bright. I was a fraud, buoyed by teachers who saw what they expected to see early in life.
It wasn’t until I had my kids that I understood better what was happening. I was digging into ways I could raise them without turning them into axe murderers who never move out when I came across an interesting factoid: kids flourish when praised for trying hard, and they crumble when told they’re smart.
As it turns out, a typical result of telling kids they’re naturally intelligent is that they handle setbacks in an interesting way. Kids are stupid, and this is by design. Sure, some of us got good at memorizing fact sheets because we were particularly attuned to the cheers of our parents, but wisdom comes with experience, which takes time + failure. For a child who’s told they’re brilliant, the inevitable day they realize they don’t know a bunch of stuff can become highly painful. And what do we do when we encounter pain? Whatever we can to avoid it.
This entire experience created a devastating blind spot that followed me until my mid-30s: the feeling that I wasn’t intelligent or able to learn.
You no doubt have some of these blind spots as well. Nobody escapes childhood without something weighing them down. We all emerge with beliefs that are–by and large–total bullshit. One-off experiences that “taught you about life” were little more than random occurrences or stuff our parents (who we thought were infinitely wise) made up on a whim.
Identifying our blind spots is a challenging task. They’re not called “blinky technicolour spots” for a reason… we’re blind to them. But questions can help us get there. They’re part of our reflective work to remove some layers and trace the cords back to the wall.
Reframing challenges as opportunities
The curious and immense power of reframing is available to us in the realm of questions but absent in advice. Reframing requires a fluid view of how we interact with the world. When we can ask ourselves how we can view a particular scenario in a different light, we unlock seldom-recognized solutions.
The ability to view challenges as opportunities is a delightful skill but one that requires a great deal of practice. Finding the potential upside while caught in the riptide is far more complex than “turn that frown upside down.” Cute rhyme, but bullshit advice unless paired with instruction on how to do such a thing.
One place we can start to grow such a skill is in the safe confines of quiet reflection after the challenge has been resolved. Once the dust has settled, taking stock of lessons learned, unexpected opportunities gained, and wounds that healed over stronger than before is much easier. With enough noticing, we may be able to eventually recognize that there could be an eventual upside to whatever struggle we find ourselves in. It will likely be very undramatic, and it won’t solve our struggle, but it can offer a slight glimmer of hope that could help us move forward.
With enough practice, you even stand a chance to become one of those weirdos who grow to welcome difficult challenges. I know, I don’t get them either. They do exist, though, and they do so mainly because they spend so much time reflecting on all the wondrous things they’ve gained through moments of pain and loss. Most of that reflection is done by way of asking questions.
Questions that move the needle
Questions cut through individual differences because you ultimately get to be the one who frames the answer. Let’s look at a bunch I’ve gathered that I find personally helpful.
- Have any habits contributed to this situation?
- If I were an outside observer with zero emotional involvement, what advice would I give myself?
- How bulletproof would I feel tomorrow if I solved this problem today?
- What is the worst-case scenario of this problem (that is reasonable)? If it happened, could I survive it?
- What does my life look like if this problem weren’t in it? What would I give to have that life?
- What is one action I can do right now to move the needle on this problem?
- What is the cost of solving this problem? What is the cost of not solving this problem? Which is greater?
- If I was visited by future-me (assuming they solved the issue), what advice would they give me?
- How much of my perception of this problem is based on facts, and how much is based on assumptions/feelings?
- Is there anything from my past that might make this seem more significant than it is or add a tinge of emotionality to it?
- What fears or insecurities are being triggered by this problem?
- Has this problem been made worse by a failure to create personal boundaries?
- What is something this problem has taught me about myself?
- Do I know anybody who’s had a similar problem to this? Are they available to talk to?
- How much self-blame do I feel right now? Am I being kind to myself?
- The Six Big Things are sleeping 8 hours, eating real food, moving the body, going outside, being social, and doing relaxation exercises. Am I neglecting any of those things right now?
- What would my day look like if this problem had to be solved by the end of the day (gun to my head)? Is anything from that scenario doable?
- How is this problem impacting my relationships?
- Does this problem create any friction against my core values?
- Is this problem entirely unexpected?
- Did I do something to get me in this predicament? Have I taken responsibility for that?
- How would the person I want to become solve this problem?
- Have any historical figures dealt with this issue before? How did they do it?
- If I sat down with somebody who was almost obnoxiously direct and pulled no punches, what would they advise I do?
- If I sat down with somebody who was almost obnoxiously loving and understanding, what would they advise me to do?
- Am I focusing more on the problem than the solutions?
- If I enacted the solution to this problem, who else beyond me would benefit?
When faced with a problem, advice is a straight road to what the advice-giver believes is a success. Questions are more nebulous and unappealing in how indirect they can be, but they offer many clear advantages. They help us understand the problem better, as well as ourselves and our motivations. They also illuminate our blind spots that could be the root of the problem itself. The first step to finding a solution is understanding the problem; questions allow us to do that.
Advice is a one-size-fits-some solution. It’s delivered (with good intentions) by people who’ve taken a hyper-specific path that could deviate from yours wildly, rendering it ineffective. Advice-givers contradict each other constantly for this reason, and it usually neglects where on the spectrum of the issue you happen to be. People can fall into categories such as depressed, manic, bored, distracted, scared, excited, or any combination of the previous–and they’d all need very different advice.
Advice also ignores motivation. It doesn’t account for the fact that you may not care to be outrageously rich, bulging with muscles, or the talk of the town. What you want most in life is unique, and the path to getting there is certainly different than the path for someone with opposite desires. It makes no sense for a junior lawyer with ambitions of world domination to follow the same morning routine as a librarian who wants a lovely garden (unless she wants to dominate the world with her garden).
Advice ignores the ever-changing nature of life, which dictates that what works today might not work tomorrow. What you’re into today likely won’t be what you’re into in five years, and that’s not due to some horrible catastrophe–that’s just what we do.
Questions are an alternative to advice that allow life’s fluidity to work with us instead of against us. Rather than force the brain, we become interested in it and allow it to chart its path forward. They allow for internal solutions that sound the same as advice but feel much different. They stimulate curiosity, encourage the exploration of alternative perspectives, and enable individuals to discover new possibilities.