Giving advice is tricky. First, you might not know what advice to give. Then, even if you know the absolutely right solution, the asker might not follow your advice. This has led some people to give advice based on what they believe the asker might follow instead of what may be more useful. I guess for me, that rings false because lawyers don’t get to give illegal advice just because we believe our clients are crooks.
Others believe that people may follow their advice but will be disappointed if they get different results. These people are very wary of giving advice of the “I did this, you can too!” varietal. They say insinuating similar or even positive results could be misleading. I’d like to think that people have seen the Etsy Fail blog and/or understand the term “your mileage may vary.” You train as hard but you don’t run as fast in the race. You study as hard but get different grades. You can diet and exercise and still not be as skinny as someone who eats whatever they want and lays on the couch. This is something we all learn about pretty early in life – life is not a simple cause and effect machine.
My thoughts on this: if the advice is solid, I don’t think we should concern ourselves with the results. First of all, none of us can guarantee or predict results. (The only people who try to do so are selling something.) If you write solid advice to a group of people, you can’t take on too much responsibility for what happens. We can’t predict the future for ourselves, let alone anyone else. The only thing we can control is our choices.
Second, the process is more important than the results. I believe in teaching good habits, even if the results will inevitably vary. If we focus too much on the end result, if we get too caught up in “well she has these advantages” or “he has these deficiencies,” no one will ever start anything. And that may be the worst kind of advice. If we focus on the journey and the good habits, I think it would be exceedingly rare for anyone to get to the end and think, I wish I hadn’t even started.
I think about the call for transparency in personal finance blogs and I wonder if that’s beneficial. Let’s say someone reads the Frugalwoods, who have gotten some heat for pretending to be middle class while earning a $300k salary, and the reader is inspired to live a simpler, less expensive lifestyle and save more. Is there a bad outcome in this scenario? To me, the ends justify the means.
Some might say, bloggers can be inspiring while being honest. But I’ve disclosed that I have a high salary, and I’ve already heard a few comments that imply that I’m unrelatable. I think people get most inspired by those who seem similar to themselves. If you broadcast you have a high salary, fewer people will think they can follow you, even if the advice and the steps are the same. If you broadcast your high salary, other people will focus on the results, see it as unobtainable and they might not even start. That’s a bad outcome. So if some bloggers want to create a facade of being low-income and that facade helps more people, who am I to judge? They are helping people. I am unrelatable.
Some might also say that bloggers could more transparently advertise the difficulties in their paths, but I wonder if this is also counterproductive. When I think about everything I’ve ever accomplished in my life, I’ve never thought about the obstacles or my deficiencies. For instance, my friends wanted to run a marathon, and I figured I would join them. I had never run more than 10 miles before but I followed Hal Higdon’s program and I was fine. I think if someone had told me that I wouldn’t make it, I probably would have backed out. Some people like to prove people wrong – I am not one of those people. Lots of people are easily discouraged.
This is the beautiful thing about tiger moms. They assume their kids are capable and make their kids keep trying. Usually the kids soar because the kids have no idea that they can’t do it. I think it’s also true for adults – if you have high expectations, people will reach them more often than you would expect. Part of it is that you have no idea what the other person can accomplish and the other part is that people stretch to achieve what they believe they can achieve.
I think there are enough naysayers in the world that I don’t need to be one of them. And I think the basic tenets of personal finance are something that nearly everyone can do.
In fact, succeeding in personal finance is not that surprising, even if you start from the bottom. When I think of all the amazing things that people have accomplished when they really shouldn’t have, personal finance seems easy. Like Spud Webb never should have made it to the NBA. There are guys who are 6’8″ who don’t make it to the NBA. So someone who is 5’7″ generally has no chance. And no way would he ever have the chance to compete or win a dunk contest. I’m sure everyone told this to Spud Webb. I’m sure the number of people who believed in him making it to the NBA was very small. I’m sure there were a number of people who told him to do something easier. If he focused on the results, he wouldn’t be Spud Webb. He just focused on being an awesome basketball player. (See also Muggsy Bogues)
I think of the pianist with only one hand. There are people with two hands who aren’t pianists. Hey buddy, let’s steer you to painting instead (I mean, you don’t need both hands for painting and there’s a quadriplegic painter, so one hand doesn’t seem so bad). There are tons of things that someone with only one hand can do easily – playing the piano is one of the hardest. But that guy said no, I want to play the piano. And he did.
I remember I heard an interview with a man without limbs who became a wrestler and when I tried looking him up, I couldn’t figure out which search result was him because there were multiple successful limbless wrestlers.
I’m following the budding career of Shaquem Griffin, the first one handed-NFL player in the modern era. Now, if I had a son with one hand who wanted to be in sports, I would direct him towards running or soccer. And those would have been the safe choices. But it’s also less inspiring.
Shaquem Griffin was selected in the fifth round – he wasn’t a sought-after prospect. He knew the odds were against him in the draft. But from what I read from his interviews before he got drafted, the results of the draft, which he couldn’t control, were not the most important thing. He had already created a life for himself where he didn’t say, this is my disability, what can I still do? He started with, this is what I want to do and I won’t let my disability hold me back. And that’s the kind of mindset that is going to get him far and inspire others. That’s the kind of mindset I want to cultivate in myself and others.
It would have been very good advice to tell any of these people why they couldn’t do what they were trying to do. Why waste your time? Try something easier. That’s focusing on the results, not the process. All of these people succeeded because they focused on the process and weren’t too afraid to start.
So when people say, people can’t save money, I’m surprised. There are countless dyslexic authors, but telling someone they can save money is setting people’s hopes up. Because saving money, that’s impossible.
I’m not saying the message should be, you will get a million dollars by age 35. The message should be, if you develop these habits, you will have a great chance at succeeding no matter where you start from. Yes there will be obstacles and challenges and setbacks. I have no idea what those will be like for you. But I believe in starting and I believe in the process. And I believe anyone can. I also believe in the great Rumi quote:
Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.
Jordan B. Peterson describes a very optimistic view of life whereby a person thinks that all one’s problems are caused by oneself. That way, each person is totally in control of his/her own destiny. I mean, it’s not true. We are not the masters of our own fate. But what if we acted as if we were? Those who think they are the protagonists in their dramas have a lot more say in their outcomes than those who see themselves as victims.
People say you can encourage people but the ethical thing to do is to stifle their expectations lest they be disappointed. I say, why? If more people believe they can, more people will.