The Sides of the Hill Theory

This post is a corollary to Simplicity, Complexity and a Return to Simplicity

One of the reasons why advice is so tricky is because people are on different sides of the hill. It’s often unclear which side they’re on. Advice to go up the hill is flawed when you’re sitting at the top. Advice to go down also misses the mark when you’re in a valley.

The hill can be anything. I’m not sure the overarching theme, so let’s look at some examples:

If you’re speaking to a crowd of would-be entrepreneurs that are burning through retirement accounts and ruining relationships in order to have a successful company, the advice they need to hear is to calm down. Entrepreneurship isn’t the only thing that matters in life. You need to push them down the hill. Their desire to run a business has gotten too high that it’s harming their well-being.

On the other hand, if you’re talking to a group of students for whom “the future” conjures up images of meaningless corporate work, the advice they need to hear is that entrepreneurship is magic. They need to know they have the power to start a business and change the world.

Advice to the wrong audience makes a bad thing worse. Entrepreneurial encouragement to a group of burnt-out founders validates them. An emphasis on not worrying about work so much drives the unmotivated to stay as they are.

Let’s look at another example:

Happiness is a choice and a skill. – Naval Ravikant

The hill represents how much you believe this idea.

For some people, they’re at the very bottom of the hill. They believe that happiness is caused by external achievement, or it’s something that some people are born with and others aren’t. They have all kinds of excuses for not being happy, most of which are related to the fact that they’re waiting for something that will “make them” happy. The advice these people need is what Naval is saying. You can be happy if you choose to be right now. Simple and powerful.

On the other end of the spectrum, as my friend pointed out the other day, are people who wholeheartedly believe this quote but are going through a tough time. Maybe they’re going through a tough time. Their body is out of whack and they’re in a depressive state. These are valid emotions that we need to feel sometimes. Telling these people to “choose happiness” is not the right solution. It’s advice that makes them feel shame that one could ever have a moment in which happiness wasn’t the right choice.

There are hills everywhere that people are going up and down every day. We need to be careful of how we’re encouraging people to act because it’s impossible to know which side they’re on.

Advice is tricky. It’s autobiographical. It’s situation-specific. It’s a possibility not a prescription.

Know your audience. Know their side of the hill and help them get to a better place.