Last week I got an email from a young reader asking me to pass on the wisest piece of advice that I had ever been given.
I thought for a bit but couldn’t think of any advice at all. My parents were not the sort to hand out all-purpose tips, although my father did sometimes gloomily quote GK Chesterton as he botched a repair of some broken crockery: if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
These past two decades I have been up to my neck in advice from business leaders in books, blogs, articles and interviews, but none of it has stuck. The only tip that I can remember came from the recently deceased feminist sex kitten, Helen Gurley Brown: what you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.
I admire the common sense of this although I’m not sure it stands up to close analysis. To say your raw material is you isn’t all that helpful as who else would it be? And to say you must never let up is depressingly relentless. I’d prefer some guidance on when it is safe to let up and when it isn’t.
In search of something better, I turned to LinkedIn, which has published a collection of top advice from its “influencers” – the big names who write blogs on the site for the general glory of it.
Here is a selection of their advice. Create a win-win situation; Lead with your head, heart and hands; Learn to tell stories; Be in the game.
Although drearily feeble, at least this stuff is harmless, which is more than can be said for the bulk of the tips. Many are so dangerous, one fears for the hundreds of thousands of LinkedIn users who appear to have lapped them up.
One person advises:" It's OK not to know." On the contrary, it's not okay at all. Think of Paul Flowers, former chairman of the Co-operative Bank appearing before the treasury select committee last year. It was not remotely okay not to know that the organisation had £47 billion in assets and think it had only £3 billion.
"Knowing yourself is the key to success." Again, no, it is not. As Oscar Wilde once pointed out, only the shallow can ever know themselves.
“Great leaders say we.” Wrong. Great leaders say I. They lead from the front and take responsibility for what they are doing.
Head for the beach
"When things go wrong, go surfing." Maybe if you have made as much money as the partner of Sequoia Capital who supplied this tip, you can afford to head for the beach when calamity strikes. The rest of us would be better advised to stay put and sort it out.
The only good tip comes from the chairman of Yahoo, who posts: “I’m 58 and my best years are ahead.” Yet I think it might be mean to send it to the young reader. No one is interested in jam tomorrow, when tomorrow is quite such a long way off.
So I gave up on LinkedIn and turned instead to a proof copy of a book I’ve just been sent containing top advice from famous figures. At once things looked up. The first tip I came upon read: “You can’t be too cocky, anyone who thinks they are going to win them all is going to wind up a huge loser.”
I like this a great deal. It is wise and punchy. There is only one thing wrong with it. The person who said it was Donald Trump, possibly the cockiest man alive.
His quote comes from a witty collection by Zac Bissonnette of wise(ish) words from people who it appears proceeded spectacularly not to follow them.
Other great tips include this from Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers: "When you know what you are talking about, others will follow you, because it's safe to follow you." And even scarier, this from OJ Simpson: "The day you take complete responsibility for yourself, the day you stop making any excuse, that's the day you start to the top."
The book tells us something important about advice in general. From the issuer’s point of view, admonitions are not meant to be followed at all. In fact, they are positioning statements that tell the world about the values the issuer would like it to think they hold.
From the recipient's perspective there is no question of following the advice anyway. As John Steinbeck pointed out "Nobody wants advice – only corroboration."
Even so, I'm not going to leave my young man empty-handed. Instead I've drawn up my own positioning statement. I haven't always followed it, but whenever I have departed from it (as I described in a column last week), I have lived to regret it.
My advice goes like this: "If you ever find a zone that is truly comfortable, don't dream of getting out of it. Stay put."
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014