information vs advice vs anecodtes

This cat is irrelevant. She is just pretty and I missed my train to get this picture. 

Information: sleeping 8 hours a day is good for your health.

Advice: you should sleep 8 hours a day.

Anecdote: I used to sleep 4 hours a day, then I passed out whilst cooking and burnt my house down. 

Big difference, yet an underappreciated one.

Most popular bloggers and writers provide a melange of the three. We all want to learn how to be better and do stuff better. We just dislike getting given straight information and advice. No one wants to read a blog post which tells you to sleep 8 hours a day. That makes us feel guilty about our own sleep schedule.

Instead, we want to hear about the CEO who didn't sleep for 3 weeks, then nearly died, started sleeping 10 hours a night and then increased their revenue by £3 billion. We want to hear how some woman started sleeping an hour extra and lost 30lb in a month. Even information is best digested in the form of a listicle or infographic. Listicles are great because it's obvious what you are getting. Headlines are everything in the current media landscape. 'Top 10 Ways to Fall Asleep in 30 Seconds or Less' is not going to bore you with drivel which makes you feel stupid. Whereas, 'Impact of poor sleep quality and physical inactivity on cognitive function in community-dwelling older adults' will probably not inspire you to sleep more. (I typed 'sleep' into PubMed and that was the first result.)

Self-help books and blog posts are so popular because they make the stuff we know anyway entertaining and digestible. It adds a vital emotional element. This is a bit sad because the science is the key part. Yet very few people look to research papers for self-help inspiration. For example, no doubt thousands (at least) of scientists are researching sleep deprivation. It takes Ariana Huffington talking about her collapse to get people to listen. For example, when I smoked, I obviously knew about the risks of lung cancer. It just took a Reddit post about someone's father dying of it to push me to stop. The 'SMOKING KILLS' label had no impact on my cognitive dissonance. That post did. 

Every living thing in existence is self-absorbed and cares about improving its life.

That all we ever do. One of the things I love about my pet mice is how in the moment they are. They live lives of singular focuses. Eat. Drink. Nest. Run. Groom. Sleep. Each of those activities absorbs their attention. They do not need anyone to tell them how to live. They just do it, without requiring advice and do a good job of it. 

I don't ever intend to give advice. I share anecdotes from my dysfunctional life and spice them up with a dusting of information. My intention is never to tell anyone what to do. Indeed, whenever someone comments or emails saying that they followed something I wrote my initial thought is always: fuck. I bet it went horribly wrong and now they are mad at me. Also, whenever I get an email from someone saying I am wrong about something, their tone is either apologetic or accusative. Apologetic in the sense that they seem worried it will offend me to offer a correction. Accusative in the sense that they think they are one-upping me in some way, or winning some sort of internet points. Both angles are missing the point. I welcome constructive criticism with open arms. If you know more about a topic than I do and want to correct something, please do. I will always respond with gratitude. 

Because advice is a weird concept. Most of the time, the advice we give is the sort we need ourselves the most. Also, it's possible to give very good advice and not follow it yourself. There are plenty of things I know and still do not follow. I know that the sugar I put in my coffee when I go to a cafe is a bad idea. Yes, I have read that it will weaken my gut lining, mess up my insulin resistance and age my skin. Hence, I would never buy it myself. Put me in a cafe though, and my coffee better be sweet. Damn my gut/skin/life expectancy. 

This is a distinction which matters. We tend to overvalue anecdotal evidence, a sort of confirmation bias and a form of cherry picking data. With the explosion of self-help/informative content online, I think it is crucial to understand the differences between the three. Anyone can present anecdotes as information, or information as advice, or advice as information, I do this myself, not because I consider myself to be knowledgeable, but because I am so confident in my ignorance that I assume everyone else is too. 

Don't get me wrong, I disagree with the idea of experts having a monopoly on knowledge. A PhD is not required for a functional understanding of a topic. This is one of the reasons why taking an English degree grated me so much. Literary academia seems predicated on the idea of delving further and further into minutiae until you lose track of the whole.

The difference between someone who studies a topic and someone who applies it to their own life is like the difference between a bodybuilder and a builder.

The bodybuilder works to take their physique to extremes, even if that is harmful to their health. The builder aims to be able to move in a functional way as humans are intended to, to wield a hammer, build walls. Likewise, someone who studies a text is usually looking for evidence to support some useless theory. Meanwhile, the person who reads that same text and is inspired by it is using it in the way it is meant to be used. So many of the so-called experts on a topic are like the bodybuilder who has destroyed his liver and needs to eat every 30 minutes because he has 2% body fat. They have got very good at something and now they have to sustain it. Obviously, I don't reject academia as a whole, just a certain subsection of it. I read a paper at university which began something like 'it is an undeniable fact that bees play a key role in The Portrait of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.' Even if you have not read it, you can guess that this is rubbish. Bees are not even mentioned in the book. Still, some respected academic spent god knows how long writing that because their job necessitates they publish X number of papers per year. 

Essentially, I find that true learning towards what I call 'functional knowledge' requires a mixture of the three. Information, advice, and anecdotes. Information is the hard facts, the science. Advice is how it can be applied to whatever area is relevant, its use. Anecdotes serve to emotionally involve people, to motivate interest.

At the same time, this explosion of self-help books, videos and blogs is problematic.

99.9% of it is the same garbage rehashed countless times. To wake up early, go to sleep earlier. To feel calmer, meditate every morning. To build a habit, repeat it until it sticks. Mindblowing stuff. Then there's all the stuff which is so mind-blowingly obvious that it hurts to see it actually being swallowed by people. I saw a post recently called 'how to stay warm in the winter.' Tip number 1? Wear a jumper. I winced and crossed yet another blogger off the list of ones I can tolerate.

Many of these bloggers justify it by starting every post or video with some statement about how their 13 subscribers have been 'asking non-stop!!' for them to share their secrets. Again, I call bullshit. If anyone is actually asking, it is not because they want to know how said person gets up at 5am or works out for 4 hours a day. They already know the answer, they just want to put off changing by searching for yet more information. 

But also: don't listen to me if you don't want to.

I don't really know anything about anything and will admit that with pride. As Confucius said: "To know that we know what we know and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” 

This cat looked very well rested so I asked what her morning routine is. She told me: wake up, eat, go back to sleep. Now you know the secret. Use it wisely. 

// Rosie

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Rosie Leizrowice