Who this is for
This article is specifically for programmers who do some sort of business online. Some it applies to both product businesses and freelancing, but mostly I’m writing this article with freelance programming in mind.
In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan describes something he calls a “baloney detection kit“. The baloney detection kit (BDK) is basically a set of mental tools that can be used to apply skepticism to any particular claim or argument.
To share an example, one item in Carl Sagan’s BDK is the fallacious ad hominem argumentative strategy, i.e. attacking the arguer and not the argument. The example from the book of an ad hominem usage is: “The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously.” (There’s no reason why an argument on evolution from a Biblical fundamentalist should not be taken seriously since it’s the argument itself that needs to be evaluated, not the person producing the argument.)
My BDK takes a slightly different form from Carl Sagan’s but the principle is the same: a checklist that you can go through to help determine whether any particular thing is bullshit.
In my endeavor over the last ten years (and counting) to create a successful online business I’ve consumed a lot of business advice from books, blog posts, podcasts, etc. I think I can pretty safely say that more than half of the advice was either unhelpful or actively harmful. Sometimes the advice was good advice but it wasn’t the right advice for my particular situation at the time. Sometimes the advice was just plain bad advice.
In recent years I’ve had a somewhat close-up view of certain colleagues, particularly freelance programmers, falling for what I clearly see to be bad advice that will for the most part only waste their time and lead to disappointment. This makes me sad and I want to try to help stop it.
Sometimes I’m even a firsthand witness to the bad advice being given. On those occasions I desperately want to speak up and say, “Wait! That’s bad advice!” but a) I’m not always one hundred percent sure I’m right and b) it would obviously be super uncool for me to meddle in other people’s affairs that way anyway. What I do feel comfortable doing is to provide a framework for detecting bullshit freelancing advice.
Before I start I want to say that it is not my goal to personally attack anyone. If you read this and say, “I bet he’s talking about so-and-so!” Maybe I am, but saying “So-and-so has given bad advice” is different from saying “I think so-and-so sucks as a person.” We all make mistakes and all advice-givers, including me, have at one time given some really bad advice. In no case is my intention to say “Don’t listen to so-and-so,” but “Listen to so-and-so except when they give bad advice.”
The online business advice baloney detection kit: questions to ask yourself about any piece of business advice you encounter
Has the advice-giver actually done the thing he or she is advising on? This to me is the most important question to ask because if the answer is no then it’s highly likely that the advice is bullshit. There do exist advice-givers who give good advice despite not having direct experience doing what they advice (Ramit Sethi comes to mind) but most advice-givers are not nearly as sharp or as honest (with their audiences or with themselves) as Ramit is. And if the answer seems to be yes that the person as done the thing that they’re advising on, go deeper. Did they do the exact thing they’re advising or some variation on it? How significant is the variation?
Does the advice-giver have examples of success? Is there any empirical evidence that this works? If the advice-giver can’t produce at least a handful of people who have successfully followed their advice, then that’s a big red flag. If the advice-giver can’t even produce a single example of success, not even themselves, then that’s a screaming-loud alarm bell. And beware of examples that seem legit but really aren’t. Are the supposed success stories examples of people who followed a certain methodology to get where they are, or did the successes blindly stumble into the success they achieved and the advice-giver is retroactively laying a narrative on top of the story to make it look like the success was a result of the methodology? Also, if you’re a programmer, it matters whether the subject of the success story was a programmer or not. The laws of nature in the world of freelance design are different from the laws of nature in the world of freelance programming.
Are the testimonials instances of actual results or just anticipated results? Here’s a testimonial I found on a real sales page, paraphrased to protect the identity of the author: “This system is great. I know my business is going to change if I follow it!” This testimonial contains no evidence that the system actually works.
I want to re-emphasize that just because an advice-giver commits the (virtually unavoidable) sin of occasionally giving bad advice doesn’t automatically mean that that person is generally full of shit nor does it mean that I think you should start ignoring that person forever. It just means that that person gives bad advice once in a while. It’s obviously useful to be able to tell which advice is the good and which is the bad.