Tips vs Strategy

Let's pretend we've stumbled into the middle of a conversation. It's between two people discussing how to get ahead on a long term goal--in this case, their retirement:

Person A: Have you ever read the Early Retirement Extreme blog? Or Mr. Money Mustache's blog? There's some really useful strategies in those sites.

Person B: You mean Jacob? That weird guy who lives in a trailer? Man, that's crazy. No way would I live in a trailer just so I could retire a few years earlier. And Mr. Money Mustache? I mean, I tried reading him, but he's just a jerk. Too much profanity and he taunts his readers.

See what just happened there, from a psychological standpoint? Let's start with an obvious distinction: these two speakers have dramatically different information gathering techniques. Anyone who open-mindedly reads half a dozen posts or more at ERE or MMM will quickly pick up several striking new ways to think about work, retirement, spending and money. Person A's method of information gathering, likely both strategic and open-minded, enabled him to capture several useful ideas from both sites.

But Person B on the other hand... well, let's be blunt: Person B's mind is closed. And when he does read something, it's likely with a "skim until offended" mindset (this kind of reader wouldn't last three paragraphs at Mr. Money Mustache's blog). Worst of all, Person B uses irrelevant details to invalidate ideas: The fact that Jacob lives in a trailer, or that Mr. Money Mustache is "a jerk" means--to him--that every single one of their ideas is worth no further consideration.

The result, of course, is Person B instantaneously lays waste to an entire ecology of useful ideas.

But what's the central flaw in Person B's approach to new ideas and information? It's this: Person B exists on the level of tips rather than on the level of strategy.

When you live on the level of tips, it's much easier to reject ideas for minor or irrelevant reasons. We humans are cognitive misers: if we want to rule out an entire knowledge domain quickly and with utter totality, just pick any list of tips generated by that strategy and select the worst tip you can find. Bundle that tip with a snarky remark (He lives in a trailer! That's crazy!), et voila: you get to wash your hands of an entire knowledge domain.

But here's the important part: the tip is not the strategy. They are not the same. By conflating them, Person B ends up rejecting a highly desirable strategy (pursuing financial independence) merely because one potential implementation of that strategy (living in a trailer) sounds dumb to him.

Remember: we stumbled into a conversation between two people talking about getting ahead on retirement planning. The fact that Person B is even participating in this conversation--to the point where Person A offered him a couple of deeply useful resources--suggests that Person B has serious interest in the topic. The problem of course, is that Person B also has some serious mental baggage to work through before he's ready to make forward progress.

I see this phenomenon a lot--a lot--among people grappling with large, long-term strategic projects like retirement, learning to invest, improving your diet, improving your fitness, becoming more well-read, and many other subject domains.

Remember, we humans are cognitive misers. In the short run, it's far easier, cognitively speaking, to blow an entire subject domain out of the water with a remark. In the long run... well, let's just say I'd lay money on Person A being the one who makes progress in these domains. Wouldn't you?

Don't confuse tips with strategies. If you find yourself rejecting a tip a little too quickly, a little too autonomically, stop. Go back. Chances are there's something there that you're resisting--something you probably should look at more closely. The key cue here is the instantaneous, automatic rejection.

When you live on the level of strategy, however, tips stop mattering so much. They don't swing your opinion at all about the overall strategy. You're already aware that some tips fit your strategy while some don't. You'll also be generative with your tips: Rather than seeking out (and rejecting) tips one by one, you'll produce your own.

No single tip can invalidate a strategy. After all, there's a central truth about all tips: it takes exactly the same amount of thought and creativity to to tweak a tip to meet your needs than to reject it with a snarky putdown. Thus if you react negatively to advice at the tip level, it's strong evidence of a significant incongruency between your current mental state and your true goals.

Finally, here's something you'll notice once you grasp and adopt a given strategy, and once you find others to discuss it with who have done the same: The dialog becomes a lot less snarky. There are no put-downs, no condescending remarks. The conversation becomes generative, creative. And you take positive action to attack and achieve your goals, whatever those goals might be.

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chacha1 said...

"skim until offended" - boy there is a lot of that going around, isn't there?! LOL

Dan, this is a GREAT post and I am already thinking about how to apply it to something I just wrote.

Am also going to share on FB because I think several of my friends are going to find it provocative, in a constructive way.

David Somerville said...

I like your inclusion of a "trigger" to clue you in when you are being boneheaded.

Automatic rejection of ideas should always let us know we are WAY too fixed in our thought patterns!

Marcia said...

I just finished reading (again) Jacob's book and I enjoyed the section about trips vs. strategy.