The Hidden Value of Negative-Advice

Negative-advice (what not to do) is more valuable than positive-advice (what to do). We should therefore listen to those who failed instead of those who only succeeded. If you’re going to grad school, talk to drop outs, not professors; if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, talk to people who never broke even, not Mark Zuckerberg; if you’re getting married, talk to people who got divorced, not happy couples; if you want to start an acting career, talk to the waiters and waitresses in the L.A. area, not Oscar winners; if you want to buy a book, go on Amazon and read all the bad reviews first. If you’re looking for a role model, search for an antimodel—someone you despise. In sum, when seeking knowledge, we can often get closer to the truth through contradiction and subtraction, not verification.

The problem is that most negative-advice is in the cemetery. In the finance section of your local book store hundreds of books promise the “Ten Simple Steps to Get Rich.” The implication is that if you follow each step, you will become rich. The critical book shopper will ask: “Where are all the books written by people who followed the steps and didn’t get rich?” These would-be authors had a hard time pitching their manuscripts from their graves.

What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan (originally self-published), may be the most important book someone interested in finance could read. Here’s Paul’s bit of negative-advice: “Learning how not to lose money is more important than learning how to make money.”

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