Home > musing > “The problem here is not the message. The problem is the messenger.”

“The problem here is not the message. The problem is the messenger.”

March 14, 2013

Today’s post is basically going to consist of me wishing I’d written this Gawker piece which was actually written by Hamilton Nolan and was entitled “It Would Be Great if Millionaires Would Not Lecture Us on ‘Living With Less’”.

To enjoy it as much as I did, you’d have to read this New York Times Opinion piece first, in which Graham Hill, who made a bajillion dollars in the dot com era, realizes he had too much stuff and now has less stuff and is telling us how great it is. Most cloying line: “the things I consumed ended up consuming me.”

At the risk of quoting Nolan’s entire article (the title of my post is his), let me start you with this:

There is something about achieving great financial success that seduces people into believing that they are life coaches. This problem seems particularly endemic to the tech millionaire set. You are not simply Some Fucking Guy Who Sold Your Internet Company For a Lot of Money; you are a lifestyle guru, with many important and penetrating insight about How to Live that must be shared with the common people.

We would humbly request that this stop.

I’ll skip over some parts and get to where he talks about Amanda Palmer:

The problem here is not the message. The problem is the messenger. More specifically, it is the messenger using his own life as supporting evidence for the message. Were Graham Hill to simply write a fact-based essay arguing that Americans should cut down on material possessions in order to save the environment and gain peace of mind, he would doubtless hear a chorus of support. But for Graham Hill, a young millionaire who was fortunate enough to sell his “pre-Netscape browser” at the high point of the internet bubble, to say to the average American, “My journey through the perils of great wealth has bestowed me with wisdom that is directly applicable to you” is simply false. It is no wonder that Hill loved the recent TED talk by millionaire musician Amanda Palmer, in which she argued that it was perfectly fair for her to, for example, accept a free night of lodging in the home of poor Honduran immigrants and not pay them for it, because the beauty of her music is payment enough. Both are insulated enough from the realities of personal finance to forget about them entirely.

True! And I’d add more in the Amanda Palmer case. She and I went to the same high school and I have known her since she was in 7th grade.

I’ll tell you what. She’s not your average artist. She’s hugely exhibitionist. This has worked great for her, but is not a typical artistic personality. In fact she’s essentially a cult leader. So yes, when you’re an artist/ cult leader, it makes sense to “let your fans pay you”. But if you’re a typical starving, introverted, sensitive soul, then not so much. How can she speak for all artists and ask them to do stuff just like her? Or rather, why does she think it would scale?

Mind you, I’m guilty of this problem too. When I give advice, which I do all the time, I pretty much always tell people what works for me. But my evidence that the same approach would work for them is slight.

That begs the question, how do we do better than this? How do we tailor our advice to make it useful?

Categories: musing
  1. March 14, 2013 at 6:43 am

    one of my favorite quotes, which I most usually forget to apply, is, “All advice is auto-biographical.” (variously attributed)


    • March 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      Agree. How many memes are posted on Facebook, in order to tell you and me what the person posting needs to hear, or once needed to hear?


  2. March 14, 2013 at 6:58 am

    YEAH, like these sore winners:


  3. Aaron
    March 14, 2013 at 8:41 am

    There is a new pope today. He chose to name himself after this guy:


  4. Linda
    March 14, 2013 at 9:00 am

    From John Lanchester’s book I.O.U:
    “For most adults, the sensation of being proved right is usually a complex and bittersweet one. You might have said that your brother-in-law would turn out to be a nogoodnik, or that the forty-third president would turn out to be the worst in American history, and you may regard subsequent events as unarguable proof that you were right–but it’s not an especially happy feeling. It changes nothing about the world outside your head. You were right. Congratulations. And? One of the peculiar things about the world of finance is that it freely offers the sensation of being proved right to its practitioners. Every transaction in the markets has a buyer and a seller, and in most cases one of them is right and the other wrong, because the price goes either up or down. The cumulative weight of this rightness-or-wrongness is one of the things that makes financial types psychologically distinctive. Artists, sportsmen, surgeons, plumbers and the rest of us have secret voices of doubt, inner reservations about ourselves, but if you go to work with money and make money, you can be proved right in the most inhumanly pure way. This is why people who have succeeded in the world of money tend to have such a high opinion of themselves. And this is why they seem to regard themselves as paragons of rationality. . .one of our culture’s deepest beliefs is expressed in the question “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”. But people in finance are rich–so it logically follows that everything they choose to do must be smart.”


  5. Al
    March 14, 2013 at 9:05 am

    I try to make a habit of avoiding people who give unsolicited advice while trying to find people who ask questions which lead to mutual growth.


  6. March 14, 2013 at 9:22 am

    An attempt to “tailor our advice” would seem likely to create the very thing you are lamenting against. Sounds like the ego talking (and specifically shadow denial of the ego). I guess for me parenting teenage children is instructive; I love them so I speak from the heart. Humility. Maybe that’s an answer?


  7. March 14, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I’m just one non-quant, small-fry casting pebbles into the ocean, but advice is only useful to me when it comes from someone I trust. Maybe advice doesn’t need to be ‘tailored,’ just sourced from trust.

    Ask most people what trust is (or how to build it) and I get a lot of vague ‘You knows’ and trivial examples. I break down trust heuristically as a subjectively weighted mix of:

    * Integrity – Does the Advisor literally and visibly (even when it’s not easy) ‘walk the talk’?
    * Reliability – Does the Advisor consistently deliver the ‘goods’ (even when it’s not easy)?
    * Competence – Is the Advisor qualified to advise?

    All that, and maybe most importantly, do I give the Advisor ‘authority’ or permission to influence my life? Obviously, I’m the final gatekeeper with the highest stake in the game!

    Whom do I trust these days? Mmmmm….


  8. Not the Pope
    March 14, 2013 at 10:43 am

    I belong to an Occupy breakaway – I’ll not say which one – and while I grant that debate towards consensus isn’t the same as giving advice, there are some similarities. There are a few members who are well engaged, vocal about their opinions and passionate about the aims of the group, but they insist on using themselves as the prime example of the general condition, and I tell you, it only undermines their positions, at least to my ears. You do that too many times, it starts to sound like “you” are the standard, the very generalized condition, rather than one highly contingent instance. The aforementioned Humility would seem to preclude too much “what I would do”, because isn’t the question really “what should be done”?


  9. March 14, 2013 at 11:17 am

    “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words,” said Francis of Assisi. Emerson: “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” They appear to have been asking the same question; it’s who you are more than you what say (or how you say/”tailor” that matters?


  10. March 14, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Mathbabe you are half-right about Amanda Palmer and the conundrum she represents. I think that artists less prone to self promotion and exhibition MOST need new tools and approaches that enable their fans to easily and directly support and appreciate them.


    • March 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      I agree. That’s why it’s not the message but the messenger. To the extent that she’s right that we need to change the business model for artists, she’s right for all artists. But her specific style is of course not right at all for most artists.


  11. March 14, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I find that learning from others’ mistakes works better than learning from others’ successes. I’m not sure how that would fit in this case… Perhaps, “Don’t have too much stuff,” rather than, “Have very little stuff”?


  12. Evelyn
    March 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    “How do we tailor our advice to make it useful?”

    By teaching the skills of personal science.

    How to come up with an idea to test. How to gather baseline data. How to run a blinded experiment. How to gather experimental data. How to do a basic statistical analysis (is this different? how likely is the difference due to random chance?). How to write up a simple experiment report, which includes some discussion of whether this change makes practical economic sense, in the context of my life.

    Everyone has things they want to improve in their life. And a lot of advice is coming from people who are in different circumstances (age; gender; available resources; already tried some common, effective solutions). Testing within your own context is how you discover the things that work best within your context.


    • March 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm

      Good advice in theory but the chance that your pool will every be large enough for statistical significance in any one arena is slim.


  13. March 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Very good points made here and from the heath care side of this I have also spoken about the media telling obese and sedentary people they are the cause of the faltering of the economy and while analytics have shown there’s more potential cost as there’s one more issue to address versus one who is not let’s say obese or sedentary, this is not shaking the economy down, it was created in the financial area, so the subliminal efforts of this type of media bothers me. Sure it’s a focus and education is the best to help people but cut the reports and studies that put people in this “evil twin” category by all means.

    Different things work for different folks and it very much bothers me to see some of marketing that is dumped out there today and the way it is used. Information is powerful but dangerous when used out of context I think.


  14. griznog
    March 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    My experience as a parent destroyed any lingering idea that I was qualified to give advice. As a child I was not required to go to school unless I wanted to and in general my parents were pretty relaxed with regard to any kind of life-direction choices, the result being that I voluntarily owned my mistakes, finished a couple of degrees because I thought school was interesting and I wound up with a reasonably good career only because my interests were parallel to things people get paid well to do. There was no planning involved.

    Enter my kids, who didn’t value or weren’t interested in school, don’t all want to own their mistakes and, in most cases, don’t have interests which parallel any income stream producing activity. I simply have no advice to offer them since for the life of me I can’t put a finger on why I am on the path I’m on today. (Sadly, falling back to the advice “work hard” doesn’t work in a culture which revolves around the desire to become rich via speculation.)

    Once they became adults, parenting delivered to me the last kick to the groin. As they had grown I assumed that at some point they would “grow up” and set a sane course for their lives, or to put it in my personal vernacular, they wouldn’t be dumbasses anymore. But as they got older, left the nest or should have left the nest, I looked around at my kids and all the people my age that I knew and suddenly realized that there is no guarantee that anyone will ever stop being a dumbass. And worse, It turned out that I am still subject to dabbling in a little dumbassitude from time to time myself.

    Conclusion: I am not fit to give advice to others (although I occasionally do) and I should be suspicious of the advice I give myself. Projecting my experience onto others means that for the most part I don’t trust advice I get either. We should never ask “what should I do?” but instead ask “what would you do if you were in my situation?” Noting that the answer will be out of context and based on limited data, and taking it for what it’s worth: very little.


  15. Piers
    March 14, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Those people who think they know everything are especially annoying to those of us that do.


  16. March 17, 2013 at 11:06 am

    I don’t think you need to do better. You and Mr. Mill have both worked very hard. That, along with talent (and maybe some good fortune) have resulted in him having way more money than me, and you having way more sophistication about mathematics than me. You have endeavored to educate and encourage me and others to educate ourselves, but you don’t seem to have a case of the “just simplys: That is, you have not written any blogs glibly advising me or anyone else (other than those with similar education, experience; etc.) to “just simply” do stuff that would require advanced mastery of complicated quantitative concepts. You certainly have never acted as if me addressing a complex quantitative issue would be the same as you addressing a complex quantitative issue.

    Kudos for this post. It seems that I should almost congratulate you for getting through the whole thing without mentioning Sheryl Sandberg or a zillion privileged TED speakers or countless Facebook memes (both the scoldings and the “positive thinking” bumper sticker messages) with bad cases of the “just simplys”: Just simply “lean in” to your low-wage job, and hope you and your kids don’t end up on the streets when you’re fired for morning sickness. Just simply endure the hardships of super-affluent parenting, the way TEDsters Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman do in the big, luxurious, isolated living room they show the audience (I try to imagine showing this video to working-poor single mothers, or even to sets of parents with middle-rank corporate jobs). Just simply be as privileged as Brene Brown, so that being “vulnerable” and going public with mental health issues will result only in ever-more lucrative book deals, and no discrimination whatsoever.

    All great causes (in some cases, involving great courage for even the rich and powerful), but howzabout we stop pretending they play out the same way for the haves and the have-nots? Howzabout those who live above the nice cushy safety nets be the first to walk the high wires, without shaming those who have jagged rocks beneath them? Howzabout not blaming the continuation of societal problems on those with the least power to change them–and who are trying to anyway (often, because they have no choice)?

    The world is drowning in “just simplys”, in people–some actually well-intentioned– who, consciously or unconsciously, just simply attribute 100% of their success to their own alleged awesomeness; in people who never look to see how they might help those less fortunate, or help others climb out of what they themselves have climbed out of; in people who never stop to consider that people who define “success” in a number of different ways deserve fairness and dignity.

    (And this is before we even get to those who look down on those of us too stupid to just simply be as greedy and soulless and unethical as they are. That’s a whole other discussion.)

    To the extent that any hard work or inspired notions of mine have resulted in good things happening for me, I just simply can’t believe that good fortune and the direct and indirect contributions of others have had nothing to do with the good in my life. Whether in harsh or warm fuzzy terms, I just simply cannot bring myself to the conclusion that those with less than me, or who are facing greater difficulties than I am, have just simply failed to be as awesome as me. So I’ll spare everyone any wise words I may have about what they should just simply do.


  17. Blake
    April 22, 2013 at 3:33 am

    Amanda Palmer’s exhibitionism has gotten her dropped from record contracts, made her a laughing stock and made her unmarketable.

    I can tell you as a member of the music industry that no one wants to have anything to do with her. Music is a business and Amanda Palmer is bad for business.


  18. berkeleyravine
    April 22, 2013 at 6:01 am

    Lots of TED talks are combinations of simplistic narcissistic self-promotion and the germs of decent ideas. Take from them whatever good you can find in them, and go elsewhere to find better fleshed-out versions of whatever decent ideas are offered. It’s strange and offensive for a wealthy person to sponge off poor people and then talk down to us about it, but Palmer does get across that there may be a number of models for monetizing creative activity. She offers one model that may work for some. There may be a lot more ways to make a modest living (as opposed to no living at all) in the entertainment industries than there used to be–and trying to maintain control of recordings may not be one of those ways. I have been away from L.A. for a long time, but suggesting that Palmer is hated by the marketers doesn’t exactly lower my opinion of her.


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