When Tim Ferriss was a senior at St. Paul’s high school in New Hampshire in 1994, he met with his guidance counselor to discuss his future.
Years later, the successful “4-Hour Workweek” author, investor, and podcaster would consider a piece of advice from that counselor to be the worst he’d ever received, he tells Business Insider.
It was simply: “You shouldn’t apply to Princeton.”
St. Paul’s is an elite boarding school, but Ferriss says he didn’t consider himself an exceptional student, at least not the typical Princeton candidate. After the guidance counselor left him feeling discouraged, another member of the faculty, Reverend Richard Greenleaf, told him he had to apply. Months later, Ferriss was accepted to Princeton and eventually graduated in 2000.
The experience taught him two things about receiving advice that influenced his entire career.
1. Understand other people’s incentives when they give you advice.
Everyone, no matter how selfless, has a personal reason for offering you advice — even if it’s as pure as wanting to see you happy or to avoid seeing you hurt.
In Ferriss’ example, he says that the guidance counselor’s performance was judged by the success rate of his students’ college applications. Because Princeton was a reach for Ferriss, the counselor assumed the inevitable denial would make him look like a poor adviser. On the other hand, Rev. Greenleaf told Ferriss to follow his heart because he achieved job satisfaction by seeing his school’s students excel.
2. Consider the downside of taking the advice versus not taking it.
When taking others’ advice into consideration, it’s worth doing an opportunity cost analysis. Ask yourself: What am I losing if I make this decision, and what if I don’t make it?
In hindsight, Ferriss says, the guidance counselor’s advice had a far greater downside than upside. If he never applied to Princeton, he was decreasing the counselor’s risk of having a lower acceptance rate and saving both time and money spent on an application fee, but he would lose the possibility of attending his dream school. The upside of applying was far greater for him than its downside.
Ferriss has built his brand on interviewing experts in a wide variety of fields, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Wall Street, and is always on the quest for great advice and insight. Advice should only be worth pursuing, however, when your subjects have firsthand experience and no negative motive.
“It’s worth considering their advice if they have gone through it,” Ferriss says.
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