baking wisdom

In 2007, Marc Andreessen wrote a blog post explaining his unusual approach to getting things done. He offered advice ranging from “don’t keep a schedule” so you can “work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time”—sounds nice!—to the aptly named “strategic incompetence.” As Andreessen put it, “The best way to to make sure that you are never asked to do something again is to royally screw it up the first time you are asked to do it.”

This is also an excellent productivity hack for getting fired. But hey, Andreessen was writing from an unusual position. He was already wealthy from the sale of the company he co-founded, Netscape, to AOL. He’d even been on the cover of Time! As an enormously successful and highly respected tech entrepreneur, Andreessen was free to amp his productivity by checking email only twice a day and refusing “to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day.” You know who else gets to do stuff like that? Warren Buffett. That guy loves his empty calendar. Somehow, people are really happy to see him no matter when he arrives. “Hey, it’s Warren Buffett!” Again: Sounds nice.

The problem is, Andreessen and many others in the maven arena offer these strategies without much in the way of caveat, even the obligatory YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) that many ordinary mortals append to their suggestions on Quora and Reddit.

More than a decade later, an interviewer asked Andreessen about that influential 2007 post. Over the years, many would-be tech moguls had tried and failed to practice what he preached. Along the way, however, Andreessen’s own situation substantially changed. Two years after writing it, he co-founded a venture capital firm. Today, the guy has a large and successful company to run. It’s no longer feasible to forego a schedule and work on “whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.” Suddenly, the usual rules applied to him, too. “The typical day for me right now is quite literally following the calendar very closely,” he explains. “I’m trying to have as ‘programmed’ a day as I possibly can.”

Having been in the advice business for almost two decades now, I’m extraordinarily sensitive to this brand of hypocrisy. We’re all entirely too eager to start offering others our advice the moment we taste success. Even if we’re not, the people who want what we have are all too eager to hear it. So we present our epiphanies and, let’s be honest, experiments as wisdom as opposed to what they really are: one person’s hypotheses based on a handful of anecdotal results. (As you know, I’m as guilty of this as anybody.) One thing I feel I’ve been around long enough to state is: Wisdom takes time to bake. You need to earn it.

(This also applies to the paraphrase. Basing your advice on someone else’s old-and-therefore-unimpeachable wisdom is an all-too-common tactic in book publishing. But successfully plucking what is still relevant and valuable from the natterings of the ancients requires hefty life experience, too. Something isn’t true just because you found it on a scroll. History being history, chances are they mostly burned the good stuff at Alexandria.)

We also rarely take the time to qualify our advice properly. Assuming our readers are very much like ourselves, we fail to frame our findings within our specific, personal contexts. Whatever our points of privilege—and each of us enjoys a certain set of advantages—the reader’s mileage will always vary. When I develop a book with an author, I do everything I can to extract underlying concepts from their concrete practices. That way, readers can take those building blocks, the whys and wherefores, and adapt whatever’s valuable in them to their unique situations. A calendar may be a necessity, but maybe you could block out some unstructured time on the weekend to take a stab at whatever is “most important or most interesting.”

Making advice adaptable isn’t always easy. Some consultants spend their whole careers working with CEOs; they don’t have a clue about the rest of the company, where all the readers are lurking.