Short Life Advice is Useless

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Compressing Knowledge

Let’s say I’m reading a non-fiction book on a subject I find interesting. I’m learning a lot. And as I go through the text, I highlight sentences and passages that stand out to me. When I finish the book, I leaf back through the pages and review the highlights. The main point of the book and the most meaningful lessons stand out clearly to me, so I decide to write them down. Each point/lesson can be a single-sentence piece of advice or maybe a quote.

This advice means something to me because I have created whole chunks of interconnected associations while reading the book. I’ve built a superstructure of information in my mind regarding the topic. Whenever I see that piece of advice, it triggers the whole information structure. I have the value of the whole book precompiled in my brain and only need a slight push to access that knowledge.

Every lesson I learned that gets truly integrate into my behavior (even unconsciously) has some sort of context behind it. There’s a storyline I followed that lead to a certain conclusion. Or I learned the whole framework that made the insight obvious.

Now imagine someone else reading my single sentence of advice. Do I expect that sentence to have the same meaning to a person who has not read the entire book? Nope. How about if they read all those highlights I extracted? Better, but still not as good as reading the whole book.

What they’re missing is the context that makes that piece of advice so valuable to me. I built that context by applying my attention to a certain body of knowledge for an extended period of time. Then I compressed that context into a few choice quotes from the text. After that, I simplified the main points into easily digestible molecules of information.

Knowledge Compressed by Others

Next, let’s say I get an article from a friend, titled: “10 ways to instantly boost your creativity!” I open it and it’s a bullet list of one-liners. It might be solid advice, but if I don’t know why or how it works (i.e. there’s no context precompiled in my mind), I can’t extract the same value as the person who wrote it. I can even try to apply it but I don’t know when it’s best to use it, the details of execution or common pitfalls.

A quote or piece of wisdom resonates with me when there’s recognition. When I have personal experience that led me to conclude the same thing or to see my life experience from a fresh perspective. Or, it’s connected to a domain of knowledge that I’m well versed in, so I’ll get at least some benefit from horizontal knowledge transfer. [*]

If I see a famous quote or advice that makes no sense to me, I’ll try to find the source and build my own context. What could potentially be a life-changing idea is often useless without the whole line of reasoning that led from seeding to the blossoming of the idea. Ideally, I should gain the means to generate that kind of insight on my own.


The best way to enjoy short life advice is to generate it yourself. Consume information from a variety of sources. Read widely, listen to podcasts and watch educational videos. Then extract the meaningful quotes and summarize the lessons.

In short:

  1. Build context.
  2. Compress knowledge.
  3. Simplify.

Now try showing that list to someone and see what they make of it. 😛

* * *

Further reading:
How to Use Evernote for Yur Creative Workflow

Tiago Forte is a master of personal knowledge management. His article, and especially the part under the heading “Loading and Unloading,” has inspired this blog post.

[*] Transfer of Learning

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