Why you don’t need more advice

Updated to Life on May 4, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

This summer I built a bookshelf for my office. It was too small. So after filling the bookshelf I stored more books in a cupboard. Now, it’s too small. 

I love books. They have taught me about life, leadership, love, and – more recently – living healthy longer. I used to read books for education – searching for insights I could repackage and sell in a course to my clients.  Some I read for fun and some dog-eared companions were hauled out of a backpack at the end of a long day of travel and read by headlamp.

This is the time of year when self-help books fly off the shelves. Overnight bestsellers tackle the eternal life of losing weight, eating better, exercising more, and learning to love ourselves.

It feels good to make a choice to better ourselves.

Books offer us anticipation. As we stand in line, book in hand, to pay or complete the Amazon checkout dopamine is flowing. It feels good to make a choice to better ourselves. After all, everything we need is buried in those 200 pages. Right?

In ancient times, villagers would travel for days to huddle together at the foot of sages hungry for a morsel of insight, or guidance. Today we subscribe to online memberships, sign up for weekly email advice, and stock up on more self-help books. 

We are eternally hungry for advice.

For the record, I wrote a book about productivity and am very grateful to everyone who shelled out $20 for a copy. Feel free to keep buying.

More advice

We take the book home (or open our online reader) and put it on a table or shelf – fully intending to pour over every page. With our new email subscription, we happily devour the first three emails of the 12-week subscription program.

I am learning! You think, as you fold page corners and swipe a highlighter across another line of text. Your mind spins with exciting images of a new you. “I have habits! I sleep 7 hours EVERY night! I eat broccoli!” Life will be different!

And then…

the dopamine rush wears off, the once-so-valuable emails are lost in your Inbox, and the bookmark hasn’t moved in two weeks.

It’s hard to absorb advice and turn it into action.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to absorb advice and turn it into action. And the older you get the longer the bridge between advice and action – most times it’s just all advice. Our bookshelves fill up, old habits return and patterns repeat. 

We are, after all, human.

But wait!

There is a better way. And this is it.

Trust what you already know.

Author’s note: It’s a slippery slope to suggest a better way to get more of what you want is to not take more advice without that itself sounding like advice (you might need to read that sentence twice)! Having said that…

At the risk of denigrating the self-help book industry, you probably already know more than you are using. Capiche? Just think of all the thousands of pages you have consumed on topics you care about. Do you really need another thousand?

If you’ve read more than a few books on leadership, you know the basics: provide direction and support and then get out of the way. Do more of that.

Books on relationships? Listen more than you speak, keep promises, and forgive quickly and completely.

How about health? Eat less, exercise more, and have goals.

I know this sounds basic, but if you haven’t mastered basic advice, why would you need more?

Our endless hunger for more advice is great for publishers.

It’s kind of funny that we read a book, don’t use all the advice and then go get another book to get more advice we won’t use. Our endless hunger for more advice is great for publishers. Not so great for us.

Keep it simple

There’s a reason why instructors for dangerous activities, like avalanche safety, mountain climbing, and skydiving use acronyms as memory devices. They want to keep it simple. Simple is what you need when the shit starts flying and adrenaline is pumping.

There’s also a reason why chapters in many self-help books start with a quote from a poet or author who died 100 years ago. Simple wisdom doesn’t get old. 

Simple also works when you’re creating an amazing life.

Decades of experience can be rendered down to a few most salient lessons.

Listen to famous commencement speeches or wildly-popular TED talks and notice how simple the advice tends to be. Decades of experience can be rendered down to a few most salient lessons. Professional speech writers and TED Talk coaches know adding more ingredients doesn’t make for a better soup.

The most success I’ve had in life came from repeating simple habits over and over. I sit down and write every morning. I head out the door and exercise every day. And I revisit lessons that impacted me. 

I’m still learning, but on my terms.

Learning is a gift

I will always love buying books, being inspired, and, for some, taking notes I can revisit later. Learning is a gift we can give ourselves at any age. 

But today, instead of searching for more advice, I’m revisiting – maybe sometimes refining – simple lessons I’ve learned before.

Complicated prescriptions, models, and strategies sell books. Simple makes for a great life.

Still hungry for more advice 🙂 here are more articles on simple lessons:

21 Small wins that can lead to big wins in life
How to finally stop procrastinating on exercise
How to deliver a great speech