We recently watched a movie from 2004 called Shattered Glass, a movie about about Stephen Glass. He was a journalist who made up stories in the nineties, and passed them off as fact. At the time, he worked for the New Republic, a well-known and influential magazine. Most of the staff were recent grads trying to make a name for themselves, so they didn’t get paid much, but they partied hard. Somehow he circumnavigated their fact checking process, and managed to blag his way into story after story. Until his editor caught wind of what was going on…
Most journalism is based on improving what we already know, by building on what we already know. You need to use external inputs as data points to your own investigation. In school before the internet existed, there was a lot of emphasis on minimizing plagiarism. Cite your sources. Make it clear what is your thinking and what you got from somewhere else.
At a high level, the same is true of the scientific process. Academics cite other papers, to then extend the state of the art with their own thoughts, data, and investigations. Cite your sources. And document your experience. With popular approaches like Lean Startup, the scientific method has been simplified into experiment-based entrepreneurship.
In both cases, this is about robustness and reliability of information. If we can’t trust what we see and hear from others, it undermines most of the “systems” in society. Media. Political systems. Business. Education. Research.
Check your source’s credentials
I bring this up because there is a flavor of advice and advisors in the entrepreneurial world who just repeat smart sounding soundbites from others. But not necessarily based on their own experiences. They are “plagiarizing” from an intellectual perspective. Which seems like it’s not that big of a deal. It’s academic. A white lie. In business, it’s not that important to credit others, especially in marketing material, right?
More importantly, though, advice plagiarizers are not able to go deeper and explain the logic and trade-offs which are relevant. They only Know; they can’t Do. They get the dopamine rush of looking smart, without needing to actually do their own work. In short, they benefit themselves without necessarily benefiting their advice takers. Or worse, harming their advice takers by giving inappropriate or irrelevant advice, causing additional problems if followed.
The real issue here isn’t plagiarism; it’s pretending you are saying something from experience when you haven’t earned the right to do so.
There was an article about the bullshit industrial complex a few years ago, which is what really pointed out how important this is. If everyone is just endlessly repeating advice they hear somewhere else (and often passing it off as their own) then we pretty much have a big echo chamber. No one is doing any original thinking or work or testing from direct experience. It’s all just received wisdom, which is just naff.
In contrast, we have dog-fooding. Dog-fooding is a hard concept to swallow. [pun intended] My sister is actually an expert in dog food as a veterinarian, but that’s not really what i’m referring to.
First of all, it’s about actually taking your own advice. There are a lot of things I want to try out in my own business, and that sound good, but I haven’t yet. So I don’t mention them to clients.
And then only passing on the advice, if it benefits the advice taker. This s a form of integrity. And it’s a high bar to clear, before you give or sell advice. Like in professional hockey. They count an “assist” only if someone else if they score a goal. And it’s nice they track assists too for pro players.
In this case, dog-fooding refers to keeping the high bar of only recommending things I’ve tried myself. Ideally this would be something I’ve been successful with. If I haven’t had great success at something, I think it’s my duty to say that too.
I know what it feels like to get advice from people, who have no direct experience with what they are advising. They are just repeating what they heard or read elsewhere. So why would I knowingly do the same to people who I want to help-in theory?
For example, I thought I had all the answers about what kids should and shouldn’t do and how they should behave–before becoming a dad. I would spout my opinions on unsuspecting parents.
Things change. It’s surprising how quickly.
I realized how wrong I was, once I became a dad. I am still wrong about parenting frequently. Now if I do say anything about parenting, I try to reference a specific incident which backs up exactly why I think so. And give the context. All of this means that whoever gets the advice can decide for themselves if they want to take it.
It’s the same for “birthing” new products. I’ve done this enough times in enough variations, that I can usually find some kind of example of either having done it myself or having worked though a problem with a mentee. Then I feel ready to give advice. If I can’t give advice, I offer hands on hands on help if appropriate and I have the bandwidth.
All in all, this isn’t hard. It just requires paying attention.
- Check your source credibility, before you take on information. Particularly in your business.
- There is a massive volume of raw data being produced every day, with much of it being irrelevant, false, or biased based on incentives of the advice giver.
- Try to make it clear when you are giving advice from experience and when you aren’t
- And cite your sources, even though your high-school english teacher isn’t checking, because society depends on it.