How to Spot Bogus Advice

Adam Feil
5 min readApr 23, 2018

Because of wonderful fellow humans who shared their knowledge on the Internet, I’ve been able to do things I never would have dreamed of. I’m talking about extraordinary things like changing the cabin air filter in my car, repairing a clothes dryer, and determining the sex of my kids’ fish. What a time to be alive.

Many of us are looking to improve our lives. Not just in specific ways, but in very broad ways. I’m talking about becoming a better person, a better manager, better parent, etc.

But here’s the thing. There’s a lot of bogus advice on the Internet — even right here on Medium. There may not be a surefire way to tell if advice is good advice, but there are dead giveaways that advice is bogus.

Obviously Untrue Titles

I’m going to start here, because you can often detect bogosity right from the title, saving you the 4 minutes it will take to read the actual story. Let’s take a look at a few titles from some very popular Medium writers:

How To Accomplish More In 30 Days Than Most Do In 365

I’ll do the math for you — that’s over 12 times more productive than “most” people. In other words, what would take “most” people all day, you can do in 1 hour. Not surprisingly, the article by Benjamin Hardy is a rambling list of advice, including “be willing to fail,” have a morning routine, put first things first, stop seeking approval, and take BIG BOLD steps.

All great stuff. All obvious stuff. None of it makes you 12 times more productive than “most” people.

These Powerful Habits Will Immediately Improve How You Work

This headline, from popular writer Thomas Oppong, gave me a chuckle. Habits by definition take time to develop, so how a habit can immediately do anything is beyond me. So right away, we know this is nonsense. Reading the article confirms our suspicions. It contains no fewer than 78 “habits” to follow. Including “automate” repeated tasks, exercise in the morning, find meaning in your work, and adopt habits of successful people. That’s right, one of the habits to follow is to follow the habits of successful people.

Bad Pattern Matching

It’s one thing to falsely think a correlation implies causation, but many popular writers don’t even get the correlation part right.

It goes something like this: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Gary Vaynerchuk all wake up before 7, so one of the keys to being a billionaire is “wake up before 7.” This logic, if you can call it logic, ignores the fact that millions of less than impressive people also wake up before 7.

For example, Andrew Merle’s article, The Reading Habits of Ultra-Successful People, begins, “Want to know one habit ultra-successful people have in common? They read. A lot.”

Even if it’s true that all successful people read a lot, you can’t call it a correlation unless you also know that unsuccessful people don’t read a lot. We haven’t even gotten to the point where we can argue “correlation does not imply causation.” We’ve got half of a correlation. And half correlations are bogus.

Even well-regarded publications on Medium fall into this trap. The Mission published a story titled The Central Habit of Highly Successful People: Be Obsessive.

Are many successful people obsessive? Certainly. But how many losers are obsessive?

Plenty of evil dictators had mustaches, but growing a mustache in no way gets you closer to be coming an evil dictator.

Lack of Perspective

Let me preface this point by saying that maybe you don’t care about perspective and being a good all-around person. Maybe you only care about success. My guess is you want to be successful and improve, but you don’t want to turn into a huge jerk. But some of the advice out there may get you some type of “success” but at a high price.

Take for example the article 13 Things You Should Give Up If You Want To Be Successful by Zdravko Cvijetic, who, according to his bio, has the #1 viral Medium article.

As you would expect in a list of 13 things, some of the suggestions are good, if not obvious. Number one: “Give up on the unhealthy lifestyle.”

But others get questionable. “Give up on saying yes to things that don’t support your goals.” You might think, well maybe he’s just talking about at work? Nope.

He continues: “ Successful people know that in order to accomplish their goals, they will have to say NO to certain tasks, activities, and demands from their friends, family, and colleagues.” (emphasis mine)

Sorry kids, daddy needs to go viral, and that’s not going to happen if I take you to the zoo.

Now, is Cvijetic saying we should neglect our family? I don’t know. If he isn’t, then I’m not sure what the point is. Obviously there are limits to our time, and at times, we need to tell our children or our spouse “no.” So if that’s all he’s saying, it’s pointless.

But number 11 shows the ultimate lack of perspective. Cvijetic calls it “Give up the toxic people,” but then you learn that anyone less accomplished than you is considered toxic.

He writes, “There are people who are less accomplished in their personal and professional life, and there are people who are more accomplished than us. If you spend time with those who are behind you, your average will go down, and with it, your success.”

Now, he doesn’t address the obvious challenge: If these people are successful, then according to Cvijetic they wouldn’t want anything to do with you — that is, if they believe that staying away from you is essential to being successful.

To put it mildly, following advice that lacks perspective could lead to some very bad consequences in your life, even if you reach whatever goal you’re striving for.

Now What?

There’s no shortage of bogus advice on Medium, but don’t despair. There’s a lot of great content too. My advice would be to try to drill down into whatever topic you’re interested in. The stuff that gets the most eyeballs has a tendency to over-promise in the title and under-deliver in the text.

Find writers who aren’t well known exclusively for their writing on Medium or Quora.

Good luck!

Connect with me on Twitter @adamfeil



Adam Feil

Educational Psychology Ph.D., business analytics nerd, computer scientist, President @MakeStickers