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Trust, but verify

Trust, but verify

The other day I stumbled across a blogger who detailed how to build a jet engine powered beer cooler.

From a pure engineering perspective, I thought that was pretty cool. However I would probably adopt a different approach myself, like getting a cold beer out of my fridge.

Jet Engine Beer Cooler

Jet Engine Beer Cooler. Image credit: tech_engin889 and Metro.

During the last school holidays I cleaned out a kitchen cupboard and discovered a half-finished packed of Mentos that had quite possibly been there since the age of the dinosaurs. Fearing the health implications of feeding them to my kids, I opted for a Myth Busters style safer option of getting them to pop them into a bottle of diet coke.

Fortunately we planned ahead sufficiently to do this outside.

Unfortunately my younger son knocked the neck of the bottle as the candy went in, and got hosed as a result.

Sufficient time has passed that he too now thinks this was funny. It took quite a while.

While I used the garden hose to wash the sticky caffeinated mess off the very disgruntled 5-year old, my older boy started pissing himself laughing at something on his iPad.

He had found a video of some idiot who took the diet coke and mentos experiment a step further, by chugging a huge bottle of soft drink and then swallowing whole some mentos.

Again just because something was possible didn’t make it something that I felt compelled to copy.

Choose carefully to whom you listen

This made me think about how we should critically assess any advice we receive. We should be very careful about who we seek advice from.

If your experience has been anything like mine, then you’ll have observed that regardless of profession, the majority of people are acceptably incompetent at what they do.

Not so bad that they get fired.

However they aren’t artisans.

They aren’t rock stars.

They aren’t great.

In many cases they couldn’t even be honestly described as good.

Of course it is also true that the vast majority of people likely each think themselves perfectly competent, just as nearly everyone considers themselves to be “above average”!

Learn from the mistakes of others… make all new mistakes!

There is an oft-repeated Tim Ferriss quote that people are “the average of the five people they spend the most time around”. This line of reasoning appears to support my assertion about widespread acceptable incompetence!

The blogging/podcasting world is full of folks recommending the seeking out of mentors, mastermind groups, and so on. The goal is to provide a boost by surrounding yourself with smarter, more accomplished people who are further along your chosen path than you currently are.

Yet here is the thing. If most folks are acceptably incompetent, then by implication that means most advisors and mentors are too.

How to validate advice?

I tend to listen more than I talk.

I critically assess and apply my bullshit filter to what I am told.

If something sounds plausible I attempt to validate it, always “trust, but verify”.

Part of this involves looking beyond what the person says, and evaluating what they actually do.

Seek qualified advice…

Armchair experts are forever diagnosing what their favourite sporting teams are doing wrong. Unless they are former successful professional coaches, then don’t waste my time.

Walk past the loading bay behind any public hospital and you will inevitably observe a group of overweight health professionals smoking. An otherwise sound message of eat a little less, exercise a little more, and generally looking after yourself is hugely undermined by hypocrisy when delivered by somebody who does none of the above themselves.

Would you accept dental surgery tips from your plumber?

How about asking the shelf packer at your local supermarket how to fix your automotive electrical problem?

Seek expert guidance about the finer points of the tax code from the local school bus driver?

No, me either. They aren’t qualified to offer that kind of advice, and the chances are pretty good they won’t know what they are talking about.

…  especially regarding Financial and Retirement Planning

Then why do so many personal finance blog readers unquestioningly accept financial planning advice from anonymous keyboard warriors and Reddit trolls? Or listen to the tripe spouted by unqualified and inexperienced self-appointed “experts” in the Personal Finance blog/podcast landscape?

Retirement advice provided by somebody who hasn’t successfully retired?

Drowning under student loans or credit card debt yet providing Financial Independence advice?

Blindly accepting advice that no competent financial planner could ever provide in good conscience? The 4% “safe” withdrawal rule, the infallibility of going all-in on VSTAX, the selling of the dream that anyone earning below median household income actually stands a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming financially independent.

I’ve often been puzzled by this behaviour.

Start by filtering out the unqualified pretenders

Always consider the source of any advice. Look at what the advisor does, in addition to listening to what they say.

If the message passes your bullshit filter then ask yourself where does their money come from?

A successful business owner is well qualified to provide tips on running a successful business.

A successful financial advisor is optimally positioned to supply sage wisdom about financial planning.

A blogger living high on affiliate/book/course/conference hosting/keynote speaking/life coaching/running residential retreat income is qualified to teach others how to do the same.

However if that same blogger preaches that others should live within a “safe” withdrawal rate, while their own living costs are actually met by other income streams, then they are saying “do as I say, not as I do”.

If you fail to apply the “trust, but verify” test to the advice you receive then the failing is your own.

Next Steps

  • Reduce the noise, your time is a precious commodity!
  • Critically assess what you read and hear. Trust, but verify. Cull anything that fails the test and move on.
  • Review your Feedly, email list subscriptions, and social media.  Ask yourself whether there is genuine value and substance provided by each one. If not then remove it.
  • If you liked this post then please share it with your friends.
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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • freddy smidlap 21 March 2018, 18:17

    i’ve had a large tattoo of a question mark on my left arm for the past 20 something years. i’m not some dude with a sleeve full of ’em, just the one is enough. it means “i’m skeptical.” i usually start any new relationship with the caution of “this person might be full of shit.” work backwards from there and think independently and trust and credibility in my eyes will follow.

    i wish everyone would think for themselves. good post.

    • Slow Dad 21 March 2018, 18:56

      A tattoo ~20 years before they were cool, you are a man ahead of your time Freddy!

      I applaud your approach to a healthy skeptiscm, though I’d encourage people to critically assess everything they are told even if it comes from a long term trusted source. For example the same sage advice that was bang on point 20 years ago might be considered dated drivel if it were repeated today.

  • The Rhino 22 March 2018, 10:09

    Wise words SD
    The Gervais principle is all around us..
    I’m fully aware of the very popular US blogger who propounds 100% VTSAX (I verified it wasn’t VSTAX)
    I’m also fully aware that blogger has a cosy relationship with another UK blogger who is also full of s*!t
    I pointed out there that 100% equities is not without its risks only to have the comment edited away
    Be very careful who you listen to, let alone pay good money for advice from..
    I’ll leave others to fund their international travel expenses for the old chatter-wakas and TSOL motivational speeches..

    • Slow Dad 22 March 2018, 11:44

      Thanks Rhino.

      There will always be perspectives and differences of opinion about what the “right” answer is to a given problem. For example I think I should have been the captain of the Australia cricket team, but those making the decision (wisely) gave the job to someone more qualified.

      That is the main reason why qualified Financial Planners are prohibited from recommending specific products or services to the general public, as they have an obligation to ensure the advice they provide is appropriate to the needs of their (paying) audience.

      I think everyone is entitled to have their say, knowing full well that most of what subsequently gets said will be a load of bollocks. It is up to the reader to determine for themselves who are the snake oil salesmen and who are worth hearing.

      • The Rhino 22 March 2018, 12:15

        I may have got my principles mixed up – possibly I meant the Peter principle, i.e. everyone rises to their own level of incompetence?

        I also noted that for 3 out of the 5 people I hang around with the most, one is 4, the other is 7 and another (thankfully wholly unrelated) is a young-earth creationist so I’m royally screwed?

        • Slow Dad 22 March 2018, 12:48

          Royally screwed? Nah. The younger two will no doubt provide some refreshingly honest feedback, and give you an excuse to play with Lego.

          I confess I had to look up what a young-earth creationist was. Perspective is a wonderful thing, though I’m not sure if imaginary friends count amongst the five people, no matter how often or earnestly somebody talks to one.

          • The Rhino 23 March 2018, 17:37

            For sure, Lego is a dominant force in my life..