Founder and CTO at HubSpot and Blogger at OnStartups.com
We're all aware of the ad hominem fallacy, where we misguidedly attack the person instead of his or her ideas.
What we don't always think about is the fact we often apply the ad hominem fallacy in the opposite way much more often – and how that can have just as significant an impact on what we think and, more importantly, what we do.
Here's an example: Imagine you're a recreational cyclist. One day you're out for a ride and you stop at a local coffee shop for a quick snack. Much to your surprise you run into Lance Armstrong. You exchange pleasantries, he asks about your ride, you say it's not going so well, and he starts to give you a little advice.
You mentally recoil. "I'm not going to take advice from this guy," you think. "He confessed to doping. He confessed to lying about it. He's a… he's a… all I know is I'm not listening to anything he has to say."
In short, you discredit the person instead of his ideas.
Your feelings about Lance may be justified, but where his advice is concerned, they also may be shortsighted. Doping aside, Lance has vast knowledge of cycling, fitness, nutrition, training... he knows more these things than just about anyone you are likely ever going to meet.
He could probably give you some great advice, but you won't listen because he's Lance.
That's the ad hominem fallacy at work.
What If You Ran Into Mark Zuckerberg?
Now flip it around. Say you're an MIT student and an aspiring tech entrepreneur. You're hanging out at Voltage Coffee in Cambridge (a hot spot for entrepreneurs). Much to your surprise you run into Mark Zuckerberg. You exchange pleasantries, he asks about your startup, and he starts to give you a little advice.
You hang on his every word. You consider dropping out of school. You wonder whether you should pivot hard into a consumer software company instead of enterprise. Why wouldn't you listen to him? He's Mark-Freaking-Zuckerberg!
That's the ad hominem fallacy in reverse.
I'm not saying Mark's advice wouldn't be outstanding. But… does he truly know what's right for you and your startup? Does he know what's right for you as an entrepreneur? Maybe he does.
But maybe he doesn't.
Often we judge advice based on the person giving it and not on the quality of the ideas.
If we like or respect the person, we value the advice highly. If we don't, we disregard it.
Regardless of who provides it, most advice isn't necessarily wrong. It's just biased.
Take startups. Most entrepreneurs who give advice do so based on their own experiences. They extrapolate from a minimum set of experiences – their own.
Take me. I have some experience with startups (HubSpot is my third company). But I don't know everything – far from it. Ask me for advice and I'll gladly share my thoughts, but my ideas and opinions are based mostly on my experiences and in the broad scheme of things, they are limited. For example, I've never started a company outside of the U.S. — so have no idea what that's like. Nor do I know anything about businesses that rely on advertising for revenue. I have opinions on both of those things, but not well-informed advice.
Whenever you get advice, do your absolute best to strip away the framing that comes with the source – whether positive or negative – and consider information, advice, or ideas based solely on their merits.
The next time you get advice from someone you admire and respect, ask yourself these questions: If I didn't know the person giving the advice, would I think as highly of it? Would the arguments be as convincing?
Would the conclusions be as persuasive?
Never automatically discount a message simply because you discount the messenger. And never automatically accept a message simply because you admire or respect the messenger.
Assessing The Advice-Giver
There are a number of dimensions I measure the advice-giver on:
1. Competency: Are they generally smart and clueful?
2. Context: Do their experiences have some relevance? (Zuckerberg is smart, and successful, but might not be of much help if you're wanting to train for the Olympics)
3. Conflict: Does the person have any motive or bias that makes their advice suspect? Someone that's a genius, with great experience — but who is out to harm you, might not be giving you great advice)
So remember, position, perceived status, and the individual's unique set of experiences should count for something – but not everything.