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- Bestselling author and star podcast host Tim Ferriss had a guidance counselor who told him not to apply to Princeton, which he eventually graduated from.
- Another faculty member taught him to consider the downside of every decision, and Ferriss has maintained the practice ever since.
- The experience taught him to think of a person’s motive when they give advice.
When Tim Ferriss was a senior at St. Paul’s, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, in 1994, he met with his guidance counselor to discuss his future.
Years later, the bestselling author and star podcast host would consider a piece of advice from that counselor to be the worst he’d ever received, he told Business Insider.
It was simply: “You shouldn’t apply to Princeton.”
Ferriss had transferred to St. Paul’s from a public school on Long Island, where he grew up. Neither those credits nor the ones from his year abroad in Japan had carried, and he was making them up over the summer. The guidance counselor found the idea of Ferriss applying to Princeton to be a waste of time for the both of them, especially since the counselor was motivated to play it safe – his success was measured by how many of his students got into their first choice schools.
After the guidance counselor left him feeling discouraged, another member of the faculty, Reverend Richard Greenleaf, told him he had to apply. Months later, Ferriss was accepted to Princeton and eventually graduated in 2000.
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The experience taught him two things about receiving advice that influenced his entire career.
Understand other people’s incentives when they give you advice
Everyone, no matter how selfless, has a personal reason for offering you advice – even if it’s as pure as wanting to see you happy or to avoid seeing you hurt.
In Ferriss’ example, he says that the guidance counselor’s performance was judged by the success rate of his students’ college applications. Because Princeton was a reach for Ferriss, the counselor assumed the inevitable denial would make him look like a poor adviser. On the other hand, Rev. Greenleaf told Ferriss to follow his heart because he achieved job satisfaction by seeing his school’s students excel.
Consider the downside of taking the advice versus not taking it
Greenleaf told Ferriss, Ferriss told us: “I think you should just apply. What’s the downside?”
“And ‘What’s the downside?’ has become a question that I’ve asked myself ever since,” Ferriss said. “Like what’s the worse that could happen? I apply and I don’t get in. ‘What’s the best that could happen?’ I spend a few days or a week working on it, and I get in! Well that’s a very asymmetrical risk/reward, so I applied.”
Ferriss’ new book “Tribe of Mentors” is a collection of advice from 140 impressive people, but Ferriss noted that advice should only be worth pursuing when the person giving the advice had firsthand experience and no selfish or cynical motive.
“It’s worth considering their advice if they’ve gone through it,” Ferriss told us.
This is an updated version of a story that ran on November 19, 2015.