18 November 2011

Ramit Sethi, empathy, the value of mistakes, and the perfect mentor

In the last five years, I've noticed the rise of what I call "internet personalities." Just like Oprah on TV, there are people who give advice on the best ways to manage your life. Their advice is aimed at the highly educated, tech savvy audience. A few examples of internet personalities: Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Work Week, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, etc. They build up a big audience on the internet, write a book and market the hell out of it to get it on the New York Times Bestseller list, and then repeat.

Recently, I've been reading Ramit Sethi's blog, which has the outrageous title, "I Will Teach You To Be Rich." Ramit's goal is to teach young (relatively well-educated) people how to manage their lives. The world is changing so fast, we are bombarded with information, and we are overwhelmed by choices. Our parents can't help us because frankly, they don't know anything. Ramit's particular angle is to use his educational background in behavioral psychology to reach young people.

You can find lots of life management advice scattered across the internet, but that is a time-consuming way to learn. Ramit packages his advice in a way that is accessible and shows empathy for young people. I find that our so-called elders can be pretty arrogant and dismissive of young people's concerns. They don't understand what we go through. Ramit does. He expresses sympathyand then yells at his audience (something along the lines of "wake up, what you're doing is stupid, stop doing that and do this.") This strange combination of empathy, admonishment, and enthusiasm is somehow endearing and persuasive.

Ramit started his blog in personal finance, but now he has turned to the greater challenge of leading people to their "dream job." I've talked to various middle-aged people about the career search and they are uniformly dismissive of the anxiety us young people have about the job search. Some of these people are really nice but it's clear that in the back of their minds, they think that the anxiety is really cowardice. I suppose that's easy to think when they were able to get their first couple jobs without any significant roadbumps. Ramit actually takes the time to talk about the psychological barriers we face when embarking on a job search: "I'm not qualified", "I don't like networking", "I don't want to rule out jobs because I'm closing doors," etc. Our "old-fogey" elders would find this kind of stuff is stupid, but Ramit takes the time to explain why these barriers don't make sense.

For example, one thing I always wondered about is why do people (even students from Ivy League schools) have so much trouble finding jobs. Ramit explains that they are wasting time on ineffective techniques like polishing their resume or shotgunning their resume on monster.com. They should really be networking to find jobs they are excited about. It seems paradoxical that eliminating choiceis the right way, but it works because when you focus on just a few jobs and companies, you can research the hell out of these places and tailor your approach to the specific job title/company, rather than submitting a generic resume that is sure to be rejected.

Ramit recently talked about "the top seven mistakes for finding a dream job." I like how he focused on mistakes as opposed to telling you what to do. I frequently find that it's more valuable to find out what not to do rather than what to do. It's much easier for me to remember people's mistakes and avoid them (my mind is screaming "no, no, no"). If someone tells me to do something that I don't want to do, I just feel annoyed (my mind is going "nag, nag, nag").

Ramit is a guy who is really putting his psychology skills to work and I admire him for that. Personally, I think mentoring and giving advice is very hard [1]. The perfect, ideal mentor would give you the exact advice you needed at exactly the right time and avoid burdening you with irrelevant or anxiety-provoking thoughts. That is hard. An example of what is not good mentoring: your mother shrieking in your ear about how you'll be robbed by gypsies if you travel to Europe. Maybe those guys and gals in artificial intelligence should program the perfect mentor.

[1] This reminds me of a post I wrote about the book A River Runs Through It.

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