High Horse Assholery - Lessons on offering fitness advice from Dunning-Kruger and "The book of the samurai"

By Ciaran O'Regan

I have been deeply interested in fitness and nutrition for over 11 years.

In such time I have accumulated a shitload of information: some being good, and unfortunately, quite a lot, being not so good. The nutrition and health fields are ones in which once somebody dives in, they find themselves in a never-ending maze of rabbit holes going in an infinite number of directions with the vast majority of these directions being gimmicky and not worth a fuck for the most part.

The subject of nutrition and health is super close and personal to people due to their own insecurities as well as emotional attachments to certain ways of living and eating. On top of this there is the obvious factor of their own body image and health. Something I wish I knew earlier (but am still refining all the time), were more socially intelligent ways of imparting this information about this emotionally charged area onto other people.

Due to eating and health being such emotionally charged topics, along with my own history in the fitness industry, the topic of fitness and nutrition is a great example for me to shine some light on the topic of Advice. 

In retrospect, I have most definitely given health and fitness advice (whether solicited or not) in a crude, and quite frankly; pretentious manner.

I must have come across like a serious dickhead. The reason I cared so much, and was so passionate, was that being physically fit and healthy means so much to me as a person. The lifestyle of hard physical training and attention to nutrition has given me so much in terms of physical health and confidence as well as healthy, intelligent, and like-minded friends.

Improving certain physical traits such as strength, mobility, speed, and conditioning, has also given me a sense of purpose and direction regardless of what else was going on in other aspects of my life. In all truth, physical health in the form of training and nutrition is the framework around which I have built the rest of my life. 

When I really go deep in analysis however, my inability to communicate my knowledge and passion, in a manner appropriate to where that person was with regards to their ability to receive the information, must have come from three sources: 

The first of which were my own insecurities.

These insecurities must have stemmed from the fact that I was once an unhealthy kid myself. I was one of those proper chubby sedentary little lads who would easily put away a full box of some sugared cereal while playing PlayStation. However in my teens, I essentially went from an overweight young lad who was unsure of himself, to getting some abzzz and some muscles after taking up strength training and the eating a lot of chicken and broccoli. I think the fact that I had been able to transform my own body, while still retaining a legacy of certain thought processes rooted in insecurity from the chubby days, led me to feel a sense of superiority over people who had not transformed themselves yet: hence the pretension when telling people how to do it themselves. 

 

“All cruelty springs from weakness.” - Seneca

 

The second, was the way a lot of the providers of health and nutrition information online, and in books, actually impart their information

This vastness of information available, and the fact that quite a large proportion of it is delivered from seemingly omnipotent, know it all, grandiose-guruish-gobshites (how was that for alliteration?) doesn't help. I think it potentially increases the likelihood that impressionable young people like myself, who were unsure of their place in the world, would adopt some of their know-it-all ways of communicating.

Such ways of communicating involve the use of definite statements, pretension, and just general high-horse assholery for (purposeful) lack of a more eloquent description.

Finally, The main reason I think I gave advice like a prick, was the simple fact that I actually knew fuck all about what I was on about.

I did not know enough to realize how little I actually knew. I basically had enough knowledge to think I knew everything, but not enough to realize I was not even scratching the surface. 

 

"The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." - Shakespeare

 

This is an all too common phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

 

"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of those of low ability to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their ability accurately." - Wikipedia

 

(Note: Before I go any further I want to just highlight how much I fucking love the phrase "illusory superiority". It is so beautiful in both its language and meaning. But I digress....)

For example, when giving nutrition advice to people looking to improve their body composition (lose fat and gain muscle), I used to place huge importance on the minutia like "superfoods", supplements, meal timing, the "anabolic window" etc. I did not know enough to see that the big picture stuff that got you the biggest return on investment, were simply managing your caloric intake and eating sufficient protein throughout the day. I was 100% missing the forest for the trees and did not know enough to realize what was actually most important. I basically only knew enough to hang myself. 

The below twitter post I came across pretty much sums up the Dunning-Kruger effect in action and wonderfully illustrates my (hopefully) once lofty perch up on "Mount Stupid".

So what is there to learn here from my past fuck ups When giving advice?

Before you give advice to anyone, on any topic, make sure that you meet these two criteria:

1. You genuinely actually want to help people learn, and are not simply offering advice to feel some sense of superiority over your victim.

2. Most importantly: you actually know what the fuck you are on about regarding the topic you wish to opine on.

So assuming one is neither an insecure dickhead, nor ignorant fool, how does one actually set about giving advice? - Enter "The book of the samurai"

Had I come across the below section of the "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai" by Yamamoto Tsunetomo years ago, I potentially could have saved my victims from an ear beating, and myself from some bad karma.

“To give a person one’s opinion and correct his faults is an important thing. It is compassionate and comes first in matters of service. But the way of doing this is extremely difficult. To discover the good and bad points of an individual is an easy thing, and to give an opinion concerning them is easy, too. For the most part, people think that they are being kind by saying the things that others find distasteful or difficult to say. But if not received well they think that there is nothing more to be done. This is completely worthless. It is the same as bringing shame to a person by slandering him. It is nothing more than getting it off ones chest.
            To give a person an opinion one must first judge well whether that person is of the disposition to receive it or not. One must become close with him and make sure that he continually trusts one’s word. Approaching subjects that are dear to him, seek the best way to speak and to be well understood. Judge the occasion and determine whether it is better by letter or at the time of leave-taking. Praise his good points and use every device to encourage him, perhaps by talking about one’s own faults without touching on his but so that they will occur to him. Have him receive this in the way that a man would drink water when his throat is dry, and it will be an opinion that will correct faults.
            This is extremely difficult. If a person’s fault is a bad habit of some years prior, by and large it wont be remedied. I have had this experience myself. To be intimate with one’s comrades, correcting each other’s faults, and being of one mind to be of use to the master is the great compassion of a retainer. By bringing shame to a person, how could one expect to make him a better man?” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

 

As you can see there is an art to the concept of giving advice. For a large chunk of his life, Tsunetomo was himself an aid to a very powerful Samurai lord, and as part of his job was essentially a professional advice giverAs such he had put a lot of thought into the best ways of imparting his advice to his master. 

learn from my mistakes, then internalize the lessons on advice "The book of the samurai" can teach us. 

The next time you genuinely wish to help someone, and it is a topic in which you are sure you are not sitting on "Mount Stupid", use the invaluable lessons outlined above by Tsunetomo nearly 300 years ago.

Giving advice to someone is a huge responsibility, please treat it as such.  

 

“If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.” – Marcus Aurelius. 

 

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