Why the “Best” Way Is Your Own Way

Advice from James Cameron, on Not Taking Advice

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Image: Tim Bogdanov/Unsplash

For years, I have been a hoarder and disseminator of advice; and I only found advice worth taking by measuring the success of the giver. It wasn’t the most critical way of thinking, and I figured if I found what successful people did, I’d also be able to achieve the things they did. And whenever I inevitably couldn’t figure something out, I’d feel the urge to throw in the towel. “If I can’t figure out how they do it, it’s not worth doing at all.”

I get the sense I’m not the only one; articles on successful peoples’ morning routines, their diets, how they’re making money on TikTok, are all still popular. I would still be fixated on looking for advice, if I hadn’t come across a quote that changed my life…

Other People’s Answers Might Work for Them, but Not You

On a visit to a small used bookstore, when I came across Syd Field’s Four Screenplays. Flipping through the book, I found an excerpt from his interview with James Cameron that completely punched me in the gut:

“People ask me how do you get to be a film director,” Cameron continued, “and I tell them that no two people will ever do it the same way, and there is nothing I can say that will help you. Whatever your talents are, whatever your strengths and weaknesses, you have to find the path that’s going to work for you. The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer.

If you have to ask somebody how to be a film director, you’ll probably never do it. I say, probably. If that pisses you off, and then you go out and say, ‘I’m going to show that Jim Cameron; I am going to be a director,’ that gives you the kind of true grit you need to have in order to go through with it. And if you do become a film director, then you should send me a bottle of champagne and thank me.”

The irony is not lost on me; I’m sharing someone else’s advice, encouraging whoever reads it not to ask less advice. Nonetheless, that’s the value of a quote; it changed my life in a matter of seconds.

If we look at the possibilities of trial and error, and combinations of tactics, there are endless possibilities for what might work. Those people just happened to ones that worked for them, in their time. Even if I could ask them (and I did), and get an honest — and accurate — answer from them, the knowledge didn’t change my  life the way I thought it would. I was making my own bed of Procrustes, twisting my activities to fit into their personality.

Advice and Knowledge are Dynamic; Take Them Not as Answers, but as Propositions

More importantly, advice evolves; a lot of people experiment, improving their processes whenever they see a potential better way to do something. Artist Mike Winkelmann, also known by his art name Beeple, says in this Reddit AMA, “[If] your process isn’t changing, you’re not taking advantage of the [latest] tools. [In] this industry that is dangerous.”

That applies doubly to a lot of different industries, writing and marketing for certain. So even if someone told me their most powerful tactic, it would just be a snapshot of what they know at the time. If they went on to find something even better any point after I asked them, I’d be left in the dust trying to apply what they were doing.

Like me, you may still find yourself wanting to — or sometimes obsessed with — finding out how people excel, and learning from their experiences and insights. Perhaps we should make a resolution to let our curiosities lead us, but not to let them limit us. We can choose to treat other people’s advice, successes, and cautionary tales as propositions; it’s not meant to be followed to the letter, and we can choose to accept it or not.

It’s on each of us to apply the advice and experiment with it. You’ll know if they work because they feel natural; they may be challenging, but you believe in it, and you’ll find the attempt rewarding. Neurologist and author James H. Austin says that this type of personalized action exposes you to a new type of chance; one that can provide you with opportunities that others, without your temperament or preference, would not come across.

In an age where everybody can access and follow the same advice, doing something you would do might be the most unique and competitive thing you can do.