Tyler Cowen: The only two pieces of advice you'll ever need

Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

As a writer, podcaster and economist — not necessarily in that order — I receive numerous emails asking for advice. People ask for my opinion not only on economic questions, but also about what kind of job they should get, if they should return to school, whether they should marry a given person, how to plan a wedding, which books they should read and, yes, what is the meaning of life.

I am reluctant to hand out advice, if only because a) I don’t even know these people, and b) a proper answer is usually context-specific. Nonetheless, I think there are two pieces of advice that are appropriate for almost everybody, in response to almost any question. Here they are. Maybe I should just send all future requests for advice a link to this column.

The first piece of advice stems from what has been dubbed in Silicon Valley “the small group theory.” It goes like this:

— When working on any kind of problem, task or question, embed yourself in a small group of peers with broadly similar concerns.

The group will give you ideas, feedback and help keep you focused on the issue at hand. The personalities and framings of the other group members will make the issue seem more vivid. Membership in the informal small group may also make you more willing to help its other members, which in turn may boost your morale and performance. After all, there are few problems you are better off facing alone.

The small group can be as formal or informal as you like: friends hanging out after high school, an official support network that meets regularly (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), a team in the workplace, or artists sharing a studio. No, you shouldn’t ally yourself with a group of bank robbers, but still this is almost always good advice.

If you are wondering what “small group theory” is, I would define it roughly as follows: Important achievements stem from people working together in small groups, typically of their immediate peers. The hypothesis holds for ancient Greek philosophy, the Florentine Renaissance, German mathematics, Silicon Valley and the Beatles, among many other success stories, both large and small.

The small group theory may sound trivial, but in job and fellowship interviews I often ask people which small groups they work in, and what their role is in those groups. Many people are flummoxed by the question, and it appears they haven’t thought about the issue much as they should.

The second near-universal piece of advice is this:

— Get mentors.

A mentor is someone who knows significantly more about an area than you do, with greater real-world experience to boot, and who channels that knowledge into a leadership role.


Mentorship can be general or specialized. I have had classical-music mentors, art-market mentors, country-specific mentors when I lived in Germany and New Zealand, foreign-language mentors, chess mentors, economics mentors, philosophy mentors, writing mentors and friendly mentors to help with the basic emotional issues of life. I’ve tried to find mentors for just about everything. Sometimes the relationship lasts only a week or a month, other times for years.

Aside from providing teaching and advice, the mentor, like the small group, helps make an issue or idea more vivid: A living, breathing exemplar of success stands before you. The mentor makes a discipline feel more real and the prospect of success more realistic.

As a corollary, in addition to trying to find mentors, you should be willing to become a mentor yourself. Even if you do not have advanced understanding in some particular area, almost certainly there is someone who knows less than you do and who could use assistance. Being a mentor also helps you understand how to learn and appreciate your own mentors.

A mentor doesn’t have to be older than you, and in fact some of your mentors probably should be younger, especially since technologies are starting to change more rapidly. If you are 50 years old, the idea of an 18-year-old crypto mentor isn’t crazy. If the metaverse turns into a reality, don’t look to the graybeards for tutelage.

The relative dearth of male-to-female mentorships is one of the major factors holding women back from greater career success. This form of implicit but not necessarily intentional discrimination deserves wider discussion.

So there you have it: small groups and mentors. And if you don’t agree, well … I know a small group for advice-giving that might like a word with you.



Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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