Boilerplate Advice

Lately there’s been a gradual uptick in young(er) people asking me for “advice” and a steady decline in my energy to be helpful in any way. So I made up a convenient boilerplate advice table to blow them off with. Some notes follow after. I posted a draft version of this on twitter earlier, where it got some good reactions.

Life StageLight SideDark Side
(0-13 – fairly limited control)
Play, explore, learn life-positive attitudes, get primed for a good life through benevolent supervision by not-too-messed-up adults. Endure abuse, develop fearful attitudes and arrested development, develop unstable tendencies that make you derail under stress, develop PTSD.
Adolescence (13-18 – significant control)Get socialized, make friends, initialize social networks, develop skills to live off of, learn to regulate emotionsGet alienated, disconnect from peers, become isolated, find coping mechanisms like drugs, get caught up in stormy unregulated emotions
Emerging Adulthood
(18-30 — you’re fully in charge for the first time)
Get worldly, develop relationships (including with yourself), learn who/what to trust, thread the needle of cynicism vs. motivation. Learn to be kind to yourself.Get clueless, bewildered, and desperate to be “seen” by someone, anyone. Become vulnerable to radical manipulation, learn resentment and helplessness, become egoistically attached to your talents/skills.
Act 1
Pick risks, battles, commitments, and responsibilities that will make you who you are. Build an open-play win/lose record. Aim to collect 7 significant scars (see The Key to Act Two)Fail to launch. Never take on anything that counts as “living” but continue endlessly optimizing starting positions and justifications. Get trapped in Dr. Seuss’ Waiting Place. Become self-alienated by refusing to discover yourself.
Act 2
Understand your own past, and make your peace with it. Decide what/who to forgive/forget — or not. Decipher your scars and figure out what lock in the universe life has keyed you to open (See The Key to Act Two) Put yourself into a terminal box that you cannot work yourself out of, alongside others who don’t know who they are and never stop waiting for life to start. Allow your physical, mental, and institutional health problems to define you. Become a professional patient of the system.
Act 3
(this is beta since I’m not there yet myself)
Figure out and play your Elder Game in your Late Style, the most mature form of doing whatever you do. Beat a wisely calculated retreat and cede agency to younger people as early as possible.Hold on fearfully to whatever agency you have, for as long as you can. Fail to understand the future and those it belongs to. Gracelessly wear out your welcome and get in their way. Fail to pass on any batons you hold. Set up the future for failure.
(70+) (insufficient visibility)
Advice for a mediocre life


There’s a bunch of things to say about this table that will be obvious to older people and might not be to younger people, so let’s say them out loud.

  1. Obviously, the very act of making up such an advice table is displacement activity arising from avoiding one’s own problems. But the hope is that in the process of pretending to help others, you accidentally help yourself. Actually helping anyone else is always a bonus.
  2. This is advice for a mediocre life, not a great life. This is not a joke. I don’t have any advice to offer for those who think they can be great. If you want to be special and great, and live a Chosen One life, look elsewhere. If you’re not familiar with my mediocrity-oriented life philosophy, try this blogchain.
  3. There is, by design, nothing new in this table. It’s an attempt to tldr themes and ideas I’ve been exploring for 13+ years on this blog, in a distilled “advice” format, which I rarely use. You can deep dive into the archives or read the ebooks, but really, if you’re looking to this blog for life guidance, this post pretty much covers it.
  4. This life-stage yin-yang type structure doesn’t quite capture the cross-stage and cross-column couplings. That would take way more work and words to capture. I’ve tried to structure this table in the form of the obvious life-stage-boundaries that precipitate strategic decisions (often accompanied by discontinuous life-circumstance changes, like moving away from home, getting a key promotion, or kids leaving the nest), with the periods in-between being marked by certain overall decision-making dispositions and locked-in conditions.
  5. A life entirely lived in the light column would actually be kinda a sucky life. You have to dip enough into the dark column to get a taste of what that’s like, and a visceral sense of why the two columns are labeled light and dark. If you stay entirely on the straight and narrow path of light, you’re probably set up for a different kind of failure. Don’t be a Straight A’s student of life aiming for a 4.0. That’s not the spirit of mediocrity. This boilerplate advice is best followed with mediocre conscientiousness.
  6. The light and dark side dichotomy is real choices you will face, and the normie judgments of those choices. Yes, my perspective is that of an unapologetically basic normie here. The cost of wandering to the dark column is being perceived as failing at life, and likely actually failing at life.
  7. A life stage is likely to overall be in one column or the other, and perhaps dip back and forth a bit. Ian Cheng suggested that many life stories play out as diagonals across stages — like Dark Childhood to Light Adolescence is probably an archetypal story. This feels correct to me. There are 14 story templates in this neotenous, lifelong McBildungroman.
  8. Mark Safranski dubbed me McMentor for making this table. This is exactly right. This is dollar-menu grade advice. You can do much better if you convince the right people to give you personalized advice. This really is boilerplate. If this feels revelatory to you, you may have a bigger problem of insufficient real mentors in your life.
  9. The goal isn’t to entirely avoid the self-destructive-spiral tendencies listed on the dark side, but to point out that those spirals really aren’t sustainable and if you stay there too long, you lose the option of switching to the other column. The movie cliches about each dark-side box are unfortunately 100% true.
  10. Somebody posted an earlier version of this online somewhere and somebody else commented that it is “ableist af.” I’ll cop to that but make no effort at all to address it or apologize for it. I have no advice to offer anyone with significant disabilities. I don’t pretend anything I write is even intended to be universalist. I don’t believe in universalism. Find people whose lived experiences are suitable object lessons for shaping your own, as either aspirational or cautionary tales.
  11. You will notice that not only is this table highly incomplete with respect to the map of popular advice-topics, but that some are notable for being missing: personal finance, career management, relationship management, health/fitness, etc. I tend to the view that all those topics have moved from “advice” to “information” in the last couple of decades, and Google is your advisor there. That really just leaves squishy aphorisms for both mentors and McMentors to dish out. Which is all I traffic in. For any more “informational” domain of advice, I’m a really bad person to consult.
  12. If you hire me as a consultant expecting “personalized and premium” versions of this from me, you’re going to be disappointed. McAdvice is kinda the end of the road of “advice” from me. Giving “advice” is something I’ve never taken seriously, which might seem odd for a consultant, but then, I’ve never framed my consulting as advice-giving. Clients talk to me, and I react with frames or options for them to consider. This is never satisfying to people looking for advice per se.

There’s probably a bunch of linking I could do inline in the table, to old posts, but I don’t feel like doing the connective thinking. But if any obviously links occur to you, post a comment, and I’ll try to add them.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. How does this map to Life Rule Sets ?

  2. Rohit Karanth says

    Everybody’s free to wear Suncreen –

  3. You’re the best.

  4. I’m 25 now, and am finally starting to consistently see essential similarities underlying the messages of the Big Kahuna advice-machine bloggers and writers whose extensive works I began inhaling as a teenager desperate to improve myself. I used to feel like switching my reading focus from (say) Eliezer Yudkowsky, to Paul Graham, to Scott Alexander, to Venkatesh Rao, was a paradigm shift every time. A religious conversion. Changing my prophet and my doctrine. (I also wrote once as a 19 year old college freshman that my Lord and Savior was regulated psilocybin, and my prophet was Jean Paul Sartre; so, “religion is the opiate of the masses” has certainly has applied to my recovery from a well-indoctrinated childhood as a Baha’i with Old Country pedigree being raised red-blooded American at the turn of the century.) Now I revisit posts like Yudkowsky’s Unteachable Excellence, and it feels like you guys have always been saying the same things and I was just too young and illiterate to notice. The essential unities are lost in translation. I suppose that’s why we have to keep digging them up with new words and novel compressions in each passing generation. I keep doubting the value of this endeavor so I’m not going to link my own blog as I haven’t added anything to it for a while. But I welcome all the based hoopy fellow froods younging up the place with their absurd radicalism and literalist fervor.

    • Don’t forget to avoid Affective Death Spirals around Connection, and around Unity! Frequent doses of the The Virtue of Narrowness are essential:

      “When the unenlightened ones try to be profound, they draw endless verbal comparisons between this topic, and that topic, which is like this, which is like that; until their graph is fully connected and also totally useless. The remedy is specific knowledge and in-depth study. When you understand things in detail, you can see how they are not alike, and start enthusiastically subtracting edges off your graph.”

  5. Welcome to the future nauseous belongs in here…

  6. erik erikson. you might want to look into work.

  7. Omg…. I love you