Recommendations

I value personal recommendations highly. In fact, I prioritize content that other people have recommended to me over other content which I have noted. Personal recommendations help me filter out a large amount of bad content and ensures that the time I spend reading an article or a book, or watching an interview, is indeed time well spent. There are a couple of reasons why I value personal recommendations so highly, and why I care a lot about maintaining the integrity of recommendations.

Before I explore the benefits of listening to recommendations, it is first important to understand the work that goes into making a recommendation. In order for someone to make a good recommendation, they need to first read — or watch or listen to — the content. This means that the person needs to devote their own time to consuming that content — many people will value their time very highly. Secondly, someone needs to enjoy the content and think that it would provide value to someone else’s life as well. People will only recommend content that they think is good, and so recommendations act as an effective filter — nobody will recommend something that they themselves did not enjoy, because it will be very difficult for them to say someone would enjoy something that they themselves did not. Finally, the person needs to think about who they know that would like the content, and take the time to reach out and make the recommendation. Because this takes extra time, most people will be reluctant to recommend anything they did not fully enjoy and think that someone else would enjoy as well.

All of this work means that we can mostly rely on recommendations, because we know that if something is not great, then people will likely not take the time to tell other people about it. I value recommendations so highly not only because it takes a lot of work to make a recommendation, but also because when you make a recommendation, you are associating your reputation with the thing which you are recommending. Let’s say that you were recommending Atomic Habits (a great book, might I add) to me. If I were to enjoy the book, then I would say thank you and would be grateful for you referring me to such an in-depth and interesting book. On the other hand, if I were not to enjoy that book, then although I would appreciate the recommendation, I would be less grateful. People who make recommendations are usually conscious of this fact, and don’t want to share something with someone that will make them feel as if they have wasted the other person’s time. In sum, because someone needs to vouch for something, then a recommendation is more likely to be reliable.

How does one make an effective recommendation? The first part of making an effective recommendation is taking time before you refer someone to the thing you will recommend to think about whether or not they would derive benefit from it. This involves your thinking about what you enjoyed about the thing, evaluating if it would be relevant to the other person, and scrutinizing the details to ensure that what you are recommending is indeed of a high quality. Ask yourself: would X really enjoy this thing? If the answer is no, then don’t share it. If the answer is maybe, then share it but add that you are not fully confident, and that they should not value the recommendation too highly. This is an important caveat because it ensures that your reputation or your relationship with the other person is not affected if the recommendation turns out to be of no use to the other person. If the answer is yes, then recommend it.

In order to make an effective recommendation, you should also tell the person why they might like the thing you are recommending. Let’s use the aforementioned example of recommending Atomic Habits. If you enjoyed the book, then you could say to someone “I just finished Atomic Habits and it was great! I think you might like it”. You have thought about the book, and evaluated whether the other person may like it, so your recommendation is of a good quality.

But this could be more effective. How about saying to the other person “I just finished Atomic Habits and it was a great read! I especially liked the advice on habit stacking. I know that you mentioned you read an article on habit stacking a few weeks ago, so you may get a lot out of this book”? Now, that’s better! In this recommendation, we state that we like the book, we have thought about its content, and we have also told them why they might like it. If we mention that this would be a good follow-on resource based on something they have read, then they will be more likely to follow the recommendation — they may want to learn more about that thing, and you have just recommended a good source to find out more about that thing.

Finally, the people that make effective recommendations will not hesitate to retract a recommendation if they think that, upon further evaluation, the thing they have recommended would not benefit the other person. A friend of mine recently emailed me about a few lectures — they came highly recommended from his friends and he had enjoyed a few of the lectures. But, when he finished watching all of the lectures, he realized that they were not of the highest possible quality. This person quickly followed-up after making the recommendation and said that some of the lectures were very boilerplate, and so I may not find them as enjoyable as something else. I appreciate this because if I had started to watch those lectures, then I would have likely been bored and the bad recommendation may have tarnished my new relationship with this person. It was great to see someone give me a heads up when a past recommendation is no longer valid. In sum, those that make effective recommendations care about integrity, and will warn you when a past recommendation was not optimal.

In the context of recommendations about what someone should avoid, most of these thoughts apply. The only thing I would add is that if you are going to advise someone against doing something — reading a certain book, going to a certain restaurant, et cetera — because you have had a bad experience, then make sure that you spend extra time thinking about whether you did not enjoy that thing because it was inherently bad, or because it was not in line with your tastes. When people recommend I don’t read a book or watch a certain lecture, I appreciate it because it allows me to spend that time doing something more fruitful. But because I value this form of recommendation so highly, then I want the other person to have spent a lot of time thinking about what they are going to say before them advising me against reading or doing something. In some cases, I will disregard warnings from others about what I should not read, but this is often because I feel as if the other person has different tastes and has let that affect their judgement. Most of the time though, I care a lot about recommendations regarding what I should avoid — they save me a lot of time.

Recommendations are a critical part of our culture. We rely on recommendations — sometimes more than we realize — to help us avoid bad things, and spend more time focusing on good things that we enjoy. Recommendations also help us sort through the massive amounts of content we are now exposed to — especially in the context of online articles — and get to only the very best content. We naturally rely on recommendations because they save us time, and so it is important that before you make a recommendation, you really think about your recommendation and whether it will add value to the other person’s life. Integrity in recommendations matters a lot. By all means recommend something to me — I almost always read content that has been recommended to me — but please be conscious of the impact that your recommendation will have.

Think about your recommendations. Evaluate if the other person will like the thing you are recommending. Retract invalid recommendations. Value the integrity of recommendations.