Most of us focus a lot more on the "quality" of the person providing information than we do on the quality of the information itself.

In short: if Warren Buffett gives you a stock tip, you listen closely; if the same advice comes from the kid who cuts your grass, you don't.

To see if that's true, I've always wanted to swap columns with a big name (here's looking at you, Bill Gates) without, initially, telling anyone. I would write a column that, say, Bill would publish under his name, and he would write one I would publish under my name.

My assumption is "Bill's" article would get lots of play, plenty of positive comments, countless likes and shares... tens of thousands of people would find it awesome and maybe even life changing.

"Mine," probably not so much. The quantitative difference would be huge -- even though I actually wrote Bill's article, and he wrote mine.

Then we would 'fess up and spark a conversation on the nature of advice:

  • Would you have liked "Jeff's" post more if you had known it was Bill's?
  • Would you have liked "Bill's" post less if you had known Jeff wrote it?
  • Do we fail to evaluate the idea separately from the messenger, sometimes placing too much credence on the actual message... and sometimes not enough?

I've never managed to talk anyone notable into actually participating, unfortunately. (Howdy, Oprah.)

But that's okay, because someone else actually performed an experiment that is much better than mine.

Say Hello to Joshua Bell

A man wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap walks into a D.C. Metro station and takes out his violin. He leaves the case open on the floor to invite spare change. He plays for 43 minutes while almost 1,100 people walk by. During that time, only seven stop -- briefly -- to listen. 27 "tip" him for a total of $32.

Everyone else hurries by, many passing within feet.

Does that sound like what you would expect for a street performer? Probably so... except the violinist was Joshua Bell, the internationally acclaimed virtuoso widely regarded as one of the world's greatest violinists.

Yet some people didn't even notice him at all. (Here's the Washington Post article.)

A few days later Joshua packed his Stradivarius and flew off to headline a concert tour in Europe, but he did come back to the States in time to receive the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America.

How 'bout that.

Context Matters More Than We Like to Admit

Like a tiger in a zoo, commuters experienced Joshua outside his natural habitat. Put him on onstage at Carnegie Hall and the opposite would likely occur: even on his worst night the audience would probably still walk away feeling his performance was incredible. After all, I just saw Joshua Bell at Carnegie Hall! How could he not be awesome?

See Joshua in a Metro Station and he's just some guy hanging out next to the subway trying to score a little cash. How could he be awesome? How could "Mark's" article not be awesome?

How could "my" article be but so awesome?

But He's Mark Cuban...

Before you say it, I know: Mark Cuban is way smarter and way more successful than me. I'm not implying otherwise.

But what I am saying is that we naturally add extra weight to advice we hear from the people we admire and respect.. and we all naturally subtract a little weight -- or even disregard -- advice we hear from people we don't admire, don't respect, or don't know.

That's totally understandable -- and yet that's also a huge problem.

Why? Say you run into Mark Cuban in an airport lounge. You tell him about your company. He gives you advice.

And suddenly you've decided to pivot. You've mentally scrapped your entire marketing strategy. You're dead set on buying out your partner. Every word Mark speaks is forever burned on your brain, and why not? He's Cubetastic! He's Cubalicious! He's forgotten more about startups than you will ever know!

And maybe Mark is right. Maybe you should pivot, should blow up your marketing plans, and should ditch your longtime partner.

But maybe Mark isn't right. (He's a surprisingly humble guy and would likely be the first to admit it.) He doesn't know your business or your team.  And he definitely doesn't know you. Sure, he's the Cubester, but his opinions are based on his background, his experiences, and his perspectives.

What's right for him may be far from right for you... but you don't factor that in because he's Mark Cuban.

... And Everyone Else Is Not

In all likelihood, Seth Godin doesn't live around the corner from you. Marcus Lemonis doesn't hang out at your coffee shop. Richard Branson doesn't kite surf on a nearby lake. (Although it would be pretty cool if he did.)

Most of the people you see on a daily basis aren't recognized as thought leaders. Nor are they wildly successful. So you don't automatically hang on their every word.

But you should always listen. Just as you should never reflexively embrace a message because you admire the messenger, nor should you reflexively reject a message because you discount the messenger.

Opinions, advice, information -- it's all data, and the more data you have, the better.

So strip away the framing you apply to the source. Strip away the setting or environment. Consider the advice, the information, or the opinion based solely on its merits. Sure, the quality of the source matters, but ultimately the quality of the information, and its relevance to your unique situation, matters a lot more.

The more you listen, and people you are willing to listen to, the more data you have at your disposal to make smart decisions.

You don't have to agree, but you should always try to listen: to Mark, to Bill, to Richard... and to all the other people you meet along the way.