The Best No-Brainer Advice

The Best No-Brainer Advice

When I read BJ Novak’s hilarious book of short stories months ago, one story really stuck out…

Here’s an excerpt:


The Girl Who Gave Great Advice

“Well,” she would say, and then narrow her eyes at the person she was talking to: “what does your heart tell you?” (Sometimes she would use “gut” instead of “heart.” She switched those up sometimes.)

“Yes. Yes!” the friend would say, as the girl who gave great advice held her squint and then added a slow, small nod one and a half seconds later. “You’re right! Thank you! You give the best advice. I feel so much better. Thank you!”

That’s how it happened most of the time. But sometimes, her task was more complicated. These were the times the person would say “my heart tells me…” (or “my gut tells me”) but would then say something in a tone of voice that made it sound like the person wasn’t necessarily all that happy to be saying what he or she was saying.

The girl who gave great advice knew how to handle these situations, too. She would lower her head thirty degrees and then tilt it back up after two and a half seconds, and ask at a slightly slower pace in a slightly lower voice: “And what does your…” and then she would say either “gut” or “heart,” just whichever one she hadn’t said before. (This was the part she had to be most careful about. Once, she had said the same word as she had the first time—”heart,” twice—and the whole thing fell apart.)

If her first piece of advice hasn’t worked, this second piece of advice always made everything all right. “Yes! Yes! Now I know what to do! You give the best advice!” everyone told her. “The best! Ever!”


The story originally just made me laugh—Novak is obviously joking about her advice being pat and orchestrated—but since then, I’ve found myself secretly using the tip in real life. As someone who overanalyzes every decision, I’ve tried to step back and think, Okay, well, what does my heart tell me? and, more often than not, my answer will crystalize. (For example, when deciding who to hire, I was going back and forth for ages, and then I tried to just trust my gut. And—poof!—the answer was clear.) When you’re making a tough decision, do you usually follow your head or heart? It’s funny how subconsciously you really do know the answers. Maybe this girl is wiser than we had thought!

P.S. Another favorite piece of advice.

(Photo of Coline)

  1. I am about three years late with my comment. Haha!

    We recently had to make big decisions as a family – move to another city, where to stay, new school, starting a new business. The logic & finances also needs to make sense (sort of), but ultimately I go with what my heart tells me. If my heart doesn’t say ‘yes’, it is a no go.


  2. victoria says...

    thank you joanna, love this post.

  3. Hey Joanna, I love your post! And there’s a reason why the process you’ve described works!

    Recent Neuroscience findings have uncovered that we actually have functional, adaptive and complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in the heart and gut. And informed by the neuroscience, we’ve completed over 3.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of these brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques for tapping into the intuitive intelligence of the heart and gut brains in our new book ‘mBraining’. See for more info.

    We were recently invited to keynote at a World Coaching Summit (WBECS), and you may be interested to watch our short intro to the process of multiple Brain Integration Coaching from that:

    You’ll find it explains beautifully why the process works when you do it right, and how by tapping into your innate intuitive wisdom, you can make wiser decisions and truly bring your human spirit alive.

    smiles, Grant

  4. Oh lovely. As an intuitive or psychic I read this story totally differently than you did! I was like, “Yes. Exactly!” So funny. And I love that you came around and started applying it– it really is the best advice. And I find all of the time in my work, people know the truth of what is best for them, even if they don’t want it to be so, and hearing and accepting what they know in their gut/heart usually brings such GREAT relief! That’s a different angle on this particular story– told from mine, the advice giver, but that’s what I was hearing too when I read it. Thanks for posting.

  5. eulalia and leslie, thank you so much for letting me know who she was! she’s adorable. i’ll add a link to her site now. thank you again!

  6. This reminds me of the coin toss, if you can’t decide toss a coin electing one side for each of your decisions, 9 out of 10 times when that coin is flying through the air, the choice you want will come to you and it won’t matter what side the coin lands on.

  7. I also remember this story very often… BJ’s book at first sight seems really innocent but it is full of great thoughts.

  8. It’s funny you chose a picture of Coline. Is it random ?
    Cause by looking at her blog everyday for years, she could be that kind of girl you’re taking about.

  9. Hi Joanna!
    I was wondering if you knew who the “smiling girl” in the picture is. I know she’s pretty famous, but in case you don’t follow her blog, she’s Coline, from the blog “Et pourquoi pas Coline?”. She only writes in French (she’s HILARIOUS), but I definitely think you’d enjoy her blog. She’s French AND a bit tomboyish. A very awesome lady.
    I’m pretty sure no one else has mentioned it in the comments section, so sorry if I’m being redundant/obvious.
    One big hug from Spain!
    PS. Thank you SO much for your amazing blog.

  10. I love this post so very much, I think I might have to start trying this technique on myself!

  11. Did you know the only link between the part of your brain which stores all the information you’ve used to make decisions in the past is with your stomach! That’s why you should always trust your gut!!

  12. As a full-fledged people pleaser, I’ve always struggled with making decisions in general. “What will my mom think? What would my boss think? Will that sound stupid or irrisponsibIe? What if I come across as too confidant? Or too weak?” are all familiar questions that rattle around in my head. I don’t even remember why or how I realized it, but the moment I figured out how to “consult” my heart, it was like all of the other voices in my head were silenced. It’s a freeing thing and the best part is, it really is so simple! The answer is almost always there. Thanks Joanna! It’s funny how sometimes there is such truth in unexpected places.

  13. claire, i really want to check out the audio version, it sounds awesome!

  14. oh yes yes yes! the story is DEFINITELY satirical—the book is really funny, and the stories all have a sense of humor. but that’s the point i was trying to make: that even though the story was joking about “follow your gut” being such pat/vague advice, i’ve found that it actually works surprisingly well. i’ll edit the post a bit to make that clearer, sorry about that!

  15. Agree with Carlie and Nicole.

    Honestly, I think the most important part comes later, with course correction. We put so much pressure on the “right” answer, when really, the answer changes. Things don’t have to be pat, because most times we have the opportunity to make them better. (That’s part of why I love “Pride and Prejudice” so much–Elizabeth’s initial instincts tell her Wickham, but she’s strong enough to accept when she was wrong and grow from that experience.)

  16. As an English teacher, I agree with Carlie, hence the whole “(This was the part she had to be most careful about. Once, she had said the same word as she had the first time—”heart,” twice—and the whole thing fell apart.)” …meaning it’s BS and she doesn’t give a damn about helping people sort out their problems.

  17. Hm. I read this last month, and this story seemed to me like someone who was basically BS-ing everyone into thinking she was brilliant and wise, not actually someone who was giving solid advice.

  18. I am trying to trust my gut/heart/intuition more. Brene Brown says in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, that intuition is often cast aside as baseless or foolish. But the truth about intuition is that it is a conglomerate of everything we have ever learned.

  19. This may just be my second semester senioritis talking, but isn’t this piece supposed to be satirical? Like, the whole point of it is that “What does your heart tell you?” is really generic advice that just makes you sound smart. Because following your heart and your gut means basically the same thing (as Novak alludes to when he says the girl says the two interchangeably), so the girl’s “great” advice is just a rewording of some zen-like cliche. If it had been “heart” vs “head” it would have been different, but “heart” and “gut” indicate the same instinctual feeling. So really the girl’s advice is bad advice because it generic and formulaic, with no real attention paid to the person asking for advice’s situation.

    I don’t know, maybe I’ve been writing too many analytical papers lately, but I totally saw this as satire, not as genuine helpful advice!

  20. I read the book because of you back when you first mentioned it. I LOVED it. The one about going to heaven and meaning to meet up with the grandmother has stuck with me for some reason. The robot one. The girl with the advice was great and I love how he brought that up again in another story. Thank you so much for connecting me with it. Now I’m recommending it to lots of friends. Light, funny, poignant, good read. And a good head shot!

  21. I love this! :)
    A really great book about the science behind trusting your gut instinct is “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell – such an interesting read!

  22. I love this!

  23. I believe we all know what we want we just get scared it won’t work out and that is why we have trouble making some decisions. Trusting our heart/gut is always the best way to go.

  24. This is so true and important to remember.

  25. That is awesome advise. Really makes you think. I have been wanting to read that book to. I will have to definitely get it for a summer read.

  26. This is funny and awesome. And a touch Southern-grandma. Now I must read the book.

  27. Always my heart, always my heart. Sometimes to a fault, but damn, there’s just no other way for me…


  28. i read this book based on your recommendation. i haven’t really thought about the story again until now. funny how sometimes our heads are so full of busyness that we can’t really even tell what our gut says. i’m working on clearing that clutter right now. hoping for the best!

  29. This is brilliant! I’ve really been enjoying short stories recently, they are the one type of fiction I enjoy reading online.

    I posted a super short story from Alexander McCall Smith on my blog today too – it’s brilliant!

  30. I love that story! So often people are looking for others’ opinions instead of being confident in what they think is right. But I think, too, it can swing the other way and people can ask advice for something and really they’re just phising for “permission” to do what they want to do but not what they should.

    I think following your gut can be good. But the heart often yearns for things that won’t always fulfill the desires of a person. I use my head a lot, and that usually backs up my gut/heart’s true desires.

  31. I’m having a tough time figuring this out. One minute, I’ve totally convinced myself that one thing (either my head or my heart) is right, but, the next minute, I feel that evil tug from the other direction and it completely takes over. It’s a masterpiece of a waffling act and it drives me nuts! Sometimes I wish I could read the completed book of my life and just let it tell me my next step! hahaha

  32. Tend to act on that little voice that says “No, hang on…” when everything else seems to be fine. Inner me knows there might be something wrong when outer me is consciously thinking. Ignore at peril!

  33. As a life coach in training, I have learned to “listen” to all parts of my body. When I feel something in my heart, my gut, my head, my knee, my elbow, etc., I know my body has some information for me. I try not to judge the feeling as good, bad, right or wrong. It’s just information my body wants to communicate to me. By reflecting on times in my life when I made what turned out to be a “good” decision for me and remembering what that physically felt like in my body, now I have a filter to evaluate whatever I’m feeling about a current situation. I also have learned to ask physical sensations in my body questions like, “Stomach Knot, what is your purpose? How are you here to serve me? What do you want me to know?” This may sound a little (or a lot!) woo-woo, but I continue to witness it working on myself and others time after time! Our bodies are truly wonderfully made! Sammi – when you say you don’t feel anything except swirling in your head, that swirling might actually be SOMETHING! Maybe ask it a few questions and see if anything comes up. ;)

  34. Depends on the situation. I am a really anxious person, and I find my gut usually is very cynical lol. If I always trusted my gut reaction, I wouldn’t ever accomplish anything. So it’s kinda difficult for me! I mean yes, like if you feel someone following you and get that get-the-hell-out-of-here gut reaction, you trust it. But if it’s something that isn’t involving imminent danger then I have to examine the situation more closely.

  35. I remember thinking that this was very true when I originally read it! Thanks for posting about it!

  36. jane, i hope you’re feeling okay about it all! sounds like it was the right choice. big transitions are so tough—your life comes in chapters, right?

  37. I’m 27 and had ALWAYS followed my head: doing the right thing, the smart thing, the thing that made sense for the future and then a few months ago I decided I’m doing pretty darn good in life but I’m not sure I have enough FUN. So I figured I have enough room to start following my heart and doing some things “just because I wanna” …even if it leads me astray a little. My goals this year included 1. Do something I’ve never done 2. Go somewhere I’ve never and been 3. Have fun. So far I’ve gone to Vegas for a long weekend (had never been before), danced 2 step (very badly) in a country bar with a guy I had just met and had a blast all weekend with my best friend from High school! so far so good, and I haven’t started failing at life. So maybe my heart knows what’s up :)

  38. Red t-shirt and advice were HYSTERICAL! And I love that the woman from advice made a cameo appearance in another story – which might have actually been red t-shirt, if I remember correctly! Cracked me up!

  39. I recently made a huge, life-changing decision that was extremely difficult and really included me throwing away what I’ve worked incredibly hard for for four years. Ultimately I know I made the right decision, and it definitely came down to a gut and heart feeling. There was just an overwhelming sense of relief when I did what was difficult but what I knew was right.

  40. I almost always follow my head. I simply can’t make impulsive decisions. My best friend is the opposite and makes huge decisions very quickly. I dated my husband for 4 years before marrying him. She dated hers for 4 months. But, we’re both happily married 8 years later!

  41. Completely fabulous, thank you for sharing♡

    Elicia ♥

  42. R. says...

    I think going with your “heart” actually means going with your “instinct”, which can involve logical thinking and doesn’t have to be all about emotion.

    I usually regret decisions made with my “heart”. In undergrad, I started working in a research lab and that drove a wedge between my then bf and I. Long story short, I ended up choosing research even though I remained intensely in love with my bf many years after.

    After grad school when I was looking for a job, my advisor from that first research lab wrote me rec letters and continues to be a valuable reference for me and advancing career.

    My then bf? He repeatedly cheated on his next gf. I always think that would have been me had I followed my heart. Thankfully, I thought things through and chose right.

  43. OK. So, that’s all well and good, but what happens when your gut (or your heart) isn’t telling you anything? I totally have this situation where something happened and I thought the next day I’d have a “gut” feeling whether or not I’d made the right decision, but… nothing. I don’t *know* in my gut or my heart, that I did the right thing. And it keeps on swimming in my head, and I just don’t have the answers.

  44. I’m currently taking a gap year between high school and college, and brought this book on my iPod to listen to on all those long plane and train rides. I loved all of B.J. Novak’s stories, and, most of all, listening to him (and all of his friends!) reading them out loud. I think having the author read his own work just make it infinitely better. So many of the stories resonated with me – and this chapter was certainly one that had me thinking twice. I think I’m still at that first stage of finding it amusing, having yet to get to that place of taking the advice to heart, but I really should! It would certainly have come in handy on some of the harder days volunteering at a child protection nonprofit in Edinburgh, or my first week away, completely alone in Reykjavík, which was absolutely terrifying. Must remember to listen to my heart and gut! Thanks for reminding me, Joanna!

  45. I’ve been following my head lately, I used to follow my heart and it always gets me into a lot of trouble, particularly when it comes to romance. There’s this guy I love and he doesn’t really love me in the same way. So far I’ve been following my heart, now I’m following my head.

    My head knows better, my head can control my impulsive and aggressive will to act.

  46. I absolutely LOVED this collection. Tortoise and the hate, red t-shirt, the robot who learns to love! And the advice one was great. I recommend this book often.

  47. Love this! Can’t wait to read the book, but in the meantime thanks for sharing this :) I totally agree that we usually know the answer deep inside, but sometimes all you need is a sounding board or a bit of affirmation. It’s scary when your head and your heart don’t agree, but I’m learning to trust my heart more.