Thin Watches and the Donner Party

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Early in my career, I got a big promotion from
management trainee to distribution center manager. The promotion came with a
hefty raise, a move to a new city, and advice from my new boss.

The day before I was to take over the new center, my boss took me to dinner.
He used the occasion to tell me his “secrets of success.” As I remember it, he
credited his successful career to wearing patent leather shoes and having a thin
watch. He’d gotten that advice from some “how to succeed” article. He shared it
with me so I would know how smart he was.

That bad advice was harmless, because I saw through it right away, but not
all bad advice is easy to spot. That’s how the Donner Party got in trouble.

In the spring of 1846, the party left Independence, Missouri, headed for
California. They relied on a popular book by Lansford W. Hastings, The
Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California that promoted a route that was shorter
than the Oregon Trail, called the Hastings Cutoff.

Hastings promoted the book by giving lectures throughout the east. The book
was captivating, but there was a problem. Hastings had never actually seen the
Hastings Cutoff when he wrote the book. He could tell from maps that it was
shorter than the traditional route so he recommended it enthusiastically.

The Donners discovered how bad the advice was the hard way. First, they
ignored the advice of seasoned travelers not to take the cutoff. The cut off was
devastatingly rugged and included a three day trek across the desert, both of
which added days to the trip.  The Party made it to the foot of the Sierras
in October 1846.

They had to decide whether to push on to California or wait it out until
spring. They decided to keep going, in part because the book told them, that the
pass would not be snowed in until mid-November. We all know what happened. The
party was caught by blizzards and ten foot drifts in what is now called “Donner
Pass.” Those that survived were not rescued until February.

Bad advice comes in a variety of forms and there are different ways it can
hurt you. The Donners relied on recommendation by an author who had never
travelled the trail he recommended. They disdained advice from experienced
travelers not to take the cutoff. And, even after experiencing how bad the
initial advice was, the relied on more advice about when snow would block the

As for Hastings, he never acknowledged responsibility for the results of his
advice. He was confronted about it, but “Of course he could say nothing but that
he was very sorry, and that he meant well”.

Boss’s Bottom Line

There’s no way to avoid bad or dangerous advice and there’s no sure way to
see through it, either. Remember to do your due diligence and devote more
investigation to situations of high risk or where failure could be disastrous.

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