True fact: I love Pinterest (are you there? Let’s connect!). If I’m looking for travel ideas, book inspiration, new recipes, style suggestions, infographics or anything else visual-based, Pinterest is my go-to guilty pleasure for, ahem, very important research. What I don’t love about Pinterest, however, is the deluge of “life advice” it has unleashed on the world. I’m talking about the pithy quotes that sound snappy, have a nice rhythm to them, and seem good in theory… but ignore the grey areas and nuances of this thing called real life. A few weeks ago, I asked on Facebook: what are pieces of common life advice you’ve heard that are not 100% accurate or plain wrong? All the responses had me nodding along, and in this post, I want to share a few of them:
1. “Never give up”
Sometimes giving up is 100% the right thing to do. All these Pinterest quotes that say “don’t quit,” “you only fail when you stop” and yada yada are plain wrong. If you change your mind, realise something you thought was the right thing for you isn’t, not only is it fine to give up, but it’s the sane thing to do. Ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? “Never give up” comes straight out of that.
2. “Say yes to everything”
In the early 2000s, a British comedian called Danny Wallace ran a six-month experiment in which he said “yes” where usually he would have said “no.” He wrote a book about his experiences, it became a movie with Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel, and more and more people have adopted this philosophy in an attempt to inject more opportunity and adventure into their lives.
But, as Lauren pointed out, “I am generally at my most stressed/miserable when I’ve said yes to too much. Saying no is fantastic.” I couldn’t agree more. “No” is one of the most valuable words in the English language. It’s not always easy to say, but I find it helpful to remember that when we say “no” to something, we’re also saying “yes” to something else—usually something more happy-making.
3. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
While I stand by my hypothesis that the ultimate, number one life hack for maximum good times, happy relationships, and positive life experiences is “Don’t be a d***,” sometimes we need to say things that are not nice. In fact, sometimes that’s the kindest thing to do. Buying into this advice is a shortcut for people-pleasing, so let’s be thoughtful with our words but willing to have the hard conversation when it’s necessary
(N.B. As This American Life suggested in their fascinating episode about online interactions, a retelling of this phrase for the internet age is, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS.” Let’s not do this either…)
4. “Just do what you love.”
As Liz pointed out, “If I followed this advice, I’d watch Netflix ALL day and eat pizza.” Exactly. A common variation I hear on this is “Just do what you love, and the money will follow…” This philosophy leaves out two key elements that are more important for earning money than love: skill level and whether it’s something people want enough to pay for.
Here’s something I’ve lost sight of before, and (ironically) felt much happier when I remembered: your passion and how you earn money don’t have to be the same thing. Rather than advice to “follow your passion/do what you love/follow your bliss” etc. etc., I prefer Elizabeth Gilbert’s not-quite-as-glam-but-far-more-practical suggestion to “Follow your curiosity” and see where that leads you.
5. Everything happens for a reason
A couple of people voted for this phrase. Friends, I am right with you; this is one of my least favourite pieces of common life advice.
I believe most of the time “everything happens for a reason” comes from a well-meaning place, but I also think it’s borne out of wanting to stifle our own discomfort around witnessing someone else’s pain. It’s a classic example of spiritual bypassing. Personally, I dislike the Law-of-Attraction-esque implication that there is some kind of benevolent universal force looking out for us and pulling strings behind the scenes to make everything OK again. I think this belief system is more disempowering than helpful in the long term (I’ll explain this more another time to avoid going off on a tangent/rant here).
My biggest issue with this statement, however, is that it glosses over what the person is feeling in the here and now. It’s about skipping the uncomfortable part and getting to the happy-ever-after and silver linings ASAP. The problem with this is that when we try to bypass our uncomfortable feelings, we also set ourselves up to bypass our good feelings too. As Brené Brown says, we can’t pick and choose which feelings we numb; we either have to accept them all, or we risk numbing them all.
Life isn’t fair or unfair, it just is. We are a tiny part of an enormous universe. Things happen, the circle of life continues, and we try to make meaning of it the best way we can. We might find the silver lining in the most catastrophic situation eventually, but we benefit most when we do so in our time.
6. It’s the thought that counts // The end justifies the means
Our thoughts don’t make us who we are, our actions do. In many situations in life, it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the action. If Derek owes Philomela $5,000 and whenever she brings it up says “Oh yeah, I keep meaning to pay you back,” that’s not the same as Derek repaying her the money. Meaning to do something isn’t the same—and doesn’t count for nearly as much—as actually doing it.
On the same note, the end doesn’t justify the means. Let’s say Suzanne wants a promotion at work. She believes she would be the best person for the job and has big plans to effect positive change. To further her cause, she spreads nasty rumours about her biggest competitor, who ends up losing out on the promotion as a result. She might have been the best candidate, but that doesn’t make her dishonesty OK.
At the crux of why both these sayings are wrong is this: what we do matters. Our intentions, thoughts, and good wishes count for something, but our choices matter far more. It’s our choices that make us who we are.
7. “Failure is not an option”
This one comes from Tara, who said, “Of course it is! Failure’s always an option and yet… you’ll be fine. You can fail and STILL be ok, but if you only do things you DEFINITELY won’t fail at… you won’t do much. Now, I like the attitude: failure not the ONLY option. Or Failures may happen, but let’s keep trying. Not as pithy :)”
8. “You shouldn’t care what people think”
I’m glad Johanna brought this one up because it falls under the umbrella of what Amy E. Smith described as “self-help gone bad” on the Becoming Who You Are podcast. If you struggle with people-pleasing and become conscious of the many ways in which you’re living someone else’s life rather than your own, a common reaction is to do a complete 180 and strive to stop caring what people think altogether.
The problem with this approach is caring what other people think is human nature. We’ve evolved to live in communities and tribes, and part of doing so is being attuned to what the other members of our tribe think of us. So much so that not caring what people think is also known as “psychopathy.”
In reality, we want to care about what the right people think. This includes the people who are closest and most important to us and sometimes (but not always) people who have expertise and experience in what we’re trying to do.
9. “You just need to snap out of it”
A member of the Becoming Who You Are Facebook group suggested this particularly regarding people experiencing depression and mental health issues. I will file this under “bad responses to a challenging situation” along with “everything happens for a reason.”
If it were as simple as needing to “snap out of it,” wouldn’t we all have done that by now? No one likes feeling depressed. For some people, it becomes a familiar place to be, and that familiarity can end up being a sticking point, but I know no one who would turn around and say “I’m so glad I’m depressed.”
Again, I think this response comes from our own discomfort in witnessing other people’s struggles—especially the long-term ones. Even though I know it’s not helpful and I know better, I can think of two people close to me about whom I’ve had this thought in the last year. For me, “just snap out of it” comes from a place of reactive resonance. It’s a problem-solving mode. From the outside, the answer to their issues is simple. Just start thinking about this differently! Just get off your butt and do something, anything! Just snap out of it! But while there is a time and place for this kind of approach, we risk further harming and alienating the person by not being respectful or accepting of their feelings, especially when they are dealing with forces beyond their control or their conscious awareness.
The kinder, more compassionate alternative is to reflect what we hear and see: “It sounds like this is really hard for you right now,” “I hear you’re unhappy in this relationship,” “You’re feeling stuck and unsure how to change things.” If the urge to rescue is strong, you can even say “I have a strong urge to jump in and try to fix this for you, but I understand that might not be what you want.” Often, airing the desire to rescue can help it dissipate.
What common life advice do you think it’s best to ignore? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!
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