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The 5 Most Useless Pieces of Advice Everyone Gives

#2. "Just Be Yourself!"

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Here's another one often said to nervous dudes trying to make a first impression (like for dates or job interviews). And I suppose it's good advice if it's interpreted as "Don't try some wacky Mrs. Doubtfire-esque scheme to pretend to be a different person!" In general, if you ever find yourself in a situation where success requires you to wear a wig and fake a wacky foreign accent, you've made a bad decision somewhere along the line.

But if you're walking into a situation where you need to make a good impression and all you have to go on is "Just be yourself," I don't even know what that means. I don't want to tug on the thread that holds all of human society together, but there is no such thing. There is no "yourself" to be.

So, is it just another way of saying "Follow your gut"? What does that mean, other than to do whatever your urges tell you to do in that given moment? Because that's a recipe for goddamned disaster -- the careful consideration that makes you back off from your first impulse is just as much a part of "you" as your "gut" is (if you want proof, go get drunk -- that's what you are when your gut doesn't have the thinking part of the brain to keep it in check).

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"So then I punched a child!"

I suspect that what people mean by this is simply "Relax and don't be so self-conscious, because that itself is off-putting." If so, that just circles around to the "confidence" advice in the previous entry: Advice-Giving Chad is comfortable in his own skin and can remember a lot of previous occasions when he has had success by simply "being Chad" and not thinking about it. It's not such great advice for those of us who have repeatedly met with disaster when "just being ourselves."

So Instead, Maybe Try Saying ...

"Learn how you look to other people."

In other words, instead of "Just be yourself," try "Just know yourself." That is, know who you are to other people. I'm telling you, if you suddenly gained the superpower to enter other people's minds when you walk into the room so that you truly know how they see you and what impression you're making, you could rule the world. Because right now, the key mannerisms and personality attributes that define you to other people are most likely things you're completely unaware of (what, you think the smelly guy on the bus knows he smells?)

Toby Burrows/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Nice cologne. What is that, human shit?"

And as I've pointed out before, society is full of all sorts of arbitrary rules, big and small, that you violate on a near day-to-day basis because you're not even aware of them. Learning those rules -- by observing and listening to people -- will go a lot further in making a good impression than just "being yourself." See, because once you know those rules, then you have more confidence when you walk into the room.

"What, you're saying I have to conform to every little rule society gives me and just say whatever people want to hear?" Nope, I said you needed to learn the rules -- whether or not you obey them, and when, is up to you. You need to learn what statement it makes when you, say, wear a backward baseball cap in certain company, or talk about your anime collection, or choose not to offer a handshake. Know what message your choices send.

Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Getty Images
"What? He looked hungry, so I threw a cheeseburger at him. I was being nice."

Then, after knowing how people interpret those actions, you can make an informed decision. If you want to show up to a job interview or first date dressed like Spider-Man and are willing to live with the consequences, go for it. But don't act confused when you don't get the call back.

#1. "You Just Need to Find What You Were Meant to Do With Your Life!"

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Or, "You just need to find the girl/guy you were meant to be with!" Really any advice that implies you were "meant" to have a certain life due to a divine plan.

A huge percentage of people believe this. It comes up in movies and novels, and I swear I can't figure out where this shit came from. Don't tell me it's because you're a Christian and thus believe that "God has a plan for your life" -- that idea is not in the Bible, anywhere. God's plan for you as laid out in that book is for you to not act like a shithead. Nowhere does it say that every man and woman has a soul mate they're destined to find, or a career they are destined to be successful in, or a city they are destined to live in.

It would make no sense for it to say that, because back then if you were the child of a sheep herder, you were "meant" to be a freaking sheep herder. Your "calling" in life was to keep the sheep alive, and to get enough food to last the winter, and for your father to arrange a marriage with a nearby person you could make kids with. This whole concept of reaching your 20s and having to suddenly "find your calling" is a brand new idea in society. It's a modern, First World problem.

Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
"I just really hope fate brings me something than involves my dick."

For us privileged folk reading this, it's horrible news -- it means you have to forge your own future, and the potential for you to screw it up is huge. The failures are all around you -- old, miserable, bitter, lonely people who loathe their jobs and spouses. This shit isn't a movie -- there's no script, no guaranteed happy ending, no smooth path in the woods you simply have to find. You have to make the path by slowly hacking away at the trees and weeds and brambles, one day at a time. And you won't stick with it if you're spending the whole time thinking, "Man, if I don't find my gold-paved road soon, I'm just going to quit."

So Instead, Maybe Try Saying ...

"If this is what you want to do, you have to keep trying."

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"I see you've applied with us 41 times this week. You do realize you already work here, right?"

I think people use "Just find what you were meant to do!" to really mean "Just figure out what your talents are." But for most of us, that won't be apparent for years and years -- you have to try a bunch of shit and see what works. And what "works" isn't "what you are instantly good at the first time you try it," but rather "what engages you, and what you seem to be able to make satisfactory progress learning."

It would be super easy for me, more than anyone, to point at my modest but improbable success and say, "See! It was all meant to be!" But as far as I can tell, success is heavily based on luck -- it's just that long hours earn you more chances to get lucky. The more stuff you do, the more people you meet and impress, the more chances for opportunity to come your way. So it's true that I lucked out when the coffee table book featuring full-color photos of my penis wearing a series of humorous hats was adapted into film, but when that happened, I was also working two different jobs in two different industries and updating two different websites on the side. Combined this took up about 90 hours a week of my time, and I had been grinding away like that for 10 years (I graduated in 1997 and didn't start doing what I'm doing now until 2007). So if that hadn't happened, I like to think that something else would have. I'll never know.

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Probably something in modeling.

But for me to act like it was "meant" to happen would also be implying that all of the people slowly starving to death in North Korean prison camps are part of God's plan. "You just need to find what you were destined to do! Now, the bad news is that you were destined to die of carbon monoxide poisoning at age 43 because your house had a defective furnace valve ..."

And no, my grand message here isn't that life is random and meaningless, although that would make things way easier if it were true (as long as a single person exists on Earth who needs something you're capable of providing, your life will have meaning). But there's no magic formula for making it happen. You just keep grinding, and eventually something will come along. Or not. Who the fuck knows? Here's a favorite song of mine that sums up my feelings pretty well:

For more on the subject of people's screwed-up ideas about success, here's a podcast I did on the subject with Cracked's own Jack O'Brien:

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Related Reading: For some GOOD advice on writing, click this link for Gladstone's common. If you're more interested in a list of the most sexist attempts to give women advice, this is your link. We've also got more awful advice that's awfully common, thanks to John Cheese.

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