The 5 Most Useless Pieces of Advice Everyone Gives
Spend five minutes with any random person and you soon realize that humans are goddamned horrible at talking to one another. And this is never more apparent than when we're trying to help someone in crisis.
When a friend or family member is down, we usually have a few stock replies that sound good because we're pretty sure somebody said them to us in the past, or maybe we heard them in a movie. Strangely, we know that when we're on the receiving end of this generic advice that it's about as helpful as a Windows error message, but we just can't help it. I mean, what else are you going to say?
Well, let's at least agree to stop and think before telling someone ...
"You Just Need to Watch What You Eat! (or Drink, or Smoke, etc)"
Let me introduce you to the most evil word in the English language:
Stick it near the beginning of some advice, and you can turn someone else's vicious lifelong struggle into a trivial task they should feel ashamed for not having mastered by now. It's the spouse of the smoker saying "You just need to quit those things!"; it's the friends of the clinically depressed woman telling her "You just need to snap out of it!"; it's the dude saying to his heartbroken friend, "You just need to get over her! After all, she's dead!"
Just, just, just. Well, you just need to take this wire brush and cram it all the way into your asshole.
My favorite example -- because it's a conversation happening ten thousand times on this planet as we speak -- is when any obese person talks about how hard it is to lose weight, and their thin friends helpfully tell them they "just" need to watch what they eat, and "just" get a little exercise. They "just" need to win the brutal war that has exhausted every ounce of their energy, time, and emotional well-being for as long as they can remember. "And to be honest, dude, it's kind of weird that you and the other 1.4 billion obese people on Earth haven't tried that already."
I'm sure I've said this to people many times over the years, along with all of the other terrible advice on this list. So if I could go back in time, I'd tell Past David, and anyone else offering this condescending, dismissive, wet shart of an attempt at advice, to please grasp something:
The fat people you make fun of and condescend to probably have more willpower than you do.
And they look much more awesome in a headband.
That's because (and you would know this, Past David, if you were capable of pulling your head out of your own asshole long enough to grasp the idea that the universe contains beings who aren't exactly like you), in order to just stay at their weight, even if it's 300 pounds over the healthy level, they have to successfully resist the urge to eat more often than you do. Mocking them for having more fat on their body is like mocking an MMA fighter for having more bruises than you. You're not stronger, you're just living a different life.
That's because obesity physically changes the brain. The obese eat more, because they feel the urge more -- they feel it more often, and they feel it much stronger (if you want details, overweight people have 20 percent higher levels of the "hunger hormone" ghrelin and abnormally low levels of peptide YY, which suppresses the hunger urge). Their muscle tissue also burns fewer calories than yours, meaning each failure costs them twice as much. They usually gained these fat cells in childhood or adolescence, and once you have them, it is physically impossible to lose them without surgery -- dieting can temporarily shrink them, but your entire physiology will work to put them back the way they were.
I know you don't believe me, Past David, because your moral superiority has to come from somewhere, so if you want to know what it's like to be a fat person trying to lose weight, just don't eat or drink anything for the next 72 hours. Sure, you'll make it through a day. Maybe part of a second day. But soon, maybe 30 or 40 hours in, you'll understand how your power to "just" stop eating can be smashed to rubble by the body's base urges. That hunger part of your brain is much stronger, because it's also the part that regulates basic survival.
As seen in this extraordinarily thin person.
At that stage, when the starvation triggers get flipped, the thinking part of your brain will start coming up with rationalizations ("Wait, why am I suffering like this just because some Internet writer from the future told me to?"). You'll tell yourself lies to save face. But here is the undisputed truth: I could chain you up in a room with nothing but a box of live cockroaches to eat, and at some point, you will eat them. Your disgust, your self-respect, your dignity, all will eventually be obliterated by the crashing tsunami of your hunger.
And your dieting obese friend feels like that all the time.
"But I lost 15 pounds one summer just by cutting back on chips and soda and walking to work! I know what it's like!" Yes, Past David, and I know what it's like to climb Mount Everest because I have to walk up two flights of stairs to my bedroom. I'm going to get the fuck away from you before you start wondering aloud why those black people in the ghetto don't "just" get jobs, at which point I'll set your goddamned smug face on fire and ask why you can't "just" stop feeling the pain. And then I'll feel the scars spreading across my own face, because oh shit, I just forgot how time travel works.
So Instead, Maybe Try Saying ...
"When I went through what you are going through, this is what worked for me ..."
Recovered addicts can give good advice to addicts, and no one else really can. If that's not you, swallow your goddamned advice and instead exercise common courtesy -- if they can't be around alcohol, don't bring alcohol around them. If they say they're on a diet, don't pull that "Come on, you can have one slice!" bullshit. Likewise, if you've been through the grieving process, you may have good tips for your grieving friend; otherwise, just be an ear.
"... and then I cut him in half with his own katana. How did you all handle your first sword murder?"
Either way, if you hear the word "just" coming out of your mouth, clamp down your teeth and chew off your tongue.
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"You Just Need to Cheer Up!"
You guys know I'm not prone to exaggeration, but this advice is the cancer rotting the vital organs of civilization.
As someone who is frequently in bad moods, the worst part is knowing that everyone is going to bug you about it -- the people who like you will ask why; the people who don't like you will whisper to one another that you're in "one of your moods." (Note: Even if you're only in one of those moods twice a year, you'll still get a reputation for it.) So in addition to already feeling like your skull is full of wasps, you now have the added pressure of having to hide it from everyone, because nobody can just leave it alone.
And maybe that wouldn't be so bad if they did something other than simply command you to cheer up. It's insane -- clearly these people know from their own bad moods that they can't flip their emotional states on and off like a switch (no matter how good your self-control is, there is always a certain level at which you lose it). So what they're really saying is "Stop being in such a bad mood around me, because it's bumming me out."
"Yeah, well maybe I'll just show my dick to your mother! That always cheers me up!"
In other words, "You just need to cheer up!" actually means "You need to do a better job of hiding this, Mr. Scowleyface."
So Instead, Maybe Try Saying ...
"So, how are things going?"
Some people like talking out their problems, and some don't. So if you notice that a friend is down, hey, give them an opening to talk about it. But please -- please -- don't phrase it as "Why are you in such a bad mood?" or "Tell me what's going on." See, because now you're just interrogating them or issuing a command ("You need to justify your bad mood to me, Frownton Abbey"). And if they make it clear that they don't want to talk about it, please respect that.
That's her "fuck exactly off" face.
And here's why I think "You just need to cheer up!" is the downfall of civilization: It's the fact that we're treating sadness like it's a heart attack or a seizure, something that requires an emergency response. It's not -- it's a perfectly normal, valid state of mind. Sometimes things don't go your way, so you get sad about it. Then things get better and you're happy and the happiness is sweeter because you remember being sad.*
And I think this belief that a normal, well-adjusted human should be happy every waking moment is killing us. It trains us to constantly be seeking little pleasures and distractions (video games, porn, food, weed) to prevent deep reflection on a bad situation, to the point that what we consider a "normal" mood is just a state of breezy distraction.
"Shit, I hardly even remember having to pull the plug on my dad this morning. You're a true friend."
I mean, think about it. Any kind of success (financial, personal, spiritual, whatever) depends on your ability to delay gratification. You tolerate the tedious hell of learning a new task, and then it pays off after you've learned it. You tolerate the humiliation of failing at something new until you get good enough to not fail. But during the hard part -- the soreness that comes before the muscle -- you have all of these voices telling you, "Any pain and sadness you feel isn't normal and needs to be cured immediately." So you quit and go masturbate and take a nap. Then you wake up to find it's 20 years later and your life hasn't advanced an inch.
*Keep in mind, I'm not talking about clinical depression here -- but that's not really "sadness" anyway. Depression is more about being unable to feel anything -- a kind of tired, numb paralysis. But even in that case, the last thing that will help is being told to "Just cheer up."
"Damn, that advice was perfect! You should be a doctor!"
"You Just Need to Believe in Yourself!"
Also often phrased as "You just need to have confidence!"
This is the catch-all advice for everyone from dudes hitting the dating scene, to new job applicants, to NFL quarterbacks -- you'll hear it your whole life. And it is absolutely right, on the surface -- when you go swaggering into a situation acting like a hotshot rock star, people will follow you to the ends of the Earth. So yes, confidence works. People love confidence.
But like much of the advice on this list, it completely misunderstands what it's asking the other person to do.
See, confidence is inspiring and sexy because it is an indicator of past success. If I have not actually had that past success, then you're asking me to simply get really good at faking confidence. And while this is useful advice (becoming an expert at lying is actually a very effective recipe for success, in any field), it's probably not what you intended.
"Welcome aboard. I'm all dead inside."
"That's not it at all, bro!" says Chad the Hypothetical Advice Giver. "We're saying you've just got to go for it! Stop letting your own doubts freak you out and go ask out that girl, or go apply for that job! Take some risks! You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take!"
Sure, that is all factually correct, and I completely understand why it looks so simple from within your bubble. Allow me to explain:
You, Chad, find it easier to take those risks because very early on, you got positive results from taking them. For example, there was a famous basketball player named Magic Jordan, probably, who had the confidence to take difficult shots because he had made them before and had been making them since he was a child. Those past successes are what helped him overcome his fear of future failure. If he had nothing but failure to draw upon, and yet was still confident, then he would be what science calls "a moron."
Fuckin' Chad. Just look at that douche.
So in your case, Chad, you have confidence to ask girls out because they have always responded to you in a certain way. You don't know what I'm talking about, because you have never had it any other way. But go back to being a toddler and relive your life as the weird kid, or the fat kid, or the poor kid. Reach age 12 or 13 and see a group of females give you the same look they give to a spider they found in the bathtub. Go back and get familiar with that body language that says, "No one will be happy or relaxed until you leave." Go back and live your life in a universe that bites your hand when you try to reach out to it. Then see what your confidence is like at age 23.
"What, you're saying my life is easy?" No, everyone's life is hard. It's just that everyone's life is hard in a different way, and confidence is not some secret sauce that solves everything. Your confidence is the result of your past success, not the cause. It's like telling a poor person, "You just need to have some money, bro!"
If only he had made some advice-giving friends.
So Instead, Maybe Try Saying ...
"Remember that, ultimately, nobody gives a fuck."
This sounds completely unrelated to what I was just talking about, but bear with me here.
The idea is that you build confidence with successes, and you get those by starting small and failing a few times, figuring things out as you go. But I find what makes people afraid to do that is fear of looking foolish to the world when they fail. That is based on the mistaken idea that the entire world is watching you and waiting to laugh at your mistakes.
The comforting reality is that nobody gives a fuck. For me, this has always been a very liberating thought, and I have found it to be true virtually every time it's tested.
"Dude. Not a fucking word."
People are simply too tied up with their own lives to care about your failures. You ask the stranger out on a date and they say no, then they forget about you five minutes later. The rest of the world never cared enough to even have anything to forget. You want to get in shape, but are afraid the neighbors will laugh at you if you run, or that the guys at the gym will mock your unfamiliarity with the machines. And they might. But let's say that in the middle of a situp you suddenly get diarrhea so hard that the spray causes your shorts to go flying off. A month later some guys will be all, "Bro, you remember that fat guy who pooped his shorts off while doing situps?" and his friend will be like, "Heh, yeah. So, as I was saying, the doctor says my dad has two months to live ..."
Now, the confident fellow who gives you this advice will also be heard saying ...
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"Just Be Yourself!"
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).
"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?)
"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.
"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.
"You Just Need to Find What You Were Meant to Do With Your Life!"
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.
"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."
"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.
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:
What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, the third book in David Wong's John Dies at the End series, is available now!