Oh, the river of useless platitudes that have flown out of the mouths of well-intentioned people, to which I must occasionally include myself. Yes. I know we don’t always mean to be so generic and unhelpful on purpose. Sometimes we just don’t want to be bothered to offer actual, practical advice to people and sometimes we are at a loss about what to say that might help. A lot of the times, advice givers do not want to feel the responsibility for impacting a person’s life decisions, so we keep it generic on purpose, letting the advice recipient make of it what they will. I can understand that.
But whatever the reason for our irrelevant advice giving, there are some pieces of advice that we should always avoid giving – and always avoid accepting – if they are not paired with some practical ways on how to put the advice into practice.
I guarantee you have heard most of these before, or some variation of them, and upon hearing them you probably rolled your eyes, threw up your hands and called bullshit because they were utterly useless to you. Well, maybe we can make them a bit more relevant if we add some substance to them.
Just Be Happy
Everyone gets it. Happy is a state of mind. It’s a choice. It’s not related to outcomes or incomes. It’s something that comes from inside ourselves and the only way that we get there and stay there is if we pursue it internally. Most people understand that but you know what? Sometimes that shit is just not possible and choosing your way out of sadness is not a viable option. Sometimes the only real, tangible and practical solution to the pain in your life is to dig in and suffer through that shit with some tears, some ranting, and some sadness.
Choosing sadness when you are sad doesn’t mean that you are not choosing happiness. It means you are choosing to be with your emotions, good or bad, and are accepting them as a necessary part of life. You don’t have to run away from your sadness to achieve happiness, in fact, running from it may just make you more miserable in the long run because you repress the natural inclination of the mind and body to process the pain of your life.
Embrace that frown sometimes and realize that life is going to give you plenty of reasons not to be happy. Some will be dismissible – knowing which ones will depend a lot on your personality – but some will require that you are present with them and accept the misery of them. You don’t have to avoid that to live a generally happy life. In fact, accepting and embracing it might be the only way you CAN be happy in the long run.
Do What You Love
This piece of advice comes in a few flavors. Do what you love. Follow your passions. Live your dreams. Listen, I absolutely believe that we should all have big, bold, scary dreams that we constantly strive for. Things that take us out of our comfort zone and give us a little tremble of fear when we consider what it would take to achieve them. But I have to be really honest with you – some of your dreams are not made to be followed. They are made to be the mirage that keeps you moving through life towards something amazing that could actually exist for you.
No matter what bullshit anyone tells you, you can not do absolutely anything you want. I’m sorry, but you can’t. I guarantee you can do a whole hell of a lot more than you might be doing right now and some of your passions are within your grasp if you work hard and stay disciplined, but don’t be so naïve to think that all you have to do is try to do what you love and your life will be wonderful.
Yes, it is important to have dreams. Yes, you can accomplish most of your dreams by busting your ass on a daily basis and making some serious sacrifices. But don’t think for a second that trying to do what you think you love for the rest of your life is going to always satisfy you or think that you can just blindly pursue your passions and somehow come out on top. You won’t get there that way.
You have to be somewhat practical and dangerously tactical. Set up a strategic plan of attack to achieve your dreams. Be realistic, but be uncomfortably bold. Be fearless and relentless and try over and over to do what you love but understand when it’s time to pack that shit in and follow a somewhat lesser dream that has a more realistic opportunity to succeed. I imagine you have a lot of things you would really love to do and neglecting all your other dreams because you are trying to follow one lofty one doomed for failure is not a recipe for happiness in life.
Just Be Yourself
Great advice, unless of course, you have no fucking clue who the hell you are. Authenticity is not something you just know about yourself, it is something you create about yourself. You are who you are because you have decided to be that way. You have decided that certain values and meanings and lifestyles choices are preferable to others. You don’t like who you are? Then you better decide to value other things and change your life accordingly, but never think that you just ARE yourself, without any effort. Being yourself requires serious work because you have to decide who you want to be and then put in the work to get there.
Every day you get to decide what it is you value in the world and what you decide to value is what you project of your authenticity to the world. Being authentic is a constant state of action, it is not a passive awareness. Your entire life has been spent becoming something through the influence of everything around you.
The first thing you have to do to live authentically as yourself is to evaluate the choices you make on a daily basis and decide if they align with the sort of person you want to be. Not the sort of person you already are but the person you want to be. Find mentors and role models that are the epitome of the person you would like to become and find out how they became that way.
Don’t copy. That won’t help you become you. But you can emulate. Take aspects of their successes and fold them into your life and your experience and by doing so create a perfectly unique expression of the values that you honor and that make you, you. Only then can you go around and “just be yourself”.
This is one that is similar to “just be happy”. The positive thinking mindset has been proven to be mostly new age bullshit. Sure, there is some occasional, obvious benefit to looking towards the brighter side of life and not getting stuck in an unnecessarily pessimistic spiral of negative thought, but there is nothing inherently wonderful or life-changing about trying to imagine the stinking piles of shit in your life into fragrant flower gardens.
I would argue that it is more beneficial for mental fortitude and resilience to practice something the Stoic philosophers called premeditated pessimism. Consider the worst-case scenarios sometimes and you can take the sting out of those possibilities. The possibility and repercussions of our failure or foibles become less powerful. Most of the times we inflate the impact that certain events will have on our lives, and that is what gets us caught up in a spiral of sadness and misery. We are not realistically imagining the outcomes of life’s difficult events.
Always thinking positively is a recipe for frustration and arguably a constant lie you tell yourself about the world. The world is not always positive. People die. People fall out of love. Bad things happen. You don’t have to always go on some fruitless, exhausting mission to find the silver lining in all this shit. Just accept that bad things will happen sometimes. Imagine the worst case scenario and realize things seldom get that bad. Accept that some things are out of your control and that, sometimes, the best you can do in a bad situation is embrace the pain of it all with some tears, some friends, some curse words and a sense of humor about the journey of life.
Life is not a motivational poster. There is necessary nuance to situations and pithy little nuggets of wisdom that are empty of application are fucking meaningless to people who actually need them. Usually when someone asks for advice they have already paged through the quote feeds on facebook so spare them these generic, empty affirmations.
I am not saying that these maxims don’t have some value when they are qualified with meaningful, personal and practical steps to achieve them. But just puking them out to people who are looking for serious, honest and heartfelt guidance is a really shitty thing to do and is always avoidable, even if you are at a loss for words.
Because the fact is, most of the time people are not looking for advice. They are merely looking for someone to listen to their complaints about life – to actually hear them with an open heart and an open mind and not just offer generic words to their personal situations. Nothing is so insulting as trivializing someone’s deeply emotional and personal lives and problems by making it seem like it’s so easily fixed by a few empty words.
We don’t have to try to give everyone the answers to their problems and we don’t have to take the answers others give us. We just have to remain engaged. Engaged with the people who need us and engaged with life in general through careful thought, consideration, and respect. I think if we can manage that, fewer people will ask for advice from you because they will see everything they need to know in your actions.