My advice about giving bad advice

The thing about “words of wisdom” is that they aren’t very, well, wise. In times of difficulty or struggle you might turn to someone for advice or reassurance, and there are certain kinds of things you really don’t want or need to hear. I am as guilty as anyone else at dispensing useless advice, often only making the situation worse against the greatest of intentions. My motivation in writing this post therefore is to help us all suck a little less at helping each other out. I will identify some examples of what not to say, and unhelpfully overlook what you could say instead…

You are leaving the house to go to a job interview. Just as you close the front door your mum calls out from the hallway: “just be yourself!” You are at a bar and you really want to go over and talk to this girl. Your best-friend hands you a pint and says, you guessed it: “just be yourself!” This rubbish piece of advice has to be among the most overused. It crops up everywhere. The problem is most people have a pretty bleak opinion of themselves, and the counsel only reminds them of this. You are now thinking on your way to that job interview: why on earth would they hire someone as clumsy and unreliable as me? You are now making your way across the bar overly self-conscious of the many reasons you are hesitant to approach women in the first place: your ineptness in the realm of conversation and that general crippling social awkwardness. What we have to remember here is also applicable to most of these situations: your advisor is genuinely trying to be nice. When someone tells you to “just be yourself!” it is a compliment paid with all your best qualities in mind. It is just a shame that these ones do not spring to your own mind before your insecurities do…

You sit an exam that didn’t go as smoothly as you had hoped. You are explaining this to your dad later that evening and he says: “well son, you gave it 110%, no regrets”. While this is perhaps about as expressive as your dad stretches to, the advice is awful. You hear “no regrets” uttered over and over again when it comes to failures but it is entirely inappropriate! The fact you know you could have done better in that exam means of course you are regretful. To have no regrets is to be careless. Wielding such a nihilistic attitude towards success will get you nowhere. To regret something is to be thoughtful and proud. These are admirable qualities.

Then it comes to the “110%” (magnify as hyperbolically preferable). Why do we ever think assuring someone they have done their best – or supposedly more than that – in a situation where they weren’t good enough is a reassuring thing to say? The advice can only have two effects: both undesirable. The person who flunked the exam is either depressed by the thought that no matter how much effort they put into revising, they were just incapable of success, and I suppose wasted their time trying. Alternatively, they become depressed by the false counsel: of course they didn’t give 100%, the very notion is impossible. But the empty assurance only entices them to recall, with the unhelpfully critical gift of hindsight, all of the times they should have been studying instead of partying or playing video games. You are making them regret this before telling them not to!

I will finish up with a popular piece of rubbish advice from the older generation to us inexperienced folk. How often have you been told that your current worries (homework, friendships or whatever) “in X number of years will seem insignificant”? That you will look back and think about how trivial they all were and wonder why you ever lost sleep over them. Seriously, parents, carers and teachers, this is not helping! All the intended assurance really does is draw said suffering young person’s attention to the fact their currently not-so-rosy life will only get worse! It goes hand in hand with the phrase “school years are the best of your life”. Great, this is the best it’s going to get?

I urge the older generation to do this wonderful thing humans are capable of called empathy. You were a kid once with worries that were as real to you as bills are now, draw from some of that experience and offer some proper advice – with embarrassing anecdotes please.

Advice does seem to be best when it is delivered from personal experience. I urge you to just think a little bit before you treat your friend/family member’s concern with a useless cliché. If ever in doubt, a hug/encouraging pat on the back goes a long way.


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