Why you should give a leery eye to any advice that promises to change your life
After college, a lot of my friends moved to New York or D.C. and quickly found the success they were looking for. They became doctors, lawyers, actors, musicians, and artists who actually sold paintings. And over the years, as they continued pushing forward in their careers, they always gave me the same advice:
- Move to a megalopolis
- Take an unpaid internship or two
- Fly to expensive conferences
- Go out drinking and network
- Promote yourself at every opportunity
For a while, I listened. But this approach didn’t do much except help me rack up $70,000 in debt, which I’ve slowly paid down by working my butt off and cashing out my retirement fund. Now I give a leery eye to advice. All advice.
So should you. There’s a lot of advice out there in the big wide world of self-help, and a lot of it is lazy. The worst of it promises to change your life or make you rich. Or, even more damaging, it tells you that money isn’t important.
Advice becomes toxic when the person giving it doesn’t reflect on their advantages. When they’re preaching to those desperate for change, but have never gone through the meat grinder themselves. “Money won’t make you happy,” thousands of articles across the internet claim. Maybe, but that’s a pretty flippant thing to say to someone making minimum wage.
There are plenty of self-help gurus who don’t seem to care about what’s really going on with their readers. They offer cheap tricks and big, empty dreams. They target people in vulnerable situations. They tell us how to live without taking into account our gender, race, nationality, personality, or the way our brains work. They’re so busy inspiring and making millions that they forget to mention that life is actually just plain harder for some of us.
Lazy self-help writers talk about self-care, but they never acknowledge everyone who takes care of them. A man writes about productivity, but he neglects to mention that his wife does all the chores and changes all the diapers. A woman writes about hiring a maid to ease her mental load, but she doesn’t talk about the cost.
What results is a false narrative of success. There’s nothing wrong with starting at the top, but when you market self-help with a premise that you didn’t, you’re setting people up for failure. It’s dangerous when someone gives advice but hasn’t stood in the shoes of those listening.
One recent example: The world knows the name Marie Kondo. If you haven’t heard, the Japanese tidying expert has taken some hits lately. In a few articles, she’s admitted her methods don’t work that well if you have kids. Now that she’s a parent, she barely has the energy to follow her own advice anymore.
I’m not saying Kondo set out to deceive. And I’m sure her advice has been helpful for many people. But when you follow the words of someone who hasn’t been in your position, you still feel like a loser — like there’s something wrong with you — if the methods don’t work for you. You start thinking if superstars like Kondo or Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen can’t help you, then you’re really screwed. You’re more likely to give up than ever.
Or worse, you plunge deeper, looking for the right answer. You wind up giving all your time and money away to seminars and audiobooks. And then you’re also broke.
My mistake in my twenties was ignoring some of the gulfs between me and my friends. They had loving parents who paid for their apartments and cellphones and plane tickets. They had neurotypical brains.
A lot of us don’t come with these bonus features. We survived trauma. Or we grew up in abusive homes with undiagnosed disorders. Or we went to high schools that couldn’t afford textbooks.
None of this means we can’t chase after ambitious dreams. But we can’t do it by following the path of those who started out with more than us. We have to do things differently. We can read self-help writing, but we must do it with a critical eye. We need to weed out lazy self-help from actually helpful self-help.
Here’s what responsible self-help writing does:
- Identifies a common problem
- Shares personal experiences
- Treats readers like equals
- Backs up claims with research
- Admits privileges or advantages
- Points out what has worked for specific individuals, but doesn’t promise that the advice will work for everyone
There are a lot of writers out there who do all this, from a range of backgrounds. John Gorman, for example, shares personal stories about his recovery from alcohol abuse and depression. Brianna Wiest, Niklas Goke, and Thomas Oppong promote mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Sinem Gunel fuses spirituality and personal development. George Ziogas and Darius Foroux give advice on networking and productivity. Kristin Wong tackles the financial dynamics of family and relationships. Nick Wignall shows people how to get better sleep and deal with their emotions. Barry Davret weaves together personal stories and observations to share what he’s learned about life in general. Michael Thompson and Shannon Ashley share knowledge from their own journeys to help others become better partners and parents. Tom Kuegler and Shaunta Grimes give rough takes and breakdowns on creativity.
After reading self-help, you should feel empowered. Something about the world — or your perception of it — should make a little more sense. You should feel capable of doing, not just forking over half your bank account for another seminar in some massive arena.
All the while, you should know that even the best listicles in the world can’t magically change your life. Let’s face it, waking up at 5 a.m. isn’t enough for some of us. Neither is learning how to network, reading more books, or getting better sleep. These things are all necessary, but never sufficient.
A good change is just that — one step on a long road that is yours alone.