This is Part 3.2 of the Building the Foundation to Start a Personal Development Journey Mini-Series. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3.1, click here. For Part 3.3, click here.
The idea for this article originally started as a question. I asked over 400 people the best advice they had to give which I share here along with other good advice. This made me dig deeper into whether the advice was good or bad advice as well as what other popular advice was more harmful than helpful.
Here, I share commonly given advice that can actually be bad advice—many of which have been studied and allegedly proven to be so. I’ll also be sharing why the advice is bad as well as better advice instead. This article has little to do with the responses received. This type of advice is not specific nor given by any one particular person but is often a cliché, and anonymously quoted.
The Problem With Bad Advice
A lot of the advice in the responses were all the stuff most of us have heard before. This is true for all advice we hear too. A lot of great advice is just reminders and reinforcers of what we already know.
Since a lot of people say it and agree with it, that means it must be true, right? And especially if we believe it too? No. Because of a cognitive bias, called confirmation bias, we tend to not question what we already agree with. This can be a problem if we mindlessly share and believe advice that can be ineffective at best and harmful at worst.
Another problem with a lot of bad advice is that it often tries to oversimplify complex and complicated issues with simple and easy solutions. It sounds good in theory, but there isn’t much you can do with it. Yes, sometimes there are simple solutions and methods to live a better, happier life. And we shouldn’t overcomplicate some goals and obstacles either. But there are often better ways to approach life and tackling challenges than the bad advice listed below.
Let’s look at some of the popular advice I found that can actually be bad advice.
Keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer.
This advice makes me want to laugh. Why would you want to keep your enemies close? So they can get to know you better and know exactly how to hurt you? It also doesn’t sound like a healthy way to live. I’d want to distance myself from mean, toxic people as much as I can. I could understand it making sense concerning business competition perhaps.
But regarding actual real-life friendships, it’s terrible advice. Being around negative people will hurt you more than help you. You become the company you keep. Besides that, there were studies about how “frenemies” or fake friends or ambivalent relationships are bad for your health—worse even than toxic people or enemies.
Know who your friends are. Keep them close. And keep your enemies (and frenemies) as far away from you as possible. Stay away from those who intentionally and carelessly hurt you and other people.
Thinking positive by itself is not going to create much change in your life. It may help with your happiness and your relationship with yourself.
But it’s not going to make all your problems go away. Positive thinking can be a way of denying reality and not being realistic with ourselves. We’re being dishonest with ourselves.
Advising against positive thinking is not in any way an argument to think negatively instead but to think realistically. Negative thoughts and emotions should not be repressed either but accepted instead. Negativity is a part of life just as much as positivity. They balance each other out. Negative thinking often has just as much base in reality as positive thinking. And we need to be aware of that. Thinking positive is often used as a way to replace and repress thinking negative.
When my boyfriend says something like, “We’re not going to find a parking spot.” I tell him to not think so negatively. He doesn’t know for a fact that we’re not going to find parking. He just thinks we’re not going to find parking. I’m not telling him to think positively or that I know for a fact that we’re going to find a parking spot soon. I’m advocating to remain neutral and perhaps be hopeful and determined that we will find a parking spot instead.
“Think positive” is also having a type of mindset where we see something as inherently bad and wanting to switch it. Just like the popular phrase puts it: “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But what’s wrong with lemons? Why do we place negativity on lemons? Why do we have to make lemonade?
We don’t have to label everything that happens to us as bad or good. It’s really what we make of it. We don’t have to make lemonade. That’s just unnecessary stress when we apply it to real life. A lot of things are not as bad as they seem. We can be neutral or even happy with the lemon.
We can look at a “negative” experience in which we made a mistake or failed at something as a negative experience or we can look at it as a growing experience.
Just because we shouldn’t make an effort to be positive doesn’t mean we should make an effort to be negative. We should eliminate bad habits like complaining. Studies show the more you complain, the more likely you are to complain. Complaining literally rewires your brain to see the world and everything that happens to you in a negative light regardless of what’s going on around you. Complaining then becomes the default and automatic behavior to you.
Think realistically. Know the facts. Be neutral. Don’t be negative or positive. Don’t repress your emotions. Accept them. Learn how to be emotionally intelligent.
Find your passion
Many say this is the worst advice out there. And there is actually research behind it. Studies done at Stanford found this to be bad advice. Stanford psychologists studied people’s beliefs and compared them with whether people succeeded or failed at developing their interests.
The reason why the advice is bad is because of the mindset behind it—that you’re either interested in something or you’re not. That your interests are inherent rather than discovered and developed through effort.
Finding something you’re passionate about right from the get-go can lead someone to be more likely to fail or give up. Those who believed that passions were fixed were more likely to abandon their passions when faced with difficulties.
This mindset also leads people to overlook things that they can become interested in over time. Those who believed that passions and interests are developed were more open to trying new and different interests.
As for the advice to follow your passion or “do what you love” goes, interests can also be temporary and change over time. We can also be passionate about something but not very good at it like singing or playing a sport.
The Stanford researchers found that “develop your passion” is better advice than to find and follow your passion. Passions are not found. They are developed and made over time through hard work and persistence. Find the middle ground between something you love and something you are or can be great at.
Follow your heart
Following your heart can lead to some not so well thought out choices. When we follow our heart, we start doing what feels good rather than what’s right and better for us. It can throw logic out the window. Like staying in a toxic rollercoaster relationship because the high moments are amazing and our heart tells us their the one.
Following your heart should not be confused with being intuitive. Intuition is different. Following your heart is going after temporary desires. It’s impulsive.
Follow facts and truth and knowledge and information instead of your heart. Stay grounded in reality. Learn how to make better decisions. Take calculated risks. Consider all the options. Find out the opportunity costs. Realize what’s best for you in the long-run.
Live in the moment
Live like you’re dying is another variation of this. Living in the moment leads to impulsivity and causes disregard for the future. If we literally lived every day as if it were our last, sure our lives would be fun and spontaneous, and we’d be more appreciative of what we have and our relationships. But we’d probably get into a lot of trouble and would not have any goals since in our minds there’s no tomorrow given this hypothetical lifestyle.
Living in the moment is also a passive way of living life. It’s expecting everything to fall into place in the future just because instead of planning for it.
As stated in part 3.1, due to a cognitive bias called present bias, we already do tend to live in the moment for the most part.
Living in the moment can be good advice for those with anxiety or those who are always reliving the past or only living for the future and never appreciating the now. But it’s not good advice for everyone.
Living in the moment should apply to relationships and handling certain events at hand like a concert or having a conversation with your partner. It’s important to learn how to live in the moment sometimes, but we shouldn’t take it as a way of living.
Instead of live in the moment, better-worded advice would be practice being aware and present. Learn how to be focused but know when to switch gears. Go out in the real world and experience life and connecting with people face to face. Don’t be trapped by your phone or computer or tv.
Have respect for both the present and future. It’s important to have balance in this aspect. Looking back on our past also helps us see how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished. Instead of living every day as though it’s your last, treat everyone you come across as though it is their last day on earth.
Just be yourself
I understand the advice saying to not compare yourself to others or to not try to be like anyone else. I think that’s good advice. You shouldn’t try to be anyone else besides yourself.
But “be yourself” alone is bad advice. As someone who grew up with social anxiety, I received the advice to just be myself too many times. For one, it’s simplistic. It’s not concrete. How do you just be yourself? If only it were that easy.
But not only is it bad advice for people with anxiety. It’s bad advice for everyone else. It can encourage bad habits and bad behavior. Also, given the situation, it’s not always appropriate to be ourselves. If we’re someone who likes to talk too much about ourselves, being told to be yourself is not good advice for a first date. A good friend would probably give us the advice to make sure to get to know the other person.
Be authentic. And yes there’s a difference. Being authentic goes beyond “being yourself.” It involves knowing ourselves which means having self-awareness and self-knowledge. It also involves owning ourselves which means being responsible for our actions and behavior. And then we can finally be ourselves by asserting ourselves (standing up for ourselves and not hiding who we are) and living (consciously, responsibly, and with integrity) how we want to live.
“Being unfiltered is not a sign of authenticity. It’s a sign of low self-control.” — Adam Grant
Never give up
Knowing when to quit and give up is important. I think it’s helpful to try new things and not just endlessly repeating the same thing over and over again. As Einstein famously quoted, it’s the definition of insanity. It’s also okay to fail. Giving up is seen as the ultimate failure. I think it’s better to say to finish what you start, give it your best shot, and know when to walk away.
Ending a relationship can be a better option than relentlessly trying to make an unhappy and loveless relationship work.
I don’t mean to put this into religious context, but the following proverb can be applied to the universe, a higher power, or our inner selves instead of God if we so choose to.
God’s three answers to your prayers:
2. Not Yet
3. I have something better in mind
Sometimes instead of thinking our only options are one and two, we should often consider the third. There are many instances when there are better things out there for us. Just because we gave up on one thing doesn’t make us a failure or mean we’ve given up on life, success, and happiness.
Sometimes temporarily giving up or taking a break is a good idea. Sometimes a couple needs a breakup to start again. Sometimes we need to stop working so much for the sake of our mental and physical health. I’m not an advocate to taking a break unless you really have to. It’s a lot harder to start back up a habit or a goal than to continue. It’s a lot easier to succeed at something if you’re consistent at it.
We always have the option to try again or start over with the new.
In business, I often hear “don’t fall in love with an idea.” Why? Because if it’s not a good idea or it’s not working, or people don’t want it, you have to be able to let that idea go, find new ideas, and try them.
You have to be able to experiment and fail and try over and over again.
Finish what you start. Be persistent. Don’t give up so easily. Put in effort and give it your best shot. BUT. Evaluate current situations and know how to approach them rather than going on like nothing and not making any changes or adjustments. Know when to give up. Consider the sacrifices and opportunity costs and whether it’s worth it or not. Sometimes give up. Don’t be afraid to give up. Don’t be afraid to let go. Realize when you are wasting your time, effort, energy, and money holding on to something. Try new things and experiment. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
I can understand the good intentions behind this advice. But it’s poorly worded. I prefer the advice: “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” No, we shouldn’t overstress over unnecessary, unimportant things.
However, we should never ignore or overlook the little things. It’s often the little things that make up the whole. How many times has all the small stuff added up caused us to leave or be unhappy in a job or relationship?
The little things do matter. The small stuff actually is what matters. Even in our relationships. Even in our work. It’s not about the grandiose displays of affection or one big moment at work. It’s the little things that we need to look at to see the big picture.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s highly acclaimed book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, researcher Dr. Gottman, who’s been studying relationships for over four decades found that the biggest sign of a failed relationship or marriage is contempt. He was able to predict with amazing accuracy whether couples would stay together just by watching clips of couples arguing.
What’s interesting about contempt is that it can show up in the subtlest forms with things like eye-rolling, sarcasm, scoffing, and sneering. Small harmless things, right? That we should laugh off in relationships, right? That we shouldn’t take seriously, right? Not that big of a deal, right? No! Not at all. That kind of behavior is detrimental to a relationship and should be taken seriously. The studies showed that even the couples that only those minor signs of contempt and even claimed they were happy in the relationship did not end up together.
Just because something is small doesn’t mean it’s not important.
The same goes for the small acts of kindness, giving, and affection. Those small things are important and should be appreciated and noticed.
Even in art, it’s not the picture as a whole that makes the art unique and beautiful. It’s about the little details the artist put in.
If we took that approach to life, to only focus on the big scheme of things, that’s a life of mediocrity. A life filled with the noticed and appreciated little treasures is a rich life.
Success is all about the small stuff.
Don’t overlook or ignore the little stuff. Pay attention to detail. Not everything is about the big picture. Address the little issues in order to prevent bigger issues or a buildup of little issues. Not “sweating” them isn’t going to make them go away. They can resurface or become even worse. Some small things should be taken seriously. What you allow is what will continue. But don’t be a perfectionist or control freak either for small things that really do not matter. Know what small things matter and don’t matter.
Just do it
If this is something you tell yourself when you’re lacking motivation and it works, then by all means.
However, never think this is good advice for someone who is depressed or anxious or someone who is struggling to lose weight. Not to mention that it’s callous and insensitive. It overlooks the complexity of particular challenges and achievements. And it’s not very effective.
Obesity is a nationwide epidemic. This problem seems like an easy fix. People should “just do it” by just exercising and eating right, right? Not exactly.
The following map called the Obesity Map created by researcher Scott Page from his book, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy (Our Compelling Interests) shows just a small part of how complex the obesity epidemic really is. There are many factors that go into solving this problem.
I wouldn’t doubt issues like depression or drug addiction and many more are just as complex.
Just do it addresses the symptom and not the root. It only addresses one part of the problem. We need to address how people can be more able to “just do it.”
When we tell people to just do it, and they feel as though they can’t just do it, they tend to lose confidence and power in themselves. What they see as mountains other people see as little hills. We need to be more considerate and treat their feelings as valid rather than writing them off as they just can’t do it.
The “just do it” advice can also stem from the mentality of believing that people who procrastinate and don’t just “do it” are just lazy. The problem with that is that research suggests that laziness isn’t really a thing. People procrastinate and lack motivation and ability to do certain things for different reasons than laziness.
This advice doesn’t work either for those with existing discipline and procrastination problems. They’ve most likely have heard that advice before. It’s like yeah, duh obvious but it doesn’t actually help. Creating change and sticking to it is a lot harder than Nike and Shia LeBeouf make it out to be.
Becoming great and successful is a lot more than just doing it.
Someone telling me to just do it doesn’t motivate me. For some people it does. Just like some people get motivated by a friend telling them they can’t do something. They are driven by the need to prove them wrong. That doesn’t motivate me either. Someone believing in me and being supportive of me achieving my goals does help motivate me.
If telling people to just do it doesn’t seem to work, maybe just maybe we should consider a different approach.
There are also some things we shouldn’t just do. Instead of only going on “do it” autopilot and mindlessly taking any continuous action, it’s useful to pause and reflect to consider if the actions we are just doing are helping us reach our goals. Especially if it’s not working or going where we want it to go.
Know that you are capable. Work on a “can do” attitude. Surround yourself with emotional support. Be your own cheerleader or find yourself some cheerleaders. Learn how to manage your tasks. Educate yourself on the how. Know what exactly “it” is you have to do. Set concrete, actionable goals. Make a plan. Have a schedule. Time what you do. Start small. Practice. Accept failure and “not doing it.” Try again.
Think Before You Speak
Thinking before we speak is something we usually learn as children. Most of us growing up have no filter. As children, we say things as we see them or as we hear other people say them. This can get our guardians or us into trouble, and especially as adults.
Think before you speak is good advice for some people but not for people with say social anxiety or anyone that struggles with or fears confrontation or sharing opinions, ideas, thoughts. Or anyone who holds back just a little too much.
We also often also hear “speak up” or “speak your mind” which contradicts “think before you speak.” And then there are those that argue for “free speech” even if it includes hate speech. And those who believe in not repressing thoughts which can lead to some hurtful things being said although it’s passed as “just being honest” and “communicating.” Not all communication is equal.
Anyways, whether to “think before you speak” or “speak your mind” more depends on the person. And for both people and everyone else, it’s really about balancing the two and finding a healthy middle ground.
For those of us who struggle with “thinking before we speak,”
not having a filter, reacting impulsively and not knowing the appropriate situational context. Or those of us who have a bad habit of speaking unnecessary, hurtful truths. We must understand that words do have power and impact. We should have more empathy. Be more compassionate and kind. Try first to listen and understand.
Instead of just “think before you speak” I prefer (the beginning of) this quote:
“Before you assume, learn the facts. Before you judge, understand why. Before you hurt someone, feel.”
It’s not always easy or possible to learn all the facts or fully understand why. But it’s the effort that counts and leads to better communicating.
For those of us who struggle with speaking up,
We should learn and practice doing so. Don’t overthink before speaking. We may find ourselves overcompensating or finding the right moment and incidentally interrupting. But that’s okay as long as we learn and adjust accordingly and keep trying.
I personally used to have issues speaking up when something bothered me even in close friends and relationships. I started speaking my mind in my relationship which led to me sometimes impulsively saying callous and insensitive things. This was because I overcompensated. I said things that I used to be afraid of saying because I was afraid of starting arguments. I was afraid to disagree. A lot of the time, nothing bad happened. But sometimes I did receive repercussions for overstepping speaking my mind. I learned that not all communication is good and healthy communication. And I learned to not fear so much being wrong and getting called out for it.
Better Advice for All
Practice awareness. Awareness of whether you hold back on speaking too much due to overthinking or whether you hold back too little. Both are habitual. Then make it a conscious effort to change the behavior. If you actively monitor yourself and be more mindful and intentional of how you speak, it’s easier to practice. Learn to balance asserting yourself with being more mindful of others. Making mistakes is okay. This advice can apply to everyday general conversations among friends and social groups.
You can sleep when you’re dead
This advice should only be said jokingly and never be taken seriously. Depriving yourself of sleep in one of the worst things you can do for your health. Not only is it bad for your physical health but it makes even the simplest of tasks harder.
Sleep deprivation impairs you regardless of what you do, eat, take, or drink. You’re more likely to make mistakes, lose focus, have poor memory retention, and be in an irritable mood. You’re not doing yourself a favor by depriving yourself of sleep.
Continuous lack of sleep also takes years off your life and causes premature aging so you’ll be really “sleeping” a lot sooner.
Don’t take this advice seriously. Place importance on your health and prioritize getting good sleep. Don’t overwork yourself. Learn how to get better sleep and get better sleeping habits. Learn to manage your time better and increase productivity instead of sacrificing sleep to get more done.
Hard work alone isn’t going to make someone successful. If working hard was all it took to be successful, there’d be a lot more successful people around the world.
Work hard ≠ success
This is true when it comes to businesses, and it’s true when it comes to relationships. Hard work does not guarantee success. Hard work does not even guarantee the achievement of one thing.
Someone can work really hard at their blog or work really hard at creating something like a product and never make a dime.
Working harder at a job where you’re underpaid and undervalued won’t do much besides exhaust and stress you even further leading to a shorter lifespan.
You can work really hard in a relationship but if you don’t know how to properly communicate in a relationship, all the work put in is a waste.
Even perfectionists put in extra energy and effort into the work they do with little to no reward.
Hard work shouldn’t be frowned upon or discouraged either. It’s about learning how to work first and then putting in the effort.
Work smart not hard is not any better either. Why do we have to pick between one or the other? We should work both hard AND smart.
The right education leads to better and consistent action and being able to adapt and experiment.
Set realistic and achievable goals. Be determined. Learn (work smart). Put in effort.
You have to sell yourself. Hard work can only go so far if it’s not recognized or noticed. This also applies to the similar bad advice “If you build it, they will come.”
These are a few things I’ve learned since starting a blog which you can learn about my first month here along with resources I recommend.
When it comes to business, the goal is to provide value and market.
“There is no relationship between being good and getting paid. There is no relationship between having a good product and getting paid. There is a relationship between marketing and getting paid.” – Joe Polish
You can work really hard at creating a crappy product or a crappy business, but no one is going to want to do business with you because it’s crappy. People aren’t going to care how much work you put in. Often, you are not trading amount of effort for money. You are trading value for money. You can work hard but not have a strategy.
You don’t make money from work. You make money from the selling of your work.
Apple doesn’t make money from all the hard work put into making computers. Apple makes money from selling computers. People don’t care how much work was or wasn’t put in.
When it comes to online business, it’s important to know how to be both the technician (hard work) and entrepreneur (smart work).
It’s also important to consider the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle which states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. So, we should find out what the 20% is and focus on those.
It’s also not about intensity it’s about consistency.
“Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.” – Bruce Lee
“Technique before consistency before intensity.”
The compound effect states how consistent small daily choices, disciplines and habits accumulate over time to make big changes.
Work hard and smart. Better yet, LEARN HARD. Put in the effort. Get the right education. Do the research. Take the right action. Do the right work. Be consistent and persistent but know when to make adjustments. Know the 80/20 rule and the compound effect. Use both to your advantage. Try new and different things. Be adaptive to change and experiment. Work on your mindset. Work on self-discipline. Work on finding the right methods and strategies. Focus on application and technique. Learn how to be efficient and productive. Learn how to “sell and market yourself.” Manage your time and tasks. Don’t work too hard. Know when to stop. Focus on building the relationships, not just the technicalities.
Don’t Ever Change Who You Are
Change is not a bad thing. It’s a part of life. Businesses that fail to change and adapt to change fail. It’s often said by those who choose to remain ignorant and close-minded to use it as an excuse to be a crappy person because it’s “just who they are.” “That’s just who I am. I’ll never change.”
Much like “be yourself” it overlooks and excuses bad behavior.
Just because you are overall happy with who you are, where you are, or with your life, in general, doesn’t mean that change should be avoided.
Positive change and growth can only happen after acceptance and awareness. Being realistically aware of who you are—your flaws, your weakness, your strengths, etc. And then accepting those things. Being okay with yourself. Only then change can begin to set into motion.
Be aware of the person who you are. Accept who you are now. Not everyone is perfect. Be open to change. You should strive to be a better person today than you were yesterday. You should have goals for yourself.
Ignore the Haters/Bullies/Trolls
Ignoring bullies is not going to stop them. Same goes for neglecting any problem. Bullies are most likely looking to victims who are easier to tease and less likely to fight back. Even if you’re not the one being bullied, but you witness it or are aware of it and do nothing about it, that’s just as bad.
When it comes to online bullies and trolls, asserting yourself and standing up for yourself can just be a matter of clicking the delete and then block button. Not ignoring the trolls doesn’t necessarily mean you should engage them and give them an even bigger platform either.
Ignoring bullies is detrimental for future relationships as well as it teaches you to put walls up and close yourself off to even the people worthy of your attention.
This is terrible advice because it not only allows bullies to get away with their behavior but you’re giving yourself a detrimental message. You’re not being true to yourself and your values.
This is all true on smaller scales as well. Even people who are not necessarily bullies per se but they say or do something that’s not okay, or we don’t agree with, something should be said and done. When someone does or says something, we shouldn’t just do nothing, go along with it, or act like we agree. We should show how we feel, appropriately of course.
Even something as small an insensitive joke. We don’t even have to necessarily say anything. It can just be a matter of giving that person a look and not laughing. Or speaking up in a business meeting when we disagree with a point someone brought up. Or correcting a teacher when we know their wrong. It’s small stuff, but it’s the difference between something that hurts self-esteem and helps self-esteem. Even the little things matter for that.
For the little stuff, not doing so stems from a fear of being disliked.
Also, keep in mind that any mistreatment or disrespect accepted early on sets you up to get even more mistreatment in the future.
It doesn’t mean to start fights or confront everyone about everything. It’s possible to approach every situation and be able to assert yourself appropriately, politely and kindly. I’m not saying to sugarcoat or coddle either.
Stand up for yourself and others. Assert yourself. By not doing so, you’re disrespecting and devaluing yourself. Don’t be afraid to disagree. Don’t be afraid to stand up for something even if it’s little. Although it’s small, it makes a HUGE difference in your self-esteem. Express yourself, given the appropriate context.
A Learning Opportunity
If there was advice you’ve said or believed in that was considered bad advice, use that as an opportunity to learn. We learn and grow when we are proven wrong not when we’re confirmed to be right. I’m not saying to agree with everything I said but to perhaps take in a new perspective and next time to really take time to consider whether a certain piece of advice, quote, proverb or the like is helpful or even true. I certainly will.