Scott H Young

Archive for May, 2007

Be Yourself, Law of Attraction and Other Pieces of Bad Advice

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

I give a lot of advice on this blog. I’d like to think that some of it is good, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading it. Part of giving advice, however, means you need to receive a lot of it. And a good amount of the advice I get from friends, books or blogs, is crap. I’d like to share what I feel is the worst of it.

Some of this advice has gained considerable popularity, so I’m sure to hear some irate comments from readers whom I’ve offended. Keep in mind that I’m not attacking the perceived level of truth of this advice. The nice thing about the English language is that it takes only a mediocre skill level and some creativity to make almost anything sound profound.

By my standards, in order for advice to be good it should be true and useful. Actually it doesn’t even need to be true. Take metaphors, they aren’t true in themselves but are useful to describe things. I’m judging this advice with my own biased opinion of their utility.

1) Be Yourself

There must be a lot more people with multiple personality disorder than I thought. How can you be anything but yourself? I can understand the feel-good sentiment that if you just be yourself, then you will become the best salesperson, fall in love and have tons of friends. That’s a nice image, but unfortunately it isn’t helpful.

In reality, be yourself works, but it is a gross simplification. Being yourself means you have to learn how to market yourself. Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and figure out how to portray those to others in a relaxed and natural fashion. This takes time, experimentation and considerable reflection. Summing up what might be the entire process of human growth into two words isn’t just trite, it’s dangerous.

When being yourself doesn’t seem to work, you get caught in a vicious cycle of blaming yourself for failure and confusion at why your attempts aren’t working. Building an identity that you can communicate and feel comfortable with is a process that can’t be solved with a platitude.

2) Be Confident

Confidence works. It charms, magnetizes and persuades. But just because confidence works doesn’t mean it is good advice. It is easy to become overconfident and appear arrogant or become blinded to your weaknesses. An excess of confidence also limits your attempts to learn and grow.

Better advice would be: Learn how to fake confidence when you need it and build the underlying competence from which confidence is derived. If you need to give a speech of ask for a date, fake confidence is almost as good as the real thing. But what you really want is the underlying competence so that confidence isn’t as necessary.

3) The Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction is popular these days. There are a few aspects of it I like, namely, you need to develop a positive belief system that will support your goals. But this isn’t new. Napoleon Hill wrote about this decades ago in, “Think and Grow Rich” and other philosophers have espoused similar ideals for centuries.

My concern with the Law of Attraction is how it frames itself. First off, calling itself a law would seem to put this completely unscientific theory in league with Newton’s laws of physics and other scientific staples. For something to be a “law” in science it must have predictive powers. This is why evolution is just a theory, because theories explain and laws predict. At the very least it should be labeled the Theory of Attraction and not a law.

My second concern and the most major is that the Law of Attraction lacks any basis from which to disprove it. This not only makes it unscientific, it also renders it impotent. In order for advice to be useful, there must be some way to determine whether it is working or not. The Law of Attraction fails this test. At best the Law of Attraction is just repackaged old ideas, at worst it is a dangerous pseudoscience that has no practical value.

4) Use Willpower

I’ve already mentioned how I feel willpower is just a placeholder theory for deeper understandings. But what I really hate is how this willpower advice gets used as a weapon against people who are trying hard but still haven’t figured out the system necessary to win. Overweight people, those struggling with addictions and those who aren’t earning millions shouldn’t be seen as weak-willed people who are too lazy to succeed.

The world would be a better place if people strove for more understanding and less judgement, and unfortunately this is a piece of advice that leans more to the judgement side. I’ve found numerous theories that are better at explaining reality than willpower, such as habits, energy management, motivation, belief, etc. Can we finally scrap this antiquated notion of willpower?

5) Solutions Using Epiphanies

I’ve mentioned how I hate advice that promises huge results from one or two individual changes. The problem isn’t that people don’t get lightbulb-over-the-head moments of inspiration, but that they usually don’t work that well. I’ve had hundreds, if not thousands of epiphanies where I figured that I had discovered some new secret to success. Each may of helped, but they didn’t revolutionize my life.

It doesn’t take just one flash of inspiration, it takes thousands. Each piling on top of each other to slowly build new results. But this myth of the one great idea is prevalent because people tend to craft their life stories in favor of epiphany moments. It sounds more romantic if you had that magic insight rather than slow improvement.

Modeling off of people who actually do succeed from epiphanies is like trying to get rich by following the path of lottery winners. When you win it all in one roll of the dice it is more luck than skill.

6) Stop Complaining! There are People Worse Off Than You

Throughout human history there have been billions of people who have had lives and situations much worse than yours. But I fail to see how this is in any way comforting or useful. Now instead of just feeling bad about your problems, you feel guilty for feeling bad and weak for being unable to solve them.

It is important to get perspective, but this doesn’t mean your problems are insignificant or trivial. Respect your emotions or they will turn on you. Whenever I receive a request for advice I try to use as much humility as I can and respect the challenges people face. Nothing will lose you friends faster than trivializing the problems others face.

7) Build It and They Will Come

You need to ask. I don’t care if you’ve built the best product in the world, are the most worthy and attractive individual or your novel should be an international bestseller. You still need to push and market yourself. Do you need quality? Of course. But once you have quality, you can’t assume that will be enough to carry the message on its own.

The other half of this problem is that this mindset is often accompanied by self-delusions of excellence. It can be hard to admit that the article you spent a few hours writing or the program you spent months coding is simply mediocre. Asking is critical to improvement, so learn to market, because building isn’t enough.

8 ) High Impact, Low Substance

The English language is nice because you can describe two almost identical concepts with both negative and positive wordings. ‘Risky’ and ‘bold’ can often describe the same thing. As can ‘firm’ and ‘stubborn.’ As someone who has to understand and utilize the power of wording, I hate to see it abused.

I enjoyed The Power of Now, but there were many sections where I felt Tolle wrote several pages on end that had absolutely no content except for polarizing wordplay. I felt some of his good ideas got degraded by his overuse of clever wording to inspire a feeling but completely lacks substance. Referring to conditions as, “insanity” or, “sickness” contrasted to his own metaphors heavily involving light or purity was a bit much for my tastes. This is just one minor example, but there are many others.

9) Hindsight Troubleshooting

Hindsight troubleshooting is misusing the past to predict the future. Everything seems obvious in hindsight. There are two variations of this type of bad advice: explaining failure and explaining success.

Explaining Failure: This occurs when you are struggling and get a wide range of advice to figure out what you are doing wrong. The problem is that most successes don’t require perfection. The reason you aren’t succeeding isn’t usually because you are doing too many things wrong, but that you aren’t doing enough things right.

I’ve studied a lot of different blogs and how they work. Each does dozens of things that shouldn’t work from bad design to poorly structured articles. But they each manage to excel in a few critical factors that make them successful.

Explaining Success: There seems to be a prevalent myth that successful people have a good idea of why they are successful. True to a certain extent in that they know better than people who are complete failures, but you shouldn’t give expert advice too much credence. I’m certainly not omnipotent and any successes I do have are often as surprising to me as failures.

It takes a lot more humility to admit that you aren’t entirely sure how you got to be successful even if it is true. I’m not saying you should ignore expert advice, just don’t become dogmatic following it.

I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get at least a few comments telling me why I’m wrong. Feel free to tell me so in the comments, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.


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Posted by Scott Young on May 31st, 2007 in Personal Development | 24 Comments »