My youngest niece is in the process of choosing a college. She visited one of the campuses this past weekend hoping for some lightning bolt moment where she would know it was the right one. In one of the panels she went to for her chosen major, a prospective student asked how each of the panelists knew that particular college was for them.
“I just knew.”
And my niece was just… left cold and wondering what was wrong with her that this was not her experience.
This got me thinking about the subtle dangers of this kind of flowery advice. Follow your dreams! You’ll just know when he/she is the one! Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’re still among the stars!
1) Life is complicated.
What if you don’t “just know?” What if you want someone who’s been through it to be authentic and sit down with you and tell the truth of things. Why didn’t someone on that panel say, “You know what? I didn’t know for sure. I was scared and this place felt the most right, but I also gave myself permission to change my mind. Mostly I was just scared.” Flowery advice takes the messy humanity out of things. It doesn’t offer itself up for a follow up question, you know?
You: Oh, you just knew? Like how?
Them: I just knew.
You: Right. But, how? Like… what did that feel like?
Them: I just knew.
You: Right. But…
Them: I just knew.
Why is it that we’re compelled to rewrite our own history so we have all the answers? What is it about us that wants to smooth over our past and make our entire life look like a shampoo commercial? What are we getting out of making someone who’s struggling feel like they’re alone in it? Who benefits from this?
This kind of advice feels like a shallow placeholder for a never gonna happen future conversation.
And yes, I get that that panelist may have just “known.” That absolutely happens for some. But what I also know is that — and God, I hate how true this is – the really juicy connections are made in moments of vulnerability. Why is the appearance of effortless, wafting ease tantamount to authenticity and actual kinship?
You’re not alone. I feel lost, too. Shit can be messy, right? It was hard for me, too. It’s going to be okay.
2) Sometimes advice is kind of boring
A writer friend of mine got an email from a newbie writer. The newbie was struggling. Her debut novel was a smash, the second one not so much. She was writing my friend asking for advice. So my friend – a writer whose work ethic is enviable and has finally (and so deservedly) landed her on top – said that the only power any of us have is to sit back down in the chair and write another book. Do the work. This is what my friend did during the trials and tribulations of her own career. The newbie writer was luke warm at the prospect. Months later my writer friend read a blog by this newbie saying she was going to wait for the muse to strike! She was going to follow her bliss! No mention of actual work.
I’m all for a great pep talk. Sometimes it’s just about listening to someone talk about how hard shit is. No advice. Just a friendly ear. My worry is that there are those who rely on flowery advice so much so that one’s role can lean towards enabling from time to time.
And of course I’m not advocating for some kind of black and white Giver-esque world where everyone finger-wags at each other to get back to work. A beautiful meme prominently featuring delicious words of inspiration has hit me right when I needed it. I love a good quote. I love a moody lyric. I’ve even been known to spout luxurious poetry more than my friends and family probably would have liked. I’m also not proposing we walk around as open wounds spouting our grief and misery for anyone and everyone. Pretty sure people who do that are just as into appearances as the ones begging us to look for the rainbow after the hurricane or whatever.
That’s not what this is about.
Whatever the advice you decide to give someone, please let it be rooted in the truth of things. How it was, not how you wished it would have been.
And PS? If you do decide to tell the truth of things and admit that things were hard? There will 100% be some sighing douche who is all, “Oh? It was super easy for me.”
But, in that moment there is a person in the audience who doesn’t feel so alone because of your bravery to speak the truth. And that? Is far more valuable than acting like one’s entire life could be soundtracked to Enya.
(not that there’s anything wrong with that)by