The Worst Advice Always Starts With “Just”
Personal growth and success are more complicated than just doing it
I am a sucker for productivity hacks, success stories and underdogs finally making their way to the top. I want to believe the storytelling behind each bestseller, behind each great entrepreneur, behind each weight loss story.
Deep in my heart, I am fully aware that it’s not that easy and not that simple, yet I still buy into the advice coming from people who apparently made it.
When you define success for yourself, it might not be about six-figure salaries or investments. It might not be about writing the next great American novel. It might not be about getting that promotion or signing that deal.
Success comes in many forms. Maybe you want a relationship to rely on. A job that doesn’t kill your soul. A healthy body. A hobby that pays your coffee. You want balanced kids, drama-free life, a paycheck that allows you not to be scared if you need medical care. Simple things can mean success too.
But it’s not that easy.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, there will be experts of that specific field where you are currently playing. People who have what you don’t yet have or people who make their efforts effortless.
You will come across countless advice that starts with “just”.
Just eat less and exercise more.
Just stop stressing about it.
Just snap out of it.
Just look for the positive.
Just do it.
Ever heard any of these? They make it sound so simple, yet it can set you up for failure from the get-go.
I have been dieting and exercising all my life with the single focused purpose of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. It’s been a struggle for the past 30 years. Just before the lockdown, I decided to turn my life around and give myself enough time and effort to eat healthy, exercise and finally lose the weight I always wanted. I blamed and shamed myself for all the years when I gave up, when I didn’t persist, when I didn’t try hard enough. Because it’s so easy. I just need to eat less and exercise more, just have the right mindset, just be consistent enough.
After 4 months of consistent dieting and strict exercising (low-carb diet with 5 times of exercising a week), I couldn’t lose more than 4 pounds. I ate less and exercised a lot more. I was persistent and enthusiastic. I didn’t starve myself — which I have a tendency to do — and I took exercising seriously enough to seek the help of a personal trainer to guarantee accountability and success. I wasn’t obsessed with it, but it was important enough. I have created healthy habits, gained a lot of strength and learnt a lot about myself.
But despite all my efforts, when it came to weight loss — my main objective — my body failed to cooperate.
Discussing my struggle with my personal trainer, a dietician and my therapist, we all agreed that I haven’t done anything wrong, yet there is still something off with how my body responds to my efforts. I decided to have my hormones and thyroid checked, to see if there is anything physiological that might hinder me. I was hoping that I will find the reasons for my frustration, and I almost hoped that something was wrong with me.
When I first went to see the doctor for the checkup, she told me that I should just eat less and exercise more. She told me that losing 1 pound a month is a good result (no it’s not). She told me to just be patient. She also told me that it’s probably menopause and I should just accept it and move on.
I’m not going to lie, I cried for days. She didn’t only say that I am not doing enough, she also told me that I had to accept it all — both the weight and the age. It’s okay to be fat and old. It wasn’t okay for me. Neither. I wasn’t ready to accept it. Her shallow advice was clearly invalidating my struggles, putting the blame on me, suggesting it is my inability to keep the diet or the exercise plan.
My blood test came back with perfect results. Nothing indicated hormonal imbalance, perimenopause, diabetes or insulin resistance. We did a thorough examination, and I am fine physically. My body still keeps retaining food and I still can’t lose the pounds that I want to.
Based on common sense, she quickly jumped to the conclusion that I might fail because I cheat, I am lazy, I am not doing enough. And the word that indicated that my efforts are not taken seriously was the “just”.
Apparently, your struggles are really easy to solve. But you are just not doing it.
If you are fat just eat less and exercise more.
If you are broke just learn to manage money better.
If you are depressed just find a purpose.
If you are heartbroken just get over it.
If you are in a bad relationship just get out.
If you want to move on just let it go.
If you want to be a writer just write.
If you want to be successful just do it — whatever it is, just do it, do it consistently and don’t be impatient. Because apparently you are the one standing in your own way, if only you just did what you needed to do.
Life is not that simple. At least not for everyone.
Life is not equally kind to everyone. We don’t have equal opportunities. We don’t all get lucky. We don’t always control our circumstances. We didn’t inherit the same genes. We are different. Some of us born into great families with loving parents, others born into poverty, abuse and neglect. Some of us have the opportunity to get the right education, others miss out on it. Some are born with good genes, others are born with hereditary illnesses. We don’t start from an equal point. Social status, genetics, upbringing, moral values of our close communities all leave their marks on our lives. We go through different experiences and we learn very different coping mechanisms to deal with them.
Oversimplified advice from self-help gurus and helpful friends can do more harm than good, even if it is offered with good intentions. Why?
It Invalidates The Struggle
Our struggles are different, just as our experiences and temperaments of dealing with them are different. Saying “just” invalidates our struggle — perceived or real. It suggests that we have been doing it all wrong when all we had to do was just a tiny thing.
As if leaving an abusive relationship was as easy as walking through the door never looking back. As if getting over financial problems would be just not spending money on overpriced coffees and making the right investment decisions. As if success was laid out in front of everyone, only if they did a little better, a little more.
Our struggles are individual. What might seem easy for some, can be extremely difficult for others — due to external or internal circumstances. We never really know what others are going through, how much they struggle, how much they suffer. We can’t give generalised advice based on our own experiences, disregarding the circumstances of others.
It Always Speaks In Retrospect
Success stories are great, just like fairy tales where we can be sure that good will beat evil. We only learn about the struggles in retrospect, a pretty story about a journey that is already completed. The focus is on the accomplishment — this is why they are called success stories. The struggle is mentioned but only with the solution already found.
What works for one might not mean the right solution for another one. Taking the example of Edison who allegedly tried thousands of ways before he invented the lightbulb, if you had taken a snapshot somewhere in the middle of the process, he would have been a struggling, desperate individual, who was trying without getting anywhere.
In retrospect, he is one of the greatest inventors — his persistence is cited countless times. What we don’t know about is the real journey. The one full of failures and despair. One attempt after the other. His greatness lies in not giving up — but only in retrospect. Had he not managed to get where he eventually got after the thousandth futile attempt, he would be nothing but a fool with a stupid illusion who didn’t know when to give up and died trying.
Beware of giving advice with sugarcoated success stories because they give the impression that every battle is worth fighting, just because it was worth it for a handful of people.
It Oversimplifies The Complexity Of Life
Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but there are patterns that repeat all around. Still, it doesn’t mean that the solution that works usually will work for everyone. When we talk about averages, it’s true that most people fall in the middle, with some below and some above average. Our struggles are not in the fields where we are above average or average. They usually are present in areas where we are doing worse than the average. The average is a good indication for most of us, most of the time, but not for everyone and not every time.
When we reduce life to averages and come up with blanket statements based on average values, we strip it from the very thing that makes it diverse and beautiful. Life is more layered than the average value. There are huge differences between the highest and lowest of the range. It is valid for success, for money, for talent, for persistence, for opportunities and even for luck. The best of the best will write the success stories for the least successful who cannot even fathom the heights that can be achieved. Disregarding the fact that we all have areas where we fare with less than average results and offering oversimplified statement based on a certain privilege is a narrowminded perspective.
Our struggles are different. Our opportunities are different. Our perception of success is different.
The right kind of advice takes into consideration the individual differences and still offers something to work with. Nothing speaks louder about privilege (of any kind) than advice starting with “just”.
I’ll make an exception here because this one is really easy: just stay away from giving advice that states “just”.