The Grouchy Person’s Guide To Advice: Don’t Worry, Eventually There’s a List
Medium is chock full of encouraging people. Well, not exactly encouraging. More like “I did it, so you can, too” people. Whether that is encouraging to you is a matter of experience and wisdom. The gist of articles like, “The Crossroads of Should and Must” (now a book) or the obnoxious “7 Reasons Why You Will Never Do Anything With Your Life” is to encourage us to leave our fear of failure behind us, to take that leap in the great unknown, to stop living mediocre, mundane lives, and/or to follow our passion.
The articles will either condole you into taking the advice or insult you into taking it. Not surprisingly, the articles drew thousands of recommendations, even making it into the top 60 most recommended articles ever on Medium. No doubt these recommendations were from people like myself who are either on the verge of following their passion or who are currently doing so.
The reason folks like us need such articles as part of our reading appetizers is that most of the time turning back from our passion to a humdrum life is the path that makes more sense. We feel can’t quit our jobs as some suggest. But others say to do carefully, and be prepared to have no time for balance in your life and to sacrifice big money. Others suggest the opposite — keep your job, but make time for your passion, despite the rub where you already feel overloaded with what’s on your schedule. At the same time, make time for work/family balance, because otherwise you’ll live to regret it and your work productivity and health will suffer.
Okay, so the advice gurus have me both quitting my job, because you are not fully committed to your passion if you don’t, and not quitting it, because it is foolish to leave yourself without resources as you seek to reach Oz. Either way, you will both need to sacrifice all of your time and money to the passion and you will need to have a healthy work/rest balance or you won’t be as productive.
Based on all of the other advice articles I’ve read on Medium, I should be getting up early in the morning and becoming a morning person, exercising (every article), writing down everything, but succinctly, not using email/Facebook/Twitter, and absolutely under all circumstances practicing self-control. Okay, got it. So what could possibly go wrong?
In a trendy therapy of the time, DBT (Dialetical Behavioral Therapy), created by Marsha Linehan, she tells those trying to improve themselves that validating others and ourselves is a critical skill. Our advice pundits believe this is what their work accomplishes, but does it? Some of the ways Linehan says people invalidate each other is by 1) ignoring or denying important facts about their life, 2) repeatedly misunderstanding others, and 3) not remembering that all behavior is caused.
Nights and Mornings
Andrew Merle tells us, “ What is one thing most successful people have in common? They get up extra early and make the most of the morning.” Let’s see if the researchers have any third variable problems that make their correlation between success and mornings spurious. I’ll use myself as an example.
Every night, I take my meds for chronic pain — aspirin, acetaminophen, Ativan, and a sleep agent. Those meds are completely ineffective. I alternate laying on ice or heat. I connect TENs unit sticky pads to my body and give my self tiny electric shocks. Eventually, after about four to five hours of self-treatment, I fall off to sleep. The pain clinic sent me to a psychologist to practice biofeedback, but on the first day, he said I was superb at relaxing myself. Based on his assessment of need, we only had one more appointment. Of course, I practice doing relaxation daily so I don’t succumb to the pain and lash out at others.
Doctors have been so spooked by the DEA and prescription pain pill abuse that so many don’t prescribe them anymore. In particular, the rude and unfriendly doctor I last asked to prescribe them to me said, “No, you’re too high risk.” When I was puzzled and asked why, she said, “You have binge eating disorder and bipolar disorder.” Okay, so if I understand this correctly, people with mental illnesses are expected to live with pain because their algorithm says we’re high risk. She went on to ask me if I was sexually abused before I was teen (yes), if there were substance abusers in my family (no), and if I had ever smoked (yes, but I quit years ago after 20 years). My answers meant I was going to be suffering with the lightweight pills that make only a tiny dent in the agony. I can’t even take Ibuprofen anymore, because I was taking so many in futility, it was damaging my kidneys.
So, let’s look at rising early in the morning. The other handful of medications I take are five psychiatric pills, one insulin regulator (not for diabetes), a pain amelioration pill (Lyrica) and one migraine preventative. Many of these drugs have “hangover” effects that make one feel, well, “drugged” in the morning. It has been dangerous enough to make driving my stepson to school impossible for fear of falling asleep at the wheel.
I am grateful and fortunate to have been able to have a personal trainer for the past two years (in February). He works me out on strength training machines for 30 minutes three times a week at 9:30 am, and then I get on the elliptical machine to work out for another 60 minutes. I think the exercise is particularly good for my muscles and my heart. However, about 45 minutes into the elliptical exercise, my feet go painfully numb. I could exercise a shorter amount of time, but I’ve found it doesn’t change what happens next. About ten minutes after finishing the workout, the nerves that go down my spine and into my left leg become angry and mean. For the rest of the day, I am forced to lay down on the bed with pillows in an arrangement that starts to look a bit like my back is in a hammock. By night time, this means I start from the same place as other days with the typical five hour attempt to sleep.
People assume that because they put a picture of a person with no legs exercising on their advice list, they are proving to you that there is no reason you can’t exercise. I, personally, recommend exercise to anyone who can manage it. However, using a physical disability to prove that no one should feel limited by anything is a misuse of people with disabilities. Their individual backgrounds play a significant role in how they are able to cope with their conditions. Picking out “the good ones” to inspire others is tacitly saying those who don’t do as well with their disabilities are less than.
What is your vice? Do you smoke? Drink too much? Binge watch TV? Binge on food? Watch too much porn? Check your email too often? Spending too much time on the Internet? Perhaps you wash your hands obsessively. The line between a vice and a mental disorder is thin.
Behaviors may start as habits and end up compulsions. Superstar human beings never start a vice or bad habit. I know one superstar human being who can moderate all of her behaviors very well even after experimenting with too much TV as a vice. Otherwise, my lifetime of relationships with a wide array of people has not led me to cross paths with many superstars. Advice specialists seem to drop bad habits and compulsions in days. My eating disorder therapist tells me it takes an average of seven years to overcome an eating disorder. It takes 12 hours including travel time each week for me to treat my eating disorder. I don’t see this saga of a struggle reflected in “Why Aren’t You Living Your Perfect Life?” listicles.
Quitting Your Job to Follow Your Passion
Most of the people I know are not looking to quit their jobs to “follow their passion.” Believe it or not, it’s not a universal desire. There are the homemakers who want to take care of their families. People who only want to work in mindless jobs as a means to provide for their family; work is not a priority. There are the academics who earned their PhDs because it was their passion; they are happy with their jobs. Then, there are millions of people who trained for the job they want to do, and the idea of running their own business, writing a book, or inventing something just doesn’t interest them.
That leaves the rest of us. I trained for a job I was passionate to do. I was not afraid to fail at my additional passion of writing a book. I always planned to do it right alongside my career. But, that’s not how life worked out. If I fail at my passion, there is no work to return to. When my health took away my ability to work, I found myself in the current position of applying for disability insurance or hoping my passion would generate income eventually. It makes me irritable to think I will have to succumb to pain, financial need, or rejection eventually landing me on a meager and stigmatized SSDI check after going through the agonizing process getting disability entails.
Do You Keep Trying This Great Advice and Falling Short?
What the advice experts give is generic guidance, so if they ever had to factor in an inability to get to sleep, a doped-up morning energy level, and punishing exercise with side effects, would they be less invalidating? Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are connected with numerous adult mental health and physical health problems (to find your own score, click here). Trauma specialists like Bessel Van der Kolk who wrote, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” or Gabor Mate who wrote, “When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection” help readers understand how ACES contribute to adult health and mental health problems.
There is something called the health gradient which represents the nearly perfect correlation between wealth and health. The longer a child lives in poverty, the more likely that child is to grow up to have health problems, even if they experience monetary success as an adult. Part of what contributes to the damage of poverty is high ACES scores. You don’t have to have been poor to have suffered from one of the ACES. It is when they start to stack up on one another that people become overwhelmed.
If you are one of the fully 37% of Americans who grow up free of any of these life-altering events, your ability to take the advice offered by the listicle experts should be off to a good start.
On the other hand, if you are on of the 37% who had two or more, there may be reasons why you are struggling to be the perfect morning person with an orderly routine, the most productive entrepreneur with a capacity to forego your needs for long stretches of time, or the person with the most self-control.
These sets of problems are not distributed evenly in the population. It is any surprise that most entrepreneurs are white males? By virtue of their privileges, they are least likely to be inundated with all of the obstacles members of other groups face. They are less likely to have stacked ACES. Of course, there are exceptions of super stars who overcome enormous odds to become billionaires, but these stories are much less common than the American mythology leads us to believe. Horatio Alger stories are just not the norm, and when they do happen, it is often because of tokenism, social support/networking, or super-genius.
Now for the List
- Don’t beat yourself up for failing to meet the standards of advice specialists.
There is no reason not to read advice lists or inspirational writers encouraging you to change your behavior. Striving for self-improvement is always worthwhile. However, when you go to implement the advice and it isn’t working out, do a quick analysis of the trajectory of your life, your current environmental demands, what is unique about your circumstances, and give yourself a break when you inevitably uncover reasons you aren’t knocking it out of the park.
2. Figure out what holds you back from following advice
What are the barriers to being a morning person? What keeps you from exercising? If you’ve been too passive about pain treatment, and this is making your exercise painful, for example, start making noise. Recently, I realized I have given doctors total authority over my health, allowing them to blow off my pain. After raising some hell, I am scheduled for a new procedure called radiofrequency ablation, which is essentially burning the nerves in my back. It might not work, but at least they are finally trying something new. Find your obstacle to whatever is holding you back, and see if you can knock it down.
3. Practice shaping
The advice experts usually give 5–10 or even more things you have to change about yourself and your behaviors. When I read the article suggesting I become a morning person, one of the suggestions among many for the morning routine was to eat breakfast. Not eating is an issue for me, because I don’t eat unconsciously to punish myself for binging. Putting aside the dozen other things recommended for the morning, I selected eating breakfast as the one place to start. I will go back to the list and pick up another one when I finally have eating breakfast down. This is shaping. Picking one behavior at a time, and slowly working your way up to bigger goals.
4. Be kind, but firm with yourself
Just because the great inspirational writers can be demotivational with their “Look at how put together I am, just try and manage this” articles, and just because you have good reasons to be less successful, doesn’t mean you get to give up. You still have to try and keep trying. You have to silence the inner critic by substituting an inner cheerleader who says, “Good effort. You didn’t get it this time, but I bet you will next time.” Don’t try to compare yourself to other people in terms of success on things ranging from losing weight to taking cold showers (recommended by lots of advice givers).
5. Remember people saying, “I did it, so you can do it, too” are either very young or very sheltered
To be able to give out advice about how to live life that is prescriptive, you should be wizened by hardship + time. This is not the hardship of working 80 hours per week for five years to build your start-up or choosing to eat ramen noodles as a sacrifice for your passion. These individuals who marvel at their own workload or self-induced poverty haven’t spent much time around low-wage workers who frequently take two full-time jobs to support their families. The working poor labor exceptionally hard with no promise of freedom, wealth, or fame to soothe the sting of adversity. The working poor are a necessity of our economy, nonetheless their estimated value and actual wages are pathetic. Many of the people to value them least are those who think of themselves as “self-made men who sacrificed so much.” A lot of the time what they sacrifice just puts them at the same level as the 20% of children growing up in poverty in the country. Poverty that has been linked to giving children the same EEGs as stroke victims.
Good luck to you in your future efforts to follow advice!
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