The Worst Life Advice I’ve Ever Read

I try to keep up with my fellow personal development – oh, ok, I’ll call it what it is, “self-help” – bloggers, but there are just so many of them. In fact, the number one reason why I sometimes consider stopping what I do is because it feels like shouting into a maelstrom. Who can hear my tiny voice amidst the many louder and more widely-shared blogs?

Part of the frustration many people have with the whole “self-help” industry is that it seems like you’re just hearing the same messages said with a slight twist. The top five/three/ten/one things to fix your productivity/sleep/hair/cat! It’s true; even within this one blog, there are definitely themes that I keep coming back to, again and again:

Simplicity. Mindfulness. Effectiveness. Kindness. Love. Resilience. Maybe at some point I’ll say it right, and it will help me (and anyone else) get it right and never have to be reminded about it again! As Maria Abramovic pointed out in a recent interview on Note to Self, even people who pay big bucks to see a concert in New York City will often spend time during the music texting on their phones. Her response? Forcing attendees to her Goldberg piece to not only put all their tech – even watches – in a locker, but to also sit with noise-cancelling headphones for thirty minutes in silence before the music starts. All together, sitting there in the room.

And they (the self-help critics) think bloggers are heavy handed? Sorry, but I think that anything – from Goldberg to a well-crafted tweet – that gets people out of the distractions and back into what matters to them is a good thing.

Except for This Guy…

Benjamin Hardy, author of Why Living “Presently” Could Ruin Your Whole Life falls into that camp of “Don’t follow your passion!” evangelists for pragmatism and realism. He starts with the image you see above – apparently put up to highlight the dangers of living in the moment, like getting a tattoo. It’s a common theme: get a tattoo, you’ll have to have awkward discussions with your partners, you’ll never get a job, what will it look like when you get old?!? Think of the children.

cometIn my experience tattoos have led to wonderful discussions, never kept me from a job that I actually wanted, and when I get old(er) my body is going be changing in a lot of ways I will have no control over – so it will be nice to remember that I can choose some my appearance. Plus, since all of my ink has personal meaning and significance to me, every piece is an illustration for the life I am writing.

Back to why this blog bothered me, though: Mr. Hardy does a bait-and-switch, conflating living in the moment  with living for the moment. The former is what is meant by living “presently”; the latter is called “hedonism”, and while it is sometimes touted as a viable lifestyle, it’s certainly not what is meant by “mindfulness”. It’s much like Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda deciding that the overarching message of Buddhism is “every man for himself.”

The author’s theory goes something like this:

Instead of living for the moment, it is better to live for the past — as you’d prefer to remember that moment, and your life in general…when you live for the past — for your memories — you consider how you want to remember the experience you’re having. As a result, you live intentionally in the present.

To quote Patch Adams, I would totally agree with him – if he were right. But with just a little research into both human predictions and memories, you can see why this is a horrible strategy. First, our terrible ability to predict what our future self will want at all:

We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements…In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us…

[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d likethat. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. – Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness

And then there’s the whole fact that our memories of things are, in large part, constructions of our minds that are notoriously inaccurate. To quote Dr. Elizabeth Loftus:

When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we’ve heard—like Romney did.

Those are two of the most basic and easy-to-access articles on the phenomena. But to put it in basic terms, Mr. Hardy would have us live now based on predictions likely to be wrong for the benefit of a future self that will be unlikely to remember what actually happened anyway.

It’s living in constant fear of the judgement of an unknown and imagined presence somewhere in your future. “I don’t want future me to regret this!” seems like a lousy reason for just doing what is right.

Make the right decisions for your life because they’re the right decisions now. Don’t take my word for it; how about that other self-help guru, Gandhi:

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”


1 thought on “The Worst Life Advice I’ve Ever Read”

  1. That sounds like a recipe for complete inaction. How do you even step forward if you’re always framing it in terms of potential regret and future memories? Yech.

    Weather models come to mind. Weather models take past events and build a prediction of future weather phenomenon daily, weekly, seasonally. The models are good, getting better every day and saving lives while doing it, but everyone knows they are occasionally wrong and it’s usually at the small scale, the single decision scale, the my-immediate-vicinity scale. There are just too many variables. Such is life, too many variables.

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