Why Advice Doesn’t Work

Lucy felt trapped. It was nearing 3 am, and despite spending the last 8 hours at the

library, she’s made absolutely zero progress on her music history paper. She still

has a half- completed stats assignment that was due yesterday, but Lucy can’t

worry about that until she finishes her paper and studies for tomorrow’s child

development exam.

The next day after failing the exam the next day, Lucy was required to meet with her

professor who told her that she needed to study harder and do better on the

upcoming midterm. That night, Lucy was 15 minutes late to her job as waitress, a

common occurrence. Her boss scolded her for being late and questioned her

dedication to the cafe. Diana, Lucy’s best friend, said Lucy needed a better work-life

balance.

Telling Lucy to work on her study skills or to work harder is no better than telling

the homeless they need jobs, or telling an alcoholic to stop drinking; this advice

fails on two counts: It’s short-sighted and insulting.

Like most people, Lucy is fairly self-aware, she knows her strengths and weakness.

She knows she needs to work on time management and on her work habits and she

knows she’s in danger of failing her classes.

Lucy’s friends, teachers, and managers then ask, “If Lucy know all this, why doesn’t

anything change? Why doesn’t she develop better time management skills?”

From there, it’s easy to start making assumptions about Lucy’s character and

motivations. Is she stupid? Lazy? Does she even want to change?

But it’s not that simple. Telling a homeless person to find a job will not result in him

landing a lucrative job and a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. Telling

a deaf person to listen harder will not result in a miraculous healing.

Telling the person things they already know won’t help. The problem isn’t what’s

wrong
, it’s how to fix it. If you don’t have the right tools, or don’t

know how to use those tools, you’re not going to be able to accomplish much.

Which is why over the next few weeks, this column will explore self- discipline: what

it really is, and most importantly, how to develop it.

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