We’ve all heard advice like this before.
Heck, most of us have doled it out, too.
These are the phrases we come back to repeatedly when faced with a tricky decision or confounding challenge. We want to put on a brave face and confidently move forward. So we rely on this folksy wisdom to steer us in the right direction.
Unfortunately, these standard lines don’t always apply.
And they’re never the final word on the right path to take.
These phrases are pretty good at giving us momentary relief, but they don’t solve any problems.
They’re also good at shutting down our critical thinking and reducing every problem to a simple question with a black & white answer.
Phrases like these are thought-terminating cliches.
Amanda Montell explains in her book, Cultish: The Language Of Fanaticism, “this term refers to catchphrases aimed at halting an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought.”
I’m sure you’ve been part of a conversation that’s ended in a thought-terminating cliche. Maybe it was a mastermind meeting, and someone is trying to figure out what to charge for the new offer they’ve developed. The person throws out a price, and another person chimes in, “No way. Charge what you’re worth.”
Now there’s only one way forward with the conversation: just how high can we push this number without considering other factors?
Or maybe it was in a Facebook group where someone posts about struggling with business systems and staying on top of the maintenance work in their business. The first comment is, “You gotta hire someone. Stay in your zone of genius!”
The conversation then focuses on who to hire and how much to pay them. It never digs into why the business owner is struggling with systems and maintenance work in the first place.
Or maybe it was on a coaching call where you shared that you were bumping up against some past experiences with being told that you weren’t good enough or that you didn’t belong. And the coach, trying to be helpful and encouraging, told you it was “just imposter complex talking.”
With that said, the coach has shut down any chance of exploring how your past experiences shape how you proceed today or how you might overcome the hurdles of chronic illness, racism, or sexism in your plan to move forward.
Most of the time, when we’re talking about the things business owners say to each other to encourage or affirm, people who say these things mean well.
But meaning well isn’t the same thing as offering good counsel or doing no harm.
But post after post, call after call, conversation after conversation, this loaded language bores its way into our brains and impacts the way we think and act. We’re subject to a deluge of thought-terminating cliches every time we log onto Instagram or YouTube or Facebook—and they steer us away from more critical questions and critical thought.
Leigh Stein, a writer whose work often examines the undercurrents of the influencer economy and wellness industry, writes in the New York Times:
“There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them.”
Is it possible that the kind of support and thought partnership we need to thrive doesn’t fit neatly into a quotegram or comment?
We know it doesn’t. We know it’s ridiculous to try to pick up real wisdom one mantra at a time.
I’m certainly not saying that there isn’t valuable content on Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube. There is incredible, thoughtful, and remarkable content on those platforms. But there is even more of the other stuff. Derivative nonsense tries to provide an easy answer to tough questions.
The thought-terminating cliche framing offers us an invaluable lens when faced with (or operating inside) the advice industry. Philosopher Agnes Callard writes, “the advice-giver is reduced to repeating reasonable-sounding things she has heard others say—thoughts that are watered down so far that there’s really no thought left, just water.”
Callard differentiates between instructions, coaching, and advice. That’s valuable for finding your way through the sea of cliches and mantras.
She explains that instructions are widely applicable and narrow in scope. In other words, I can write about “how to start a podcast” in a way that’s relevant to most business owners as long as I don’t also try to prescribe action outside of that topic.
Coaching, on the other hand, is narrowly applicable and transformational in scope. The coach and the receiver develop a deep relationship. Together, they can identify goals and how they want to work toward them. If I’m coaching a client, I can gather enough information, draw on what I already know about that person, and ask questions that reveal their goals. From there, we can talk through different options for moving forward. But what we come up with together is only applicable to them (even if it inspires new ways to approach a similar challenge for others).
Advice tries to do both: offer universal truths to create personal transformation. Callard writes:
“It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions. In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact, and so it is not surprising that one finds so much advice exchanged on social media.”
To put it another way: thought-terminating cliches are thin.
While they might be genuinely helpful in a limited number of scenarios or for a small group of people, they are never the whole, complex, thick story.
Tressie McMillan Cottom uses the ethnographic term “thin description” to describe how superficial conclusions are drawn from limited experience or perspective fail to capture reality.
She explains on The Ezra Klein Show:
“a thin way of engaging with the world is to assume that everybody has already made the decisions that you’ve made prior to the discussion, and all of your questions are going to be reserved for the object that you’re talking about, the people you’re talking about, the idea you’re talking about.”
Thick description, on the other hand, takes into account the fact that we’ve all grown up in different circumstances, with different influences, bumping up against various challenges, and internalizing different cultural “standards.” And when we approach a conversation from that perspective, we refuse to give pat answers or pass on folk wisdom. We ask lots of questions, gather information, and find some framework for genuinely making sense of the challenge at hand before we offer any guidance or coaching.
So how do we move forward with all of this in mind?
First, start to identify the thought-terminating cliches all around you. Notice them on social media. Listen for them in conversations. Recognize when they come out of your own mouth.
Once you’ve honed your cliche radar, you can start to ask questions or even push back.
If you hear someone say, “you’re leaving money on the table,” you could ask, “How do I know whether that’s money I want to pick up?” If you’re told to charge what you’re worth, you could ask, “How do I measure that?” If someone tells you to stay in your zone of genius, you could say, “I’d like to get to the root of the problem so that I don’t create more issues once I delegate it to someone else.
Of course, there are times when you might decide to exit the conversation altogether. Someone unwilling to take her perspective into account or recognize how there is more going on or think critically with you will not be helpful and may cause you harm.
But plenty of people will be willing to dig deeper when you ask to.
So here are some factors you’ll want to consider to move past thought-terminating cliches, especially as they relate to business.
Past Experiences: examine how what you’ve experienced in the past can guide how you move forward. Your experiences—whether directly related to the challenge at hand—shape your decision-making framework, mindset, and emotions around uncertain situations.
Power Dynamics: investigate who or what has power in the situation at hand. Analyze how power dynamics have played into the past experiences that shape your thinking. Look for systems that give you more or less power and consider how those impact your action.
Values: filter the situation through your personal values. Look for how your personal values either support or depart from “conventional wisdom.” Consider unexpected ways you could move forward that are in line with your values.
Differences: analyze how your experience and others’ experiences are different. Culture, education, language, industry, relationships, health, class, income level, and more can produce genuine differences in tackling challenges or figuring out what works.
There are many more factors you could consider. But tackling even one or two of these categories will help you go beyond truisms and find more personal, satisfying solutions.
Finally, if you’re a content creator, you also need to consider these things as you create content.
Before you share a quote, offer advice, or write an article about what your audience “should” be doing, take these same influences into account.
Yes, it’s work. But it’s work that makes your work better, more thorough, and ultimately much more valuable to the people you’re delivering it to—which makes it more effective for you, too.
When we put in the work to move beyond loaded language and pat advice, we end up having more satisfying and potent conversations. And those conversations can lead to tangible benefits in how we approach both our businesses and our lives.