I recently had a conversation with an engaging woman about to start her senior year in high school. In response to my predictable question about the status of her college search, she spoke of her interest in politics and medicine, her passion for helping people, and the difficulty she felt in choosing how she could best serve others as either a lawyer or a doctor.
Always curious about the guidance young people receive from senior generations, I inquired about the advice she has sought as she pondered her array of college choices. She recounted her conversation with her mom’s friend, a lawyer, who emphatically told her that “the world has too many lawyers.” Another family friend, married to a female attorney, stated that women in the legal profession face significant discrimination and suggested she choose a field with fewer potential barriers.
The hindsight that produces bad advice
Our discussion reminded me of a story I heard about a college student considering a career as a member of the clergy. She approached a cleric she knew to ask his advice about how to move forward with this goal.
Instead of responding to her specific question, he listed all the reasons why such a career choice would be a bad idea, allowing his own career unhappiness to infuse his response. By detailing why joining the clergy was a poor choice for her professionally, he served only to validate his negative feelings about his job without having to confront his own possible failings in the role.
Too often, senior professionals offer career advice to others by lamenting the changes they have seen over the decades of their careers. Their tendency is to discourage the journey of the young person seeking their wisdom. “Don’t do it!” they advise. “The field has changed too much and it is no longer a fulfilling way to earn a living.”
That negative perspective, however, misses the significant difference between their own world view and that of the advice-seeker. To those who began building their own careers a quarter-century or more ago, the changes in their professions may feel enormous. Senior generations often look back with rose-colored glasses at the way things “used to be.” Their advice, as a result, comes from a reservoir of wistful memories that reflect a different time.
Lift souls, don’t crush them
Offering negative advice to aspiring professionals does an enormous disservice and misses a critical variable. Young people beginning their careers today will not experience the vast differences in the workplace ruefully described by older professionals. Instead, they will be experiencing the workplace as it currently exists.
With no past to pensively reflect upon, there is only the clean tableau of the future ahead. You cannot miss what you have never had.
Reflecting on one’s own missed opportunities or sharing memories of days-gone-by should be saved for conversations among peers and not serve as the basis upon which to guide young people. Such wistful reflections have no place in conversations with someone enthusiastically embarking upon their career.
So grown-ups, the next time you are approached by a young person puzzling through how to chart their future, dig deep and recall your own early experiences, your youthful optimism, and your desire to find role models who could inspire you. Then look directly at the young soul before you and tap into their zeal for their future.
Tips for giving healthy career advice
Recognize that it is an honor that someone thinks enough of you to ask for your career advice, and remember these 4 tips the next time your guidance is sought.
1. Know your questioner. Advice never comes in a one-size-fits-all package. You cannot offer meaningful guidance to someone you barely know, so ask questions to understand the motivations behind the questions. Does he have a particular passion that has emerged? What activities has she enjoyed? What’s his favorite class? Who is a favorite teacher and why? Exploring these drivers will offer clues about whether an interest has emerged that can help sustain a long career.
2. Gently inquire about whether there has been planning for the education costs required to pursue her dream. If not, can you suggest helpful options for loans or ways to qualify for a scholarship or eventual loan-forgiveness program? Note that does not mean decrying the cost of education and the possible limitations imposed by student debt. The goal is to think expansively about ways to push through that burden without crushing their soul.
3. Separate yourself and your experiences from the counsel you offer. Do not focus your advice on what you wish you had done differently, unless your own experiences are absolutely relevant. And even then, think twice about whether your words will be more discouraging than helpful.
4. The corollary to #3 is to remember that most of us can find joy in what we do, but our natural inclination is to see what needs to be fixed or to otherwise complain about the bad boss or the excessive paperwork requirements or those other annoyances that interfere with what we’d prefer to be doing. Instead, remember the joy and share that.
Life has a way of taking us on twists and turns that we never could have expected. Some experiences may reinforce our sense of wonder and some, well, maybe not so much. But as the grown-ups in the room, we should feel honored for any opportunity to encourage members of the next generation to pursue their dreams and seek a better path forward.
After all, would we want any less for our own children, or, for that matter, our younger selves?
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is the author of the newly released book, The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, as well as the author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams.