How to avoid the bad advice everywhere

I wasn’t invited to give a commencement speech to recent graduates this year (maybe someday…), but imaging what I would say if invited provided an opportunity to consider some big things I’ve learned so far in my career.

So here is my hyper-condensed, would-be commencement speech to recent college graduates:

When you enter the workforce, you will find lots smart, kind people willing—and often wanting—to give you advice. The moment you step foot into your company, firm, non-profit, agency, etc., a firehose of advice from hyper-specific, technical guidance to career guidance will be turned on.

As you enter this situation, my advice to you is…

Be very cautious when listening to advice, particularly advice that relates to your career.

Why advice is often bad

Most advice-givers are extremely well intentioned. They have been the benefactors of support from people before them, and they want to pay it forward.

However, good advice relies on detailed knowledge of your particular circumstance and an accurate analysis of it. Here are a few of the many reasons why people can’t typically deliver this:

  • Most advice givers don’t know you, or your situation, well enough.
  • Most people don’t have the time or capacity to consider all relevant data and reason from the first principles of your context.
  • People feel the need to justify their own life path and may just give advice that validates decisions they have made
  • People sometimes have an incentive to give you certain advice—this is especially true when any sort of selling or recruiting is involved.

To illustrate, here are several examples of common career-related pieces of advice I’ve received and why they might be wrong:

  • “Keep your career options open.” — While having infinite career options sounds like an amazing thing, I’ve since learned that real life and career satisfaction comes from taking big risks that are in-line with your core beliefs, values, and passions. Advice like this can lead you to “not burn any career bridges” and fail to dive deeply into something that will yield deep, meaningful returns. Life is short. Why should you delay living it?
  • “Never raise a problem without suggesting a solution.”—While this maxim may be good to aspire to in the abstract, withholding knowledge of a problem from your boss because you’re stumped on a solution is probably worse.
  • “Always underpromise and overdeliver.”—While this is better than the opposite of overpromising and underdelivering and works sometimes, I know lots of leaders (yours truly) who hate it when people sandbag—even when they overdeliver against it. It’s often better to just break your work down into smaller pieces and set accurate expectations.
  • “Work hard to find a sustainable work-life balance early.”—I followed this advice, and found myself scrambling to recover from a bad performance review. The pain and time spent recovering from an early bad performance review was far worse than what I gained by seeking balance early on. In many cases, the better path might be to work as hard as humanly possible to start off on a good trajectory, and then settle into a sustainable pace. “Sustainable” is a tricky term because it depends on the time-scale: an unsustainable pace for a marathon can be sustainable for a 5k.
  • “Learning time and task management early in your career is essential”—After hearing this advice, I went out and bought Getting Things Done, tried multiple to-do list apps, and read everything I could on time and task management. I was on a mission to achieve maximum reliability and efficiency. The problem was, I was perpetually sluggish and often in the doldrums. My career was never harmed by being late to a meeting or forgetting a task, it was however, hurt by not contributing insights during meetings or returning work that didn’t show a lot of original thought. Transition from being a student to full-time work can be extremely mentally and emotionally draining. For me, managing my energy and inspiration early on was far more important than managing time and tasks.

What’s the alternative?

I do not mean to say that one should go it alone in their career; this would be a recipe for disaster. Learning technical skills—the tricks of the trade—from mentors and peers is essential and having support network are essential for career success. There are also good heuristics that act as “simplifying rules of thumb” when there is too much uncertainty that can be learned from those more experienced than us. But, it’s important to be aware of this risk and to have a strategy to deal with advice.

There are three things you can do to benefit from while avoiding the risks of advice:

  1. Seek counsel, not advice Advice is a specific recommendation on actions to take or decisions to make. Counsel, on the other hand, is guidance on how to approach a new, unfamiliar situation. Good counsel does not leave you with a prescription, but a framework or process to come up with your own prescription (see here: The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice).
  2. Cultivate deep relationship with mentors who understand you and your circumstance—When I started my first full-time job, the most effective advice I received was from friends who were a year ahead of me in my role, not from partners at the firm. The reason? They had the time to get to know me, understand my situation, and think deeply about it. Partners at my firm just didn’t. Eventually, working circumstances permitted me to cultivate deep relationships with more experienced professionals, and I benefited from their seasoned wisdom, but this has almost exclusively only been after a deep relationship was formed.
  3. Think critically about the advice you do receive before following it—When you do receive prescriptive advice that sounds good, spend a few minutes considering whether it is relevant to your circumstance. If the advice is based on analogy, spend a moment to make sure the circumstance is truly analogous. Better yet, break down the core assertions behind the advice, and then reason whether these principles are true in your context.

While these tips will help you make the most of guidance from others, remember that you were hired to bring your own unique talents and perspective to the workforce. Don’t be afraid to ignore what you hear and follow your own unique ideas and perspective! 💪

What’s bad career advice you’ve received? What’s your approach to seeking and receiving guidance in your career? Thanks for sharing! 🙏

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