Career Advice You Shouldn’t Take

Conventional wisdom says it’s not hard to hit a stationary target, especially if you’re standing mere feet away. That’s why I felt like last week’s post on bad career advice—featuring tarot cards, astrology and inkblot tests—was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (a fittingly absurd expression). I didn’t think it’d be very hard to bring readers over to my empirically-influenced line of thinking.

While discrediting astrology is good fun, in reality there is less extreme, more common and more potentially harmful career advice out there. Unfortunately, these ideas are resistant to change, simply due to their pervasiveness in everyday society. What’s more, they are usually offered sincerely and with good intentions.

“A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

You’ve probably heard this one before. It makes perfect sense, at face value—after all, how can we move forward meaningfully if we don’t know what direction we want to go in? And there are a lot of places where this advice would certainly be well-heeded. Course planning, for example, benefits from some degree of ability to look a few years ahead to make sure you’ll be able to graduate as intended. When it comes to careers, though, this advice can lead to a dangerous case of passivity. After all, it’s quite easy to justify inaction by claiming that we’re just trying to ‘figure things out first.’ The fundamental assumption being made here is that knowing must come before doing. Does this make sense? It seems to me a more appropriate way to look at the world is that doing comes first, knowing (i.e., learning through doing) second. Besides, the world is changing too rapidly for a long-term career plan to be of much use. The bottom line? Taking action is more important than having a plan.

“Fake it until you make it.”

I’ve never liked this advice. It sounds dishonest and needlessly negative, and I’m sure it isn’t doing anything to combat a very common and debilitating phenomenon known as impostor syndrome. Is this really the best wisdom we can impart to a generation already facing significant challenges entering the workforce? “Feeling like a total fraud? Like you’ve fooled everyone around you into believing you can do your job well, and it’s only a matter of time until they find out you’re actually incompetent? No worries! Just try to fool yourself too, and it will all be okay in the end.” Why not fix that leak in your roof with duct tape while you’re at it? Alternatively, you could actually try to do something to boost your confidence, like having a constructive conversation with a supervisor/mentor. Doesn’t it make more sense to address the core issue, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist?

“Follow the path of least resistance.”

This is really a combination of a bunch of smaller pieces of advice that fall into the same general theme: “take the easy way out.” For example, “Choose a career based on how much money you can make or how many jobs will be available”; “Do what your parents/friends/etc. say you should do”; “Take this assessment tool and choose the career that shows up first in your results”; and so forth. In response to this advice, I have a question you might like to consider: are you a lightning bolt? If not, then following the path of least resistance shouldn’t be a given. In fact, I’m pretty sure you are a human being, and though there are electrical currents coursing through your brain, heart and the rest of your body, your existence is more complicated than that of a series of moving electrons. You have things like values, beliefs, motivations and personal meaning. As a result, you occasionally find great satisfaction in taking the path of most resistance. There are many ways to describe advice that would sound much better, but I think Robert Frost puts it best:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


Happy traveling.

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