As of late, I have been the victim of unsolicited career advice. At first I was flattered by the abundance, because frankly it means someone cares enough about me to think about my future. Then, I became overwhelmed by all the possibilities that came my way by hearing all these inspiring words of wisdom. Finally I became paralyzed, because much of this advice is contradictory and seems totally irrelevant to my current ambitions or track record thus far. So, what to do?
Just as I was coming out of my advice coma, a long lost cousin contacted me to learn more about a career in international relations. I had been wracking my brain about what to tell her when we finally connect, because I’m still reeling from my week of mismatched mentorship. At least my advice will be solicited, which absolves me of only half of my problems. What about the rest of my advice? How relevant will it be for her when she starts her career? Why would she ever trust me and why would my advice be particularly useful? These are the questions that passed through my mind until I remembered that these are her problems, not mine. She asked me for advice. She will need to put on her big girl boots and sift out the good, the bad and the useful for herself and simply know that my intentions were good.
In thinking through this cycle of advice, mentorship, professional development, supervising, managing and being a cog in a wheel for the next 35 years, here are a few things that I would offer (unsolicited) to help strike a healthy balance between listening and unlistening to the bits of ‘knowledge’ that will come your way, no matter what field you specialize in. Consider this a short guide to sifting through career advice.
1 – Money advice rarely ever changes. Career advice and money advice aren’t the same thing. – In my field, there are particular positions that are coveted for the political cache they yield. You hear that people come out with powerful networks and transform into semi-Gods. Ok, fair enough. But, these positions are often low paid, high powered, and stressful. Your spouse will probably hate you. The credit card companies will love you. Your gas guzzling car will enjoy being fed every 3 days for your 1 hour commute to & fro. But, your co-workers will know your name! There is a price to pay for power and I consider it very steep. So, you’ll need to decide for yourself what drives you. If you want to be the talk of the office, maybe it’s worth it. If not, you’ll want to think long and hard about what’s important to you, because you may be taking a pay cut to chase someone else’s dream.
2 – Thinking of your day job as your second stream of income is transformative. – There are some people who enjoy going to their offices because the work is fulfilling and they are passionate about the organization. I know very few of these people who live with this reality every day. There are days when you’re going to want to stab someone with a pencil, no matter what office you work in. But, sometimes it’s important to realize that your day job allows you to have expensive hobbies or lucrative independent businesses or priceless experiences that you can only float with your day job money. For me, that’s been going to school. For others, it can be jewelry making, art collecting, import/export, teaching, photography, and a whole slew of other opportunities. Sometimes it just takes remembering that you’re not a slave to your day job; in fact, your day job allows you to be free in other areas of your life. So, switch around job #1 and job #2 in your head and it can change your whole mindset.
3 – The industry you’re in likely changes every 10-15 years. So, know which generation of professional you’re talking to and balance well. – Like I said, this has been a rough few weeks because very successful individuals in my field have been inclined to share with me what they think is best for me. Yet, I’ve found much of their advice to be dated, because when they entered the field the rules were different. Does this mean that I throw out all their well-intentioned advice? Well, of course not. Some nuggets of it are worth listening to simply because these people are at the top and, right now, I have to know the lens they’re using to define success when they view me. Why? Their minority point of view, since it’s at the top of the hierarchy, still rules the game. Their views prevail when it comes to promotions and hiring. So, while I don’t agree with everything they may believe, I need to know WHAT they believe so I can play to my strengths and moderate expectations when dealing with these career power brokers.
4 – When most people say ‘success,’ you should hear ‘be like me.’ – When offering unsolicited advice to a colleague over sangrias recently, it dawned on me that the reference for ‘success’ is rarely ever Oprah or Warren Buffet. In those terms, people mean ‘rich.’ Or when people say Gwen Stefani or Jay-Z, they mean ‘famous.’ You have to read between the lines to know if their vocabulary really defines ‘success,’ because what I’ve found is that most people are just talking about themselves. Sometimes that’s great, esp. if you’re talking to a mentor whose excellence you want to emulate. The greatness is that most people are just telling you how they would have lived their lives or made professional choices differently if they had the chance to do it again; you can avoid their missteps. Other times, you will have to agree to hear, but not to listen because some of the circumstances of your advisor’s life or interests just don’t apply to you or yours.
5 – Everything people say about others is true (to some degree). – My workplace is an institution built on talking shit about co-workers. Workplace gossip isn’t new, but I was shocked to the degree that it was codified and perpetuated in my industry. People believe that hearing how others have worked with a person will help them decide to bring that colleague onto a new team. While this can be altruistic, it also sucks because there are probably 2-3 dozen people who like you (good), thousands who don’t know you (neutral), and about 3-10 dozen who have personal or professional misgivings about you (bad). The nice people in the latter category just don’t say anything, but there’s a small minority who will rip you a new one at the first opportunity. You probably don’t even know that they hate your guts, but your future boss now does! But, understand that smack talking works 2 ways. It’s highly likely that if they don’t like you, you don’t like them – so your time will come.
The true revelation is that pretty much everything you hear about colleagues is true to some extent. The question is just how relevant is Jack Smith’s dreaded experience with Jane Doe in Honduras on a marine life conservation project to my projected experience partnering with Jane on a microcredit project in the Mali three years from now. It’s anyone’s guess! If Jane and I work well together, it isn’t to say that Jack was lying. It is to say that we have different angles & needs from Jane as a colleague. And Jane is not one dimensional. The reality is that Jane might not have liked marine life, she may have been going through a bad break up, she probably doesn’t speak Spanish and it’s highly likely that she thinks Jack was a total douche bag. And all of that, too, could be true… so what now?
In giving and receiving advice in your work place keep these thoughts in mind (or don’t), so that you can hear the wisdom through all the noise!