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14 Career Myths

Common sense often trumps conventional wisdom.

Nevit Dilmen, CC 3.0
Source: Nevit Dilmen, CC 3.0

For millennia, people have had careers. So there’s been plenty of time for career myths to emerge and then entrench. Have you bought any of these?

The Myth: There's one best-suited career for you.

The reality: By the time you’re old enough to read this, chances are that if there were one perfect-fit career, you would long have known it: the born Mozart, Stephen Hawking, or Tony Hawk. Most of the rest of us could be as happy and successful in a wide range of careers as long as it’s a basic fit: A word person who can’t change a light bulb shouldn’t be an engineer.

For example, there are many equally likely-to-fit careers for the many people who are bright, organized, and like working with people. Let's say your uncle could get you a job at his cardboard box company that uses those skills. Of course, you probably have no particular interest in cardboard boxes but you probably will end up as happy with your career as you would had you held out for some shiny-object career. In fact, many people end up less happy because shiny objects tend to be shiny to many people and so competition for jobs in that career is fierce.

The Myth: Self-employment buys you freedom.

The reality: Most self-employed people have the freedom only to work any 60 hours a week they want. Unless you’re already rich, you can’t afford to hire enough to do all that needs to get done. So you probably will have to do at least some of the sales, sourcing, HR, even some accounting and IT lest you run out of money before sufficient profits roll in. Unless you’re smart, driven, entrepreneurial, and welcome long hours, do what your parents say: Get a job.

The Myth: You’ll do better if you get a clean start in a new geographic location.

The reality: Alas, most people bring their problems to the new locale. Worse, moving adds the hassles of finding a place to live, needed services, and friends who will help the person find good employment in that new locale. If a person were good at doing all that, s/he probably wouldn’t have felt the need to move. Sure, you to get to create a new reputation, but it may be wiser to change what you’re doing than where you’re doing it. Taking the stereotype as an example, if you’ve been a pot-addicted slacker, doing that in a new city is less likely to help than replacing some or all the weed with self-starterhood.

The Myth: You’ll choose a career more wisely if you allow yourself a few months to figure out who you are.

The reality: Nearly all my clients who tried that ended up no clearer. I know it sounds simplistic but for one or more candidate careers, just Google to read some articles, talk to a few respected people in the field, perhaps shadowing them for a few hours, make a pros-and-cons list, and then use your gut to select your career..

The Myth: Everyone should devote time to career networking.

The reality: Many people should, but there are exceptions. For example, if you're a hotshot, employers probably come to you with good work opportunities, so you have better things to do with your time than schmooze. Or you’ve networked a lot and it hasn’t yielded enough benefit for the time and effort. Sure, you might try to improve your networking skills by reading up and role-playing with a trusted friend, but some people just aren’t prepossessing and glib enough to network successfully. If such people follow the standard admonition to network, network, network, the result will likely just be more dispiritedness.

The Myth: It’s worth getting a degree.

The Reality: Of course, some employers demand a degree but given its cost in money and time, you need to consider the opportunity cost; what you otherwise could be doing with the time and money. For many careers, while most people go the traditional route: get the requisite degree(s,) some don’t. They may learn by working their way up from the bottom and getting mentored, or by completing only a short course or certificate. Or they may simply try to get in on their smarts and moxie. It may be worth giving a shot to such a shortcut before spending all the money and time on a degree.

The Myth: Cover letters don’t matter. Job seekers give all sorts of reasons for short-shrifting the cover letter, all wrong: “These days, the application forms don’t even allow cover letters.” Or, “The applications are read by computers.” Or, “Cover letters all sound the same, yet they’re hard to write. Not worth the effort.”

The Reality: The right cover letter can be a door opener. Let’s say you’re applying for a job and the form doesn’t include room for a cover letter or merely asks you to submit your resume. There’s no reason you can’t append a cover letter to your resume. And while a sound-alike cover letter will rarely be worth the effort, it is worth writing one that makes a case for why you really are a good fit for your target job, why you'd like to work for that organization, and revealing a bit of yourself as a human being.

The Myth: What counts are liberal arts skills. Colleges tell you that career success so depends on the critical thinking, writing, verbal communication, and ethical values that college is supposed to teach.

The Reality: That may have largely been true in the past but today, many if not most employers are looking for people with those skills plus technical chops.

The Myth: You gotta pay your dues.

The Reality: Leapfrogging is more possible than commonly believed. That’s why, more than ever, people are job hopping. A bright, motivated, low-maintenance person can often quickly rise in power and money if s/he gets employed at a growing organization in which the boss doesn’t hold you back because s/he needs you in your current role,

The Myth: Startups are fun.

The Reality: Yes, the break room may have a ping-pong table and the fridge may be stocked with free Red Bull, but working at a startup usually sucks. There, work processes are usually developed on-the-fly by people who’ve never before developed them. People have to wear multiple hats, none of which they’ve worn before, and the seductive promise of stock options usually remains unfulfilled. Not only does working for established organizations avoid such problems, they usually have the money to provide the resources to try innovations, and, yes, to pay you good benefits. Plus, in our brand name-driven society, a resume that says Procter & Gamble will usually attract more attention than one that says Of course, large organizations (for-profit, non-profit, and government) can have numbingly slow bureaucracy but after the initial rush from the cool startup environment, most people end up being happier in an organization that’s had time to become a well-oiled machine.

The Myth: It’s worth negotiating hard if you think you might get an extra $20,000 or more.

The Reality. Maybe not. That money would be taxed at your highest rate. Between federal, state, and local taxes including Social Security, Medicaid, Workers Comp, etc., you’d only keep half of what you negotiate. And in having squeezed more money from the employer, you may be starting out with an adversarial relationship with your boss or be more expensive than your peers and thus create unduly high expectations for your work performance and be more likely to get laid off. There’s even a chance the job offer will be pulled: “We made you a fair offer and acceded to your request for additional money but that still wasn’t enough for you. So rather than deal with a potentially disgruntled employee, we are retracting our offer. We’ve already checked with our #2 candidate and s/he will gladly accept our offer.” Rule of thumb: If you feel the first salary offer is too low, ask for their best offer, then set that issue aside and ask about one or two non-cash items, which may in fact be more valuable to you than cash and be more negotiable. Examples: the job description, telecommuting, training budget, title, who you report to and even an expedited salary review.

The Myth: Good bosses like employees who disagree.

The Reality: Alas, most of us are suckers for yes-people. True, the quality supervisee can occasionally get away with disagreeing but generally, it’s wise to support your boss if you ethically can.

The Myth: The good manager is collaborative and supportive.

The Reality: Too often, such managers are viewed as wimps to be taken advantage of. Of course, the era of the always-autocratic manager is over but today’s good manager decides how collaborative and kind versus individualistic and tough to be depending on the employee(s) and the decision. One size does not fit all.

NOTE: Dr. Nemko will be giving a public lecture on a related topic, The Future of Work, at the University of California Berkeley on Sep. 12, 2017. It is sponsored by the University so it is free to all.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at