Contrarian career counseling slogans I use in the course I'm teaching.

Posted May 15, 2019

George Marshall Center, Flickr 2.0, Public Domain
Source: George Marshall Center, Flickr 2.0, Public Domain

A student in the course on career counseling I’m teaching suggested I compile what he called my “Nemkoisms” in a book.

I don’t have enough to fill a book but here are some. I've chosen to include those that are contrarian, not consistent with conventional wisdom.


Pick early. That can provide focus to your undergraduate education and networking. Plus, even if you decide to change careers, you'll get more clues on where to pivot from having tried something than if you remained undecided. Also, you will have developed some specific expertise, which often yields skills transferable to your next career.

Status is the enemy of contentment. High-status jobs, for example, doctor, lawyer, performer, and investment banker, require years of preparation, are inordinately competitive, and, ironically, often lead to less net happiness and contribution than if you pursued a less prestigious career. Because of the pressures, it’s not coincidental that substance abuse is rampant among high-flyers. Worthy, contributory, lucrative, less pressure-packed careers exist, for example, optometrist, program evaluator, health coach, and yes, careers in government, which provide good pay, benefits, generous vacations and holidays plus job security nonpareil. (Thank the taxpayer.)

Do what you love...and starve. (Alternate wording: Don't follow your passion...as a career.) Too many people’s passions reside in just a few areas: sports, fashion, environment, artistic expression, etc. So a career as a performer or in saving the snail darter tend to be low- or no-pay, and the relatively few good jobs attract a swarm of applicants. Career contentment derives less from being in a beloved field than from work that provides decent pay, good boss and coworkers, ethical work, growth opportunities, and job security. You’re more likely to get those outside of the common "cool" careers. Yes, follow your passion...as a hobby—Unless you’re top-of-the-heap or your passion is rare and in-demand, don’t expect to make a living at it.

Beware of false precision. Too many factors determine success and happiness in a job to insist on accepting only a very specific one, for example, project manager for a consumer products company. If a quite different job fell in your lap that met the requirements listed in the previous paragraph, you might be happier and more successful at that than if you waited for that career in project management of consumer goods. Yes, your network and employers prefer you to be committed to something specific but that false precision often exerts too high a price on your career contentment. The aforementioned would-be project manager is often wiser to pitch his or her network more broadly: “I’m looking for a job managing projects in which people skills and detail-orientedness are important. Know anyone I should talk with?”

Don’t necessarily turn down a crap job that falls in your lap. Such jobs usually don’t drop in your lap at random—A friend or family member made that happen because s/he thought you’d be good at it. Even if the job is mundane, rather than face a daunting job search in the open market, it may be wiser to take the job and use it as a launchpad to something better, by preparing and networking for a promotion within that place of employment or at a high-quality competitor.

The Myers-Briggs is more of a horoscope than a test. People like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator because it feels good to have your personality categorized. The problem is that, like all personality tests, the MBTI’s predictive validity for what career to pursue or even for how to behave on the job is poor.  More colorfully, University of New Mexico professor David Boje wrote, “Do not treat the scores of the Myers-Briggs as anything more than astrology.”


Degrees can be overrated. Consider You U  versus traditional U. Of course, degrees add value. The question is whether pursuing a degree is, for a given person, the wisest use of the time and money. Framed that way, many people are wiser to, instead of Traditional U, to try You U: a combination of mentors, articles and videos recommended by a mentor or found with a Google search or on the professional association’s site, e.g., the American Psychological Association. Key to You U helping you get a job: Keep a journal of each nugget you learn and, before applying for a job, convert it into a white paper of best practices in your field, for example, Ten Keys to Success in Organizational Development in 2020 and Beyond. Submitting that with your applications can often compensate for the lack of degree—at dramatically less cost and time. If You U doesn't work for you, you can still get a degree.


Landing a good job is a war. With employers automating, part-timing, temping, and offshoring,  good, well-paying, ethical, reasonably secure jobs are becoming too rare. So, as with anything desirable and scarce, only the strong survive. That means that unless you’re unusually qualified for your target job, you can’t just answer ads with a decent resume and cover letter and expect to get something good. You usually need an “in” or to bowl 'em over with your resume, cover letter and collateral material, for example, a white paper, work samples, or proposal for what you’d do in the first 30 days. You must liberally lace your interviews with PAR stories: a problem you faced, the clever or dogged approach you took to address it, and the positive result. After the interviews, a thank-you letter won’t give you an edge. An influencing letter will, in which you provide new information: a piece of collateral, further thoughts in light of what was discussed in the interview, and an explanation of why you’re more interested than ever in the job. Grade inflation has metastasized into references, so be sure your references are willing to say you’re outstanding in the areas most central to the target job.

If using a professional resume writer were ethical, how come none sign it, “Written by Jane Jones, resume writer?” Employers use resumes not just as a recitation of work history but as an indicator of the candidate’s ability to think, write, organize, and be accurate. Using a friend or  hired gun to write a candidate’s resume is no more ethical than a high school student having a parent or college counselor write the college application essay. Besides, if employers see a disparity between the intelligence displayed in the resume compared with that in the interview, trust in the candidate will decline. And trust is key to getting hired.


You’re like a TV: You can fine-tune but not convert a black-and-white set into a color one—Even long-term psychotherapy may not fundamentally change a person. So it’s wise to put yourself in environments that capitalize on your strengths and skirt your weaknesses. Of course, that’s also true when counseling or managing someone.

Happiness comes mainly from within. Many people change jobs, careers, or locales in hopes of becoming happier. But people bring themselves to the new setting. Of course, in a truly bad situation, move on. But generally, it’s wiser to focus on finding the positives in the status quo, perhaps tweaking it.

Microbreak. With each passing second, yes, second, a break’s refreshing effects diminish. So, no question, it’s a good idea to take a moment for a deep breath or three when starting to feel stressed. No question, it’s a good idea to get out of your chair for five minutes every hour—As they say, sitting is the new smoking. Getting out of the office for lunch (not a two-hour lunch) also can be wise. But you may pay too big a price for longer breaks. For example, think about those week-long vacations: the time to prepare, the stresses during the vacation, and the piled-up work when you return. Instead of cramming all your vacation into that 8-day/7-night package, consider seven, well-spaced one-day trips or staycations.

Work-life balance is overrated. Some of the most contented and contributory people I know live lives that are utterly out of balance: They choose to work much more than 40 hours a week and roll their eyes at people who pathologize them as a “workaholic.” In spending hours 40 to 60+ working rather than recreating or even on the vaunted family time, they believe they make a bigger difference (and probably more money) working, even if they're just a bricklayer doing granny’s security wall than if they spent the hours playing Monopoly with the kids.

Hire slow; fire fast. Hiring good people may be a manager's most important task. So it's wise to take due time to hire the best person you can get, usually a referral from a trusted source. Then, if there are early signs you made a mistake, it’s usually wise to quickly counsel the person out, offering to help them getting a better-suited job. Spending lots of time attempting to remediate a weak employee usually isn't the best use of your time. In addition, the longer a weak employee remains, the more time s/he has to find something to claim as worthy of a lawsuit.


Interrupt. Standard advice is to not interrupt, but I find that only sometimes to be wise. As I explain to clients, "I interrupt not to be rude but so we make the most of our time. I don’t want you walking out of here thinking that you didn’t get much from the session.”  Many rambling clients are grateful to get interrupted and refocused.

Quick-mine past trauma. As a client starts to recount in detail some past trauma, I often look for an opportunity to redirect the client with something like, “It’s terrible what happened to you as a child. Do you feel we need to revisit that further or can you think of a baby step forward you’d like to take?" Often, the client has long learned any lessons from that trauma and additional "processing" merely strengthens the feeling of victimization, stuckness, and external locus of control, which of course is inimical to moving forward.

“Imagine I don’t exist, that I’ve been beamed up to planet Pluto. What would the Goddess (or God) within you tell you to do?” This empowers the client.

“I’m wondering if you might want to do X. What do you think?” This allows advice-giving without wresting agency from the client. That technique is valuable when a client can’t come up with his or her own idea, or even when past experience with that client suggests s/he’s unlikely to generate something of value and would likely welcome your tactful suggestion.

“What’s that idea score on The Meter, with 0 meaning it makes you puke, 10 means it gives you ecstasy?” The crucial follow-up question is: "What keeps it from being a 10?”

If we were in Vegas, should we bet you’d do your homework? If the client says no, ask, “How could you change the assignment so it would be a sure bet?”

I talk on these on YouTube.