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5 Common Pieces of Career Advice that Are Often Useless

Here are things that people may say when they don't really want to help you.

Key points

  • Some of the most useless career advice is commonly offered because such advice is so easy to give.
  • Offering useless career advice can be a sign that the person doesn't really want to help you.
  • Real career help comes from people who are willing to give real insider advice and provide real concrete help.
  • Useless career advice can actually be useful in identifying who is and isn't worth your time and effort.
Source: Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels.
The type of career advice that someone gives you can say a lot about what that person really thinks of you.
Source: Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels.

Years ago, when I was looking for my first faculty position, I sought the advice of someone who was technically supposed to serve as one of my advisors. This person offered me only two pieces of advice: Go to a career fair and read career advice books. Yep, that's what I got from this person, who in the career advice arena was about as useful as a ferret serving as IT support. This person was essentially saying, "Don't ask me to really help you."

These were but two examples of the plethora of useless career advice that I received when I could have instead used some real help. Here are the five most common ones that I heard over and over again and that you may have heard over and over again as well:

1. “Find your passion" or "Do what you love."

Oh, darn. I thought that I was supposed to find what I really hate and just do it. Yeah, the real challenge is the "finding" part, which for me eventually came only after years of trial and error.

2. “You can be anyone you want to be" or "You can do anything that you set your mind to doing."

In fact, you can't. Sure, it's important to strive for goals, have the gumption to overcome obstacles, and not buckle under people telling you that you're not worthy. But at the same time, it would have been helpful to have been told the concrete obstacles that one might face when you don't have the built-in advantages that others may have. A lot of hiring and advancement does depend on having the "right" background, the "right" looks, and the "right" connections, because, frankly, a lot of workplaces and leaders simply are not fair. Knowing this can help you be more able to adapt accordingly when you hit brick walls or glass ceilings. Otherwise, you may end up unnecessarily blaming yourself.

3. “Get others to like you.”

Really? And here I thought that it's better to get everyone at work to hate you. Again, many bosses and workplaces just aren't objective and fair. They—surprise, surprise—play favorites when doling out positions and rewards. And "like" can be a really, really subjective thing. As nearly every teen movie and rom-com should have taught you by now, you can do everything to make yourself likable, but if your appearance, background, personality, and other characteristics are simply not what others want, there may not be much that you can do.

Source: Photo by Wendelin Jacober from Pexels.
Generic career advice in many cases can be useless. In fact, like other types of garbage, it can even be harmful.
Source: Photo by Wendelin Jacober from Pexels.

4. "Go out and network" or some other variation of "Try to meet people."

I'm waiting for the career coach who says, "Under no circumstances should you network or meet other people who may help your career." The value of networking should be obvious. However, networking may not be so easy to accomplish when you don't have others helping you meet the "right" people, those who are actually willing to help you. Heck, you could go to a football stadium and say, "Look, I am meeting 100,000 people right now." But that doesn't mean that it will amount to anything substantial in the longer term.

5. "Get advice", "Get help", or "Find a mentor."

Yes, this type of advice is essentially kicking the can down the road. When people tell you such things, they may be really saying, "I can't or don't want to help you." And if I had a nickel for each time I have heard someone get on a stage and say, "One of the most important things to have is a mentor," I would have a lot of nickels. Knowing that you need a mentor is easy. Actually finding an appropriate mentor who is actually willing to take a genuine interest in you is a whole different story.

Again, these five pieces of largely useless career advice are just the tip of the iceberg. There was plenty of other pieces-of-you-know-what that simply stated the obvious: "Focus on the stuff that matters" (as opposed to "Focus on the stuff that really doesn't matter), "Never stop learning and improving yourself" (as opposed to "Stop learning 60 days after you've been fired"), "Make yourself irreplaceable" (as opposed to "Make yourself as replaceable as possible"), and "Don't spill the pasta e fagioli on your boss."

Here's one piece of advice that I can offer after getting plenty of useless advice: When someone offers you very generic advice, that person may not really want to help you. That person may not want to give you real insider information or actual substantive help, such as connecting you with people who can hire you, helping you get promoted, or providing concrete resources. And knowing that is actually useful, because you don't want to waste your time with someone who doesn't really want to help you.

More from Bruce Y. Lee M.D., M.B.A.
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