Controversial Career Assertions
Skeptical reader queries and my responses.
Posted May 18, 2018
My new book, Careers for Dummies, made some contraintuitive recommendations that might make a reader wonder:
Reader: I hear it’s fun to work for a start-up: casual, creative, you get to wear many hats, ping-pong tables, free food, even massages! How come you’re not so onboard?
Marty Nemko: The media trumpets the success stories. Alas, over my 5,400 clients, I’ve heard more horror stories. The typical situation: Some smart person with a smart idea but no business experience scrambles to bring a software app to market before the money runs out. The person and buds rarely have deep-enough business experience nor take the time to develop useful processes, for example, for quality assurance. Everything goes into slamming together the product for a salesperson to flog the not quite ready for sale, not quite as good as hoped for product. Typically, enough sales don’t come in nor the dreamed-for VC financing, so the employees, while playing foosball and drinking free Red Bull, are laid off because the company can’t make payroll let alone make those enticing stock options worth anything. Moral of the story: Before working for a start-up, check the founders’ track record with previous ventures, take a hard look at where the product is in development, try it out, and compare it with competitors. That will help provide an eyes-open look at that cool-sounding startup.
Reader: Your book says that you think working in teams has big downsides. These days, everyone’s touting teams. Are you just being contrarian?
MN: Of course, teams are sometimes appropriate, for example, for a product whose development requires different skill sets. But often, teams are established mainly to allow collaborative decision-making. That frequently leads to slow, tepid decisions: only the lowest-common-denominator idea that everyone can live with. Worse are team-centric workplaces in which pay is based on the group’s performance. Top performers dislike that because they get the same pay as team members who aren’t pulling their weight. Bottom performers dislike it because it gives them additional incentive to slack knowing the better performers will cover for them.
Reader: Your book says to tailor your job to suit your strengths and interests. But most jobs aren’t very subject to tailoring. You're hired to do a specific job.
MN: Even if your job is well-defined, say accountant in an organization’s accounting department, you still may be able to trade disliked tasks with coworkers. For example, if you hate staring at spreadsheets all day but don’t mind giving bad news to clients (“We’ll need more data”), you may be able to find someone who’s the reverse. Or worst case, tailor peripheral aspects of your job: bring your favorite calories into the break room, keep a small oriental rug under your workspace, make more jokes than average, see if you can bring your pet to work.
Reader: Everyone has heard that bachelor's holders make a million dollars more over their lifetime. You don’t agree. Why?
MN: One problem is that it's based on old data. For example, in 1970, only 40% of high school graduates went to college. Now it’s 70%, so a college degree yields a bigger yawn than a salary boost. Also, the statistic implies that colleges caused the income increase. Fact is, the pool of college students is brighter, more motivated, and better connected than the 30% that don’t go. You could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years and they’ll earn much more than the pool of the not-college-bound.
Reader: Your book argues that people should choose a career quite quickly rather than do a lot of career exploration. It seems too important a decision to do quickly.
MN: Unfortunately, the predictive validity of career “tests” barely exceeds horoscopes'. And unstructured explorations such as that trek to the Himalayas are less likely to generate career enlightenment than to drain your (or your parents') savings. Better, after modest exploration—for example, using my new book, Careers for Dummies—it’s better to go all-in on something. If the career ends up feeling wrong, you can always make a minor or major pivot, perhaps to a side path you couldn’t have seen at the trailhead.
Reader: You say that interviews are a poor tool for choosing whom to hire. Everyone uses them. How can you say that?
MN: Interviews are poor predictors of job performance. I don’t expect readers to ditch interviews but I urge interviewers to replace stock, coachable questions such as “Tell me about yourself” and “What’s your greatest weakness” with simulations of tasks common and difficult on the job as well as to probe accomplishments the candidate lists on the resume.
Reader: You suggest that employers more often use standardized tests of cognitive ability. Wouldn't employers get sued?
MN: Tests such as the SAT and intelligence tests have among all pencil-and-paper tests, for all races, the best predictive validity of job success for positions requiring good reasoning skills. No less than Google’s HR boss Laszlo Bock swears by them but then again, he has a phalanx of lawyers to fend off EEOC attorneys. Smaller companies and nonprofits may be wise to avoid tests of cognitive ability because they have been the target of expensive lawsuits. Even if the employer wins, the cost and stress may not be worth it.
Reader: If you’re in a position to hire, your book recommends getting applicants by soliciting referrals from trusted colleagues. But that clouds your judgment because you’ll have a positive bias toward referred candidates. Aren’t you better off with strangers?
MN: No. Alas, too many job seekers are better as applicants than employees. 25 to 45% of resumes contain “creative writing” — desperate job seekers hire expensive career coaches to prep them with perfect if not saintly answers to tough questions. Candidates who'd get a bad reference from their former boss have been known to list their romantic partner as the boss. So better to rely on referrals from trusted colleagues and friends. Just be sure to not halo a referred candidate. View them as dispassionately as possible.
Reader: You tout self-employment but it’s frightening: You have to do everything and fund it upfront. Aren’t you overrating self-employment?
MN: Complicated or high-status self-employment, for example, in high-tech or biotech is risky, but status is the enemy of success. If you keep it simple, for example, a flower stand or gift cart near a busy train station and then clone it in additional good locations until you’re making a good enough living, the risk may be low enough, especially if your success being employed by others isn’t very assured.
Reader: Your book argues that a person can live on $30,000 a year and be happier than a millionaire. That seems ridiculous.
MN: Many rich people have to work very long hours on soul-sucking jobs, so beating their happiness quotient isn’t so tough. Meanwhile, even in high-cost areas, you can live on $30,000 thereby being able to pursue more fulfilling work, perhaps as a creative, if you take the time to find low-cost housing. For example, many older wealthy people live alone in manses and are willing, even eager, to rent cheaply to a nice person their backyard cottage, basement or attic apartment, or even share the main house. To live, even as a single person, on $30,000, you’ll also need to drive a modest but economical car, substitute watching home movies, hiking, etc., for expensive outings, and eat healthy, which can be inexpensive — for example, fruits, veggies, whole wheat bread, chicken breasts, tuna, yogurt, etc. Even Wal-Mart greeters make $30,000 and get health care benefits after six months.
Reader: Your book says it's usually not worth negotiating for an extra $10,000. That's a lot of money.
MN: That $10,000 is taxed at your top-rate, so after subtracting federal, state, FICA, and other taxes, you’ll only keep half. And you may pay quite a price for that: heightened expectations for your performance, alienating co-workers if you’re now paid more than them, and some chance the offer will be pulled if the employer felt the previous offer was fair.
Reader: You defy nearly everyone by saying work-life balance is overrated. How can you say that?
MN: If you’re doing fungible work that someone else can do equally well, and you don’t like your work, work-life balance probably should be a priority. But many of the most contented people I know find working 40 to 60, even 70 hours a week to be more happily spent working than on the vaunted work-life balance.