I’d like to tell you that there are no bad questions. But you know what? That’s not true. So here are the ways people ask me questions that drive me nuts:
1. You ask me a career question for your wife.
The first problem with you walking around in the world telling people you need help for your wife/girlfriend is why can she not ask for herself? I can only imagine that she does not see her problem the same way you do. And in that case you should butt out. Or, maybe she does not want to ask for help. And in that case you should butt out, too, because who are you to tell her she needs help when she doesn’t want it and then go get it for her anyway?
Newsflash: The guy who asks career advice for his wife sounds way more needy and off-track than his wife does. Because the guy is being so disrespectful in such a public way and he doesn’t even know it.
And hey, mister, how would you like it if your wife walked around telling people that you need career advice but won’t get it yourself, so she’s getting it for you?
2. You ask me a question when five people have given you an answer you don’t like.
I have some bad news for you. Five people who agree on anything are probably right. Especially since it’s likely that after three people gave you answers you didn’t like, you probably started asking people who are maybe a little bit crazy so maybe they’d give you a different answer. And they still didn’t.
So look, consider taking the advice when a small community accidentally comes together as synchronized advisors. You are lucky. These people all took the time to hear your problem and give you a thoughtful answer. Don’t spurn them if you can help it — they will not want to give you an answer again.
Cheat sheet: If you are thinking that your problem is very unique and difficult, or that people everywhere do not understand you, then the problem is you. Because you don’t want to face the reality that you are not special (none of us is, really) and the people around you are not idiots. (And if they are, who is the original idiot that aggregated the idiots?)
3. You ask me a question that requires more than two paragraphs.
Sometimes I get emails that are more than two pages long, attempting to explain a problem. I’m going to tell you something: All career problems can be described in under 100 words. If you are going over 100 words, you don’t know your problem. If you are going over 1000 words, it’s because your self-knowledge is really bad, so that is your problem.
Think about it. If your problem is that you don’t know a good way to answer the phone when it rings, that is a very concise problem. If everyone in the office hates you and you can’t figure out why (maybe you can’t narrow it down to the phone) then that is still a concise problem.
If you have to explain to me all the characters of your office and why they suck and I have to infer that everyone hates you and that’s your problem, then your problem is self-awareness. You lack it.
So try this: If you are writing your problem and you’re on the fifth paragraph, try to edit. Try to get it to one paragraph. And then try to get it to one sentence. That’s a good exercise in figuring out your own problems.
Being smart about your career is not so much about having good answers. It’s having good questions. You don’t need to have answers to everything. But you need to work hard at making your questions useful, for both you and your advisors.