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.

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  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I came across one of Albert Einstein’s quotes today –
    "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

    So what comes to mind is line item #2 –
    You ask me a question when five people have given you an answer you don't like.

    I know it’s not exactly the same thing but close enough for me.

  2. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Jen, I’m curious as to why you believe Penelope is “putting others down”.

    I don’t think this is ego, or tearing others apart in glee. I think she’s being honest and constructive in her criticism.

    We can’t always give everyone a pat on the head, and have the “everyone’s a winner” parade. Maybe in 7th grade, but not in the workforce. I know people who personify #1, 2, and 3. They could use this constructive criticism to help them out.

  3. Dorothy
    Dorothy says:

    Penelope,

    I think you hit the nail on the head! I totally agree that if someone has a problem or questions they should solve it or seek answers themselves. Unfortunately, some have a harder time asking for help!

  4. Swaroop
    Swaroop says:

    “Brevity is the soul of wit”.
    Of course you are not required to be witty when u are seeking career counseling.

    But still, not many seem to give that saying a serious thought. It’s vital that people respect others’ time.

    Why else did the business world invent the executive summary?

  5. deepali
    deepali says:

    Excellent. Can we also say that this applies to regular life too? As a corollary to #2, I hate the people who ask you a question, you give then an answer, and they question it (and not in a constructive way). Well why did you ask me then?!

  6. Swaroop
    Swaroop says:

    They must want you to supply all answers around the question as well. Maybe they need to answer some one else and they need the solution!

  7. Marvin
    Marvin says:

    Penelope,

    So try this: If you’re writing your blog 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.

    Then do us all a favour and don’t click post.

    (Uh oh! Two paragraphs! AAHHHH!!!!!)

  8. Ellen Hart
    Ellen Hart says:

    I agree with the poster above that more people should visit a class in technical writing. There is a difference between a personal e-mail and a professional one, and the latter should be short and sweet.

  9. Charles
    Charles says:

    OH if only those were the only bad career scenarios I got in the average day. Every day I encounter the same individuals: people wanting advice for others (such as a wife), those phishing for predetermined answers to career questions (and trying to bargain with you for that answer) and those who are so far off the mark that they need about a half an hour of coaxing before a real career question presents itself.

    Some of the more common ones I receive:

    1. Asking flat out “What should I do with my life?” and refusing to supply answers to basic interests questions such as “What things do you enjoy doing?”, “Are you more social or introverted?” and “If you could have any dream job real or unreal…”

    One woman refused to answer all questions and demanded I tell her what field to go into. I thought in my mind, “prison cook” but instead told her I could not help her until she would be able to let me know more about her interests.

    2. The loaded quick-fix question: this is disguised as a career question but really is a “I want to make a lot of money with no effort” statement.” You recognize these individuals as they will call/emial/visit about a field such as medicine and while discussing all the requirements medical schools are looking for in candidates the conversation abruptly switches to MBA, or JD or other professional high-profile degree. The conversation becomes really fustrating as these individuals begin to try to bargain to be exempt from entrance requirements.

    3. Parents dictating their choice for their children’s careers to me and demand I make a)it happen and b)motivate their child to do it in record time.

    Then there are the midlife crisis individuals…. but that is for another day.
    Cheers!

  10. Charles
    Charles says:

    Oops, somehow my edits didn’t take: Here is the less rambly version.

    Ohhh if only those were the only bad career scenarios I got in the average day. Every day I encounter the same individuals: people wanting advice for others (such as a wife), those phishing for predetermined answers to career questions (and trying to bargain with you for that answer) and those who are so far off the mark that they need about a half an hour of coaxing before a real career question presents itself.

    Some of the more common ones I receive:

    1. Asking flat out “What should I do with my life?” and refusing to supply answers to basic interests follow-up questions such as “Well what kind of things do you enjoy doing?”, “Are you more a social butterfly or enjoy working alone with complete concentration?”, “If you could have any dream job real or unreal?”, etc. If you can't tell me what you interests are or (less directly) you hobbies/what you read in your spare time, we probably aren't going to get very far.

    One woman refused to answer all questions put forth and demanded I tell her with absolute certainty what field to go into. I thought to myself, “prison food line service” but instead informed her I could not help until she was more forthcoming.

    2. The loaded quick-fix inquiry: this is disguised as a career field question but really is a “I want to make a lot of money with no effort” statement.” These individuals can be recognized after short conversations about high profile fields (such as medicine). Early on in conversations these individuals discover that just getting accepted to medical school can take years of study and volunteering in clinical settings. (Read: effort) As the prospect for quick gains diminishes, the conversation abruptly switches (and I do mean abruptly) to another high profile career track such as MBA or JD. At this point I usually discourage them from any career pursuits before they've taken the time to do some introspection (which is immediately ignored as they begin to ask me about the next high-profile field such as forensics or computer programming).

    Also, if you want a high paid career with little or no formal preparation there is only one I know of: Sales.

    And my personal "favorite":

    3. Parents dictating their choice for their children’s careers to me and demand I make a) it happen and b) motivate their child to do it in record time. Parents are the worst career counselors — especially the ones who are telling me what field their children should go into at the age of twelve.

    Then there are the midlife crisis individuals – . but that is for another day.
    Cheers!

  11. Dale
    Dale says:

    Penny,

    Why were you so ticked when you wrote this post? These silly habits all stem from someone being insecure, lacking in self confidence and in need of reassurance.
    This tongue lashing is you being annoyed at someone you do not understand because their failing is probably your strength (decisiveness). We are all different, and sometimes it is better to state the obvious, gently than to unleash hell:)

    My 2cents worth.

  12. Lee
    Lee says:

    your #2 on this list- “You ask me a question when five people have given you an answer you don't like.”- seems to go against your BRAZEN tag. I think of you as giving the odd advice and advice that may be based on criteria others may overlook and, to me, a lot of the time that’s what makes your suggestions interesting.

  13. Lucas
    Lucas says:

    sorry..I guess my one concern is this scenario.

    I work in a related but not identical industry to my wife. My wife has questions about her career. I know people through my industry that my wife does not have access to. I ask a question on her behalf to help my Loved one. Does that make it wrong? I Don’t get it..its seems like you’re suggesting we force our partners to ask deeply personal questions to people they don’t know. Why not let a loved one help out? I gladly answer advice to people all the time that i know was asked to help out a loved one.

    Either find the time to help, or stop taking questions from the public!

  14. dustin
    dustin says:

    I can very well imagine people asking question about their wife, there is no need to take it in a negetive way.

    even after getting same answer at other places people ask you the asme question, as they think you may be better.

    They write you paragraphs may be their inspiration is some of your long rambling post.

  15. dustin
    dustin says:

    I can very well imagine people asking question about their wife, there is no need to take it in a negetive way.

    even after getting same answer at other places people ask you the same question, as they think you may be better.

    They write you paragraphs may be their inspiration is some of your long rambling post.

  16. Cary
    Cary says:

    As a graduate coordinator for a very popular program I’ve come across every one of these approaches. Believe me when I say that none of them is likely to elicit a good response.

    Sending me a email on behalf of your beloved son/daughter – doesn’t impress me as I’m now convinced your child is a idiot who can’t even send me a email.

    Asking me if the department will assign a supervisor after 7 supervisors have turned you down – nope not going to happen. Your just going to have to face the fact that your not been accepted into the graduate school.

    By the time I’ve gotten to the end of your 5th paragraph I’ve totally lost interest, can’t tell what your actually asking and any supervisors you try this with is going to hit the delete button without getting to the last paragraph.

    Cold but true.

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    five mistakes says:

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