Don’t be a snob about career advice


I have found that the best way to manage myself is by asking for a lot of help. The question is, how do you know who to take advice from?

The answer is not always intuitive. For example, you’d think that if Bill Gates wants to give you career advice, you should take it, right? I mean, the guy's had a pretty decent career. The problem is that if he doesn't care about your career, he's going to give you generic advice.

Here are five other counter-intuitive principles I have used to figure out who to listen to when it comes to my own career:

Listen to people who hate you. People ask me all the time how I put up with the level of criticism this blog draws. The interesting thing about taking advice from people who don’t like me is that sometimes, they’ll say things that other people wouldn’t say because it would hurt me. I rely on my gut in terms of whose criticism comes from caring and understanding and whose criticism comes from an obsessive need to take me down, but after I figure that out, I still pay attention to my critics.

Stop thinking your issues are especially difficult. The most important piece of self-knowledge is that our problems are not unique. If you had problems no one else has, then no one will understand you enough to help you. But the truth is that it's pretty easy to see what someone else should be doing if you have distance from a problem. So don't be a snob about who to take advice from. You don't need a “career expert.” You don't have the world's most sophisticated problems. If you are articulate about framing your problem, most of your friends can give articulate, useful guidance for solving the problem.

Less experience often means better advice. When it comes to finding a mentor, the most effective mentors are 3-5 years ahead of you in the workplace. Those are the people who have the best memory of what it was like to be where you are. In today’s workplace this is especially true. The rules are changing so quickly, that many times someone who has a lot more experience than you do will also be out of touch with what the workplace is like today. I find that this is a big problem when people rely on their parents for advice.

Be wary of people whose lives look perfect. Happiness researchers have known for a long time that if you ask people directly if they are happy in their career, most of the time they'll lie. This makes sense becuase if someone has invested tons of time in getting to where they are, it's a really tough thing to say they're unhappy; then they'd have to take action to change. So you're often better off just watching people. Many people hide their lives — they want you to think things are going perfectly, and they're always making great decisions, so they don't tell you the parts that are a mess. But sometimes, you come across people who are willing to show you the messy parts, and you can learn the most from these people. This is why I like reading about celebrities. They can't hide as much as non-celebrities, so I can learn more about what works and what doesn't.

Stick with people who give you bad advice. If you’re getting advice from someone who has never steered you wrong, then you’re not asking this person enough questions. After a while, someone who has given you a lot of advice will falter. Because no one is perfect, and no one can do as well at running your life as you can. So if you find someone who is giving good advice, push harder, until you get to their limit. Everyone gives bad advice sometimes, even me.

In some respects, bad advice might be better than good advice. Because what you really want is advice that makes you think in new ways about possibilities for yourself. So when it comes to taking advice, you still have to have your inner compass. You can't blame anyone else for where you end up. But, in a way, that's good news. Because if you are responsible for where you are, if you don't like it, you can get yourself to a new spot. This means that you should gather lots of advice, but be aware that sometimes, you need to ignore it. After all, what is the fun of life if we can't make our own mistakes?

46 replies
  1. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    What a wonderfully insightful post. I love counter-intuitive advice that turns out to be better than the prevailing wisdom. I especially liked this line: “Because what you really want is advice that makes you think in new ways about possibilities for yourself.”

    You might find my post about giving feedback complementary to yours and interesting:

    Because what you really want is advice that makes you think in new ways about possibilities for yourself.

  2. JR
    JR says:

    From what I heard about Bill Gates while he was Microsoft’s CEO, the closest thing he offered to career advice was to say yours was “the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

    Maybe he’s mellowed a bit.

  3. Ideas With A Kick
    Ideas With A Kick says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Solid advice. The one that “Less experience often means better advice” if find to be particularly important. I know a lot of people who have only trust o take advice from people which are way beyond their current status. I guess it’s an ego thing. But counter-intuitively, those people do not offer the best advice, as they are too disconnected from your experience.


  4. Beth
    Beth says:

    Thanks for this post – it is definitely something I have needed more help with. I do tend to ask the wrong people for advice, and I think that that is changing with Brazen and other methods for engaging in conversation.

    I am especially in favor of what you said about it being a problem asking parents for advice – eek. Every time I walk down that path a few feet, I regret it. I was wondering if there were any ways you knew of online to find a mentor.

    Obviously the best way is to find one at your current position but I don’t really have that situation here – and I really think I could benefit from one.
    Great post!

  5. Van
    Van says:

    I like the last point. Sometimes advice you think is “bad advice” is the best advice. For example, some say you should only apply to jobs you’re a perfect fit for, or jobs you went to college for. Rubbish. The best opportunities will likely be outside of your comfort zone.

  6. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now
    Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says:

    It’s so freaking hard to take criticism. I had a boss who would do nothing, but tear me down. He didn’t like my work ethic, my reports, my ideas, but he was just trying to get me to dig deeper. He never fired me because he knew I cared. I wanted to get better.

    The best lesson I learned from him was that I needed to triple check my work. I am prone to doing a lot of work, but not very detailed. I learned that to really “wow” someone there has to be a level of detail that they wouldn’t have reached for.

  7. Charles Gupton
    Charles Gupton says:


    Yet again, sage counsel. Most of the folks I know who seek advice keep asking around until they find someone who tells them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Then they complain that they get bad advice!

    Some of the best advice I’ve ever received was from people who didn’t like me or were mad about something. They gave me great counsel while trying to say something hurtful. Although the words may sting, the advice was great. They did me far more good then they ever intended, all I had to do was listen and apply it. Not easy, but very worthwhile.

    I’m still learning that learning to listen is a worthwhile skill to acquire.

    Charles Gupton

  8. Matt Secor
    Matt Secor says:

    You say: “In some respects, bad advice might be better than good advice. Because what you really want is advice that makes you think in new ways about possibilities for yourself.”

    I liked all these principles for gathering career advice, but thought an example for your last point would have helped a lot. Maybe a post about how to make bad career advice helpful would be a good idea for the future.

  9. Mike CJ
    Mike CJ says:

    You’re absolutely right about the ideal mentor being someone 3-5 years ahead of you. And I benefited both professionally and personally when someone in that position mentored me many years ago.

    But I was lucky, for some reason he “found” me.

    I think a post on how to create and then nurture that kind of relationship would be a real winner.

    • Genevieve
      Genevieve says:

      I agree. Young people, including myself, could really use some more insight on how to find the right mentor. College professors and parents aren’t always the best people to ask for job advice. Been there, done that. The best mentor is definitely someone who is a few steps ahead of you (not a thousand) and remembers exactly what it was like to be in your shoes!

  10. William Bruce
    William Bruce says:

    Comments regarding each piece of advice…

    1. I think that the stronger point regarding this issue is that one needs to consult a plurality of sources (and therefore, a plurality of perspectives). This is asserted boldly in the discussion of the fifth point, and rightly so. Each perspective comes with its distortions: Those close to you (who care) may share your farsightedness, and often have their own ideas about what is “good” for you; those who detest you must struggle with their desire to see you undone; and those with nothing at stake have no incentive to produce pointed advice and criticism (like Bill Gates).

    2. I think that your second point carries a certain dangerous implication, namely, that values and purposes are not highly subjective. Ultimately, it is the sort of advice undercut by assertions about personal values, personal decisions, and personal responsibility. I really do not see how one can have it both ways. However, incitements to humility are quite admirable, especially where one’s self-styled “problems” are at issue. That alone makes this point worth reading.

    3. I would only add that, contrary to what is often stated, experience is an intrinsically hazardous thing when advice is the game. Experiences entail biases, and beget biases. Biases may not always be harmful (or even unhelpful), but they still represent unsound thinking. It cannot be demonstrated that experience is a simple improvement of understanding, or that experience involves a unilateral improvement of understanding.

    4. This seems intuitively true, as people are always and everywhere imperfect. The image of a perfect life is a façade, or even worse, an icon set up for worship. The above invocation of celebrity stories tells that tale, and tells it well: worship and iconoclasm.

    5. The rather pessimistic angle to this, which you may have tacitly hinted at, is that both good and bad advice come at serious costs. Good advice, particularly that given over a long period of time, lulls one into a sense of reliance and dependency on others — often on those who have rather unsettling agendas, who only want the “best” for us. On the other hand, few people would deny that, in the short run, good advice is to be preferred the majority of the time. Bad advice is, by way of analytical truth, bad. Typically this matter is far more straightforward, but the issues of personal values, personal accountability, and general ethics (not to mention knowledge problems!) make the subject far richer and more complicated. Mind you, that all assumes individual autonomy *is* a proper part of our worldview, but I think that is a fair assumption to make.

    All in all, these points are fine pieces of advice to tease through, provided one is aware of the issues pertaining to self-referential (in)consistency. Penelope certainly is — that rascally ironist, she!

  11. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    When I first started out in my previous career there were two ideas on how to approach problems with clients. The “experts” were training people to, “hammer the clients hard to show them who is in charge and then taper off once you have their respect”. The other approach was to meet the clients on their level and create a culture of mutual respect. Guess which training lesson taught me the most? The first one of course. It showed me exactly how not to deal with clients especially since my job was about helping them. The harder they were hammered the more resistive they were to cooperation and change. And while the second approach brought the most rewards the two sides were in constant conflict and they clients learned to play us off of each other. It became a game of, “ask mom and then go ask dad” and I finally had to get out of there. It was during the times I was getting chewed out for being too soft that I learned the most about myself. I’m not saying I was given information in a respectful manner but I learned to ignore the strong emotions to find the nugget of wisdom I needed. All of this “hard mentoring” will serve me well in my next career and I have more faith in my ability to serve my clients better.

  12. hands free breast pump
    hands free breast pump says:

    This are great ideas on how to get a career advice. Getting some criticism tends to give up or lose some of self-confidence on choosing your career but accepting those bad criticism if you analyze it gives you a better insight on your career path in life. Be more open to any possibility for a change on your career where you can excel your capability and capacity.

    Great post on a career advice!

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Advice is helpful from another person’s perspective especially when they’re able to assess the problem from a distance. Along with the ideas, even a few choice words can be enough to get you thinking along a path to a solution. Advice that I have found to be really helpful includes not just the advice itself but the reasoning and thought processes that were used to get to the advice. In other words, the advice usually most helpful is already known to us. If you’re lucky enough to have someone else listening and asking the right questions, you’ll be able to discover that advice already known to you and which will work best for you .

  14. Scott Magdalein
    Scott Magdalein says:

    I used to be “unafraid” to ask for advice. After a little while, someone told me that I seem incompetent when I ask for so much advice. Have you or someone you know ever asked for too much advice?

  15. Radhika
    Radhika says:

    Just a note to say that it was sound advice :) .. Although very simple its not so easy to keep these in mind when faced with criticism especially from those you dislike!

  16. ill-hedge
    ill-hedge says:

    this is counterintuition gone WAY too far- everyone should know that the only decisions that matter are those whose benefits outweigh its costs. These kinds of decisions are the best because they create a way to value things on different scales, and make up their mind to see what is the best choice. Humans do make mistakes, but we think they are mostly rational. In a normal distribution of the population of humans, 99.5% of the population, or three standard deviations away, is rational, and then the rest are irrational. That means there are as many irrationals as there are extremely rich from finance, top of their kind in their career, getting stung by bees to death, and winning the lottery. Interesting comparisons huh?

  17. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    a really insightful contribution that could benefit many in their daily life, if they see something and not run against the stubborn wall

  18. Isao
    Isao says:

    “When it comes to finding a mentor, the most effective mentors are 3-5 years ahead of you in the workplace.”
    The best advice I got today: gaining objectivity with still-fresh memory. Thank you!

    I also think the point of asking advice is to gain an entry point into disassembling the tangled thoughts on our career or life: we do our own explorations, but it is good to have someone showing us the easy way to go in.

  19. RM - InBoundMarketingPR
    RM - InBoundMarketingPR says:

    Excellent point that really make you think and that is the point! I love all the angles you look at Penelope, it inspires us to explore different angles as well. We are a new PR company and taking critism from your worst critic is something we will be encountering on a daily basis!

    Excellent post!

    RM – InBoundMarkeingPR

  20. Bronxilla da Bronx
    Bronxilla da Bronx says:

    The only piece I disagree with is the celebrities bit. Which celebrities? Lindsey Lohan? Russell Crowe? I think a more fruitful avenue may be reading biographies of people whom you admire, not necessarily people who have been successful. You may learn not only from their character traits, but also from their strategies and techniques, both where these approaches worked and where they didn’t.

  21. oasis
    oasis says:

    One of the unfortunate things about human nature is the propensity to wish upon others all the hardships that one has been through, and to begrudge those who try to get by without paying their dues, as it were. “Why should they have it easy when I learned the hard way?” Thus the downside of advice from someone relatively close in status is to be seen as a potential rival, or as an upstart.

  22. Diana
    Diana says:

    Fortunately, your advice runs counter to everything I “learned” in the workplace. I learned never to ask for advice… unless you’re stoking some big guy or gal’s ego. Asking for advice is weak. Come to the table with answers, not questions. What a crock that was.

    I intuitively knew this was wrong, and eventually I had to leave – after 18 years.

    The problem is that it sticks with you, that self-made (wo)man image. I don’t believe anyone is self-made. People learn from others, but I think oasis is right. Many people won’t help because they don’t want competition, or they resent giving help if they didn’t get enough.

  23. rebecca
    rebecca says:

    Good solid advice. Here is my favorite, very true comment, “The rules are changing so quickly, that many times someone who has a lot more experience than you do will also be out of touch with what the workplace is like today.” This is so true. I have found at this point in my life, most bosses are about 7-10 year’s older then me, I am a Director in large corporate environment. If they have been a VP or SVP for over 6 years they tend to be out of touch with real life. Better bosses are closer to my age — but I never really thought about why.

  24. Alicia Caswell
    Alicia Caswell says:

    As a career transformation coach, I work with individuals who are wanting to create change in their worklife. So, like the examples you gave, and so many others have posted about, we naturally seek advice from one another or the internet or whatever other source we think might come up with a gem. We want the answers. But there is no one more influential in our life than we are, which means, for all the advice we get, we still make the decisions that we think are the best for us. So, I just wanted to add one more consideration into the mix: self-inquiry.

    As you shared, Penelope – it is about asking good questions. Ask others AND ask yourself good questions. Better yet, hire a good coach because that is one of the huge benefits that good coaching offers – someone to ask you questions that bring you deeper into the wisdom you already have about what is right for you. You put that together with all the advice you gather and you have a formula for career success!

    Penelope> Glad you found a purpose to keep blogging. I love your blog or, as a friend of mine says, “I’m pickin’ up what you’re puttin’ down.”

  25. glr
    glr says:

    Not sure about “stick with people who give bad advice”. Of course, no one will be correct 100% of the time when giving career advice. But I’d rather spend my time listening to someone who is right 85% of the time than 15%.

    There are people out there who have gained not just knowledge, but wisdom through their life and career experience. If you can get advice or mentoring from someone like that, and have the unusual good sense to listen to it while you’re young, you’ll have a much better chance at success in your career.

  26. Atniz
    Atniz says:

    I understand that your strong point here is to listen to our haters. But, I am not entirely going to listen to those who hates me. This is a dog eat dog world and blatantly listening to advice might just be a bad step for us. Sometimes, listening to what our haters write could just demotivate us and drive us to give up hole. So, I would rather listen to myself than listen to anyone when it comes to career selection.

  27. VinC
    VinC says:

    Thanks for the sharing, though “Listen to people who hates you” is something I hate most, but I do really understand when they “hate” me, they must have a reason behind it, and understanding that reason will help me have a better character (which of course, will help my career). But sometimes it’s just really hard to do that..

    But thank you for the encouragement and advices.

  28. professional resume writer
    professional resume writer says:

    Penelope, the advice you are giving is incredible:) I especially like the part where you wrote about people lying and not relying on your parents advice. Unfortunately when being young and naive I did it all the time, and the second I stopped listening to their ancient way of reasoning I started moving up my career and educational ladder, started prioritizing in a way that makes me happy thus successful.

  29. Valador
    Valador says:

    I got the above advice forum with me here, it is better to get a community where you can get solutions, answers to your questions there instead of doing timeless surveys.

  30. Carrie
    Carrie says:

    Such an insightful post! I especially like your suggestion, “Listen to people who hate you.” It’s hard to do, but these are often the people that will teach you the most about yourself…especially in your own reactions to them!

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