I've finally identified the common theme running through the lives of my career-conflicted students and coaching clients:
They listen to the wrong people.
Who are these "wrong advice"-givers?
Anyone leading a life we don't want to lead ourselves.
Think about it: why would we listen to these people? Their "you should" and "I would" and "I did"'s are probably not going to lead to a life that's a good fit for us. They're going to lead to a life that's a good fit for them.
To be clear, these advice-givers are not providing "bad advice."
They're benevolently doling out "wrong advice" - advice that is not right for you. Taking "wrong advice" on board can prove detrimental to your psychological health and sense of motivation.
This post isn't about disrespecting people's choices. Nor is it about judging their lives. Whatever works for them, I always say (or doesn't work, yet they're willing to accept...).
It is about comparing the fit between an advice-giver's life and your values, preferred skills, and "flow" activities. If the fit is poor, why the heck are you listening to these people?
My Personal Foray Into Accepting the Wrong Advice
I spent years actively soliciting career advice from tenured and tenure-track professors when I knew I wasn't made to fit into a tenured career.
These professors were nice people, they had good lives (secure, financially rewarding, intellectually engaging), and I respected them as individuals. Why not take their advice on board?
Because it nearly was my undoing.
When I continually accepted the well-meaning advice of people living a life that didn't fit me, I ended up feeling like the oddball.
I constantly had thoughts like:
What the heck is wrong with me?
I should just buck up and find a way to make this path work.
If this life worked for them yet I'm feeling unfulfilled by it, I must be a real failure.
If they're happy in this path and I'm not, I must be doomed to never be happy.
Why "Wrong Advice" Happens
As I mentioned, "wrong advice"-givers are not malicious, by and large. Not by a long shot.
Instead, they give into human frailty. They're insecure about their life choices, so they want others to follow their paths to confirm that their lifestyle is "worthwhile."
I can see your "but" coming: yes, some advice-givers are able to drag themselves out of the way and truly hear you and your needs and your desires.
Don't kid yourself, though: these people are rare.
I know we want to believe this of people. We want to think people are giving advice and guidance that's in our best interest.
The problem is that what people think is in your best interest often doesn't include a whole lot of "you" in the equation. It's based on personal, biased experience; on what they read or presume (sometimes falsely) about the job outlook for certain fields; on bitter retributions against wrongs that plagued their lives.
Where the heck are you in any of this?
How to Deal With "Wrong Advice"
- Set up a mental sieve. Before accepting the advice, opinions or judgment of anyone - ANYone - take a look at where they're coming from. If they're using "you"-centered language (e.g., "you seem to...", "I'm hearing you say..." or "it sounds like you..."), you're good. If they're leading a life you'd love to lead and are using "I"-centered language, you're good. Any other situation? It should get stuck in your "wrong advice" sieve and never be allowed to approach your logical and emotional cores. Note: I'm not suggesting you be confrontational and not listen to the advice. You can listen attentively, say, "I appreciate you taking the time to tell me your thoughts," and then go and live your life with the "wrong advice" firmly snared in the sieve...not your heart.
- Find people who are living a life that would fit you well. As we just mentioned, it's fine to hear the "I"-centered advice of people who are living a path you desire. Actually, it's beyond fine - it can be invaluable. Hearing about their mistakes and successes on the way to their current state can help you streamline your journey. While you'll still need to make your own choices, their words can prove to be highly motivating, and can support you when you make "unpopular" decisions. (Note: this step presumes you've identified your values, preferred skills, and flow activities in advance.)
- If you can't find physical people, create a virtual support group. I've had many coaching clients who don't know anyone living the sort of life they desire. In that case, create a virtual support group. This might take the form of a community of bloggers and/or forum members online, but more often it is created through videotaped interviews, quotations and writings by well-known people whose lives they admire. Surround yourself with these people's words and you'll naturally start to emulate their choices.
- Don't actively solicit the advice of "wrong advice-givers." This is perhaps the most important step of all - and the one I violated repeatedly throughout my twenties. If you go to people whose careers you don't want and ask them, "So what would you do in my situation?" what do you think you're going to get? The wrong advice! Worse yet, you are ASKING for it. You're asking to feel more conflicted, anxious and depressed. Stop rubbing salt in your wounds. You're not a fit to live their life. That's OK. Actually, that's great. Celebrate your authentic spirit and then go and find the right advice. Trust me, it's out there.
Have you ever taken "wrong advice"? What are your strategies for dealing with it?
Photo Credit: ModernDope