Why Common Careers Advice Sucks

When we’re given careers advice, it normally falls into 1 of 4 different categories:

The reason being is that most people are tunnel-visioned into hearing conventional wisdom and spreading it into what becomes conventional thinking. Most people don't question the careers advice they receive and here's a breakdown of why you should.

The Bad Careers Advice Matrix

Find your passion

You’ve probably heard from friends, family or a TED Talk to “find your passion” and “do what makes you happy”. I’m here to tell you that this statement is a load of bullshit.

A recent study by Stanford University highlighted that the advice “find your passion” implies that our passions are fixed, rather than fluid and evolving as we gain greater life experience.

While there may be rare examples where people like Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey have persisted with a childhood dream and succeeded, for the vast majority of people, passion isn’t something we realise as we exit the womb.

Hence, telling people to “find your passion” and follow some mystical inner voice that just doesn’t exist can leave them feeling unnecessarily inadequate.

As well as that, the problem with creating a career out of a passion can turn your passions into a chore. Paul Archer, founder of Duel, figured it out the hard way: Passionate for travel, he trotted the globe in a cab, wrote a book about it, got sponsors - and all that made it less enjoyable as a career path. Now he says “I can still fulfil my passion and travel to far-flung parts of the world and do it for myself, not for anybody else. I don’t have to film it. I don’t have to update my social media to ensure I have enough clicks and likes.”

Through turning our hobbies into careers we may end up realising that monetising those hobbies aren’t as enjoyable as previously thought. And this cynicism can be as bad or even worse than working on something you don’t care about because it spoils something that once gave you joy.

Go to university and find a stable career pathway

Another common thread of advice is to enter university and study in hopes of a stable career. This embodies well-respected and high paying, knowledge-based professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, software developers or “business people”.

In itself, this isn't totally bad advice and the people prescribing it have good intentions for you to own more stability in the future. Unfortunately, it leads to less career exploration and assumes that once you enter these career professions – you’ll enjoy the work that you do.

The issue with entering these tracked pathways is that you explore the least when you’re younger. So if after many years of studying you find out you hate your job, it’s much harder to transition to other fields of work.

Risk-averse parents and educators will often push young people down such conventional paths. By putting in the diligence to get high grades, enrol in extracurriculars and enter a prestigious course in a prestigious university, bright young people are funnelled into complacent careers at large corporations where the only visible path forward is up the ladder.

And with all things considered, this approach to work doesn’t take into account the image of the future. In 20 years, society will likewise undergo indescribable innovation. And while research states that less than 5% of occupations can be automated in their entirety, in the majority of jobs, at least 30% of activities are automated by adapting current technology. Imagine the amount of work that could be automated in 20 years.

It’s certain that by then, the way our work is organised and the mix of jobs available in the economy will be drastically different. Planning for the stable careers suggested above, may not grant as much stability as falsely advertised by our friends and family. Nor might it grant us much fulfilment.

Do what you’re good at

Similar to “finding your passion”, the problem with this advice is that you might not already know what you’re good at. So receiving advice like this can ignite feelings of inferiority.

It also narrows our vision to the outcomes of our work rather than the difficult learning process. Creating something good and excelling at tasks can outweigh exploring different avenues and roles. This not only feeds into our ego, but it also drastically limits what we can do in the long-term.

Recently, I had a similar occurrence where after high school I believed the best route was to work in education or education startups. I told myself I was deeply passionate about issues of education. However, a mentor showed me Warren Buffet’s “Circle of Competence”. I was choosing that path because it presided inside my circle of competence.

I was blind to the fact that I had just exited a 13-year long education system, worked in tutoring companies, volunteered in non-profits serving high schoolers, and started an education startup.

There was no wonder I wanted to work on education – it was the only thing I had been exposed to.

By pursuing advice to do what you’re good at, you run into the risk of only pursuing what you’re good at and never expanding that circle.

Use a careers test

The idea you can fill out a standardised questionnaire and find the perfect match between your personality type and a career sounds promising, but there’s strong evidence that indicates this method is flawed. Most personality tests are inherently inaccurate as tools to determine how “extroverted” and “introverted” we are; which would suggest the same for determining whether we would be suited to a role as a social worker or a librarian.

Even in well-regarded psychology tests such as the Myers-Briggs personality test…

“According to respected US psychologist David Pittenger, there is ’no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation… nor is there any data to suggest that specific types are more satisfied within specific occupations than are other types’. Then why is the MBTI so popular? Its success, he argues, is primarily due to ’the beguiling nature of the horoscope-like summaries of personality and steady marketing.” (How to Find Fulfilling Work, Roman Krznaric)

Personality tests have their uses, even if they don’t reveal any “scientific truth” about us. If we’re confused they can offer emotional comfort and inform us of why a certain career might not be “the fit”. But it’s dangerous to rely on them as all-knowing crystal balls.

How should we think of our careers instead?

By and large, most people that prescribe these nuggets of advice are well-intentioned and mean well for you. But each has their pitfall. As it turns out, the more fulfilling and full-proof method for long-term success is the more explorative and scenic route.

If you would like to learn more about how we should think about our careers instead, check out my framework for deciding and creating a fulfilling career path here.

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