Just Starting Out? 4 Pieces of Career Advice You Should Ignore (and 1 You Shouldn’t)

A few years ago at Christmas, my husband and I were grilling his young cousin about her first year of college. The topic was potential majors and career tracks, something she was still thoroughly undecided on at the time.

Pretty soon the whole family was weighing in with advice. “You should be an accountant,” said one aunt, whose son is doing well for himself in that field. “You should get into business,” said an uncle. A slew of suggestions were thrown out for her, all of which were based around the idea that she should pick a career that would allow her to work hard and save up good money for retirement, after which she could enjoy her life.

Sensible advice, coming from the perspective of people who were all on the verge of well-earned retirement. But my husband and I, in the middle of our careers, were horrified at the advice to pick a lucrative career she might hate just so she could enjoy her life 40 years later!

Career advice is just that: advice. Take it or leave it. Career gurus, college professors, and family members will all have advice that worked for them, but won’t be pertinent to your situation. Even advice from colleagues in a similar field may be wrong for you – for example, networking tips that have been amazing for me work terribly for my husband, and vice versa.

While you should take all career advice with a grain of salt, here are four particularly deadly pieces that I’ve seen hang people up over and over.

1. “You need [X] qualification to succeed.”

If I’d followed my college professors’ advice about having a writing career, I’d have dropped thousands of dollars on an MFA – a degree that no one I currently write for would care about. In many cases, proving you can do the work is more important than having the qualification. If you’re on the fence, try to see if there are other, less traditional ways to get the experience you’re looking for, like volunteering, or taking online courses.

Ignore this one selectively, of course. If you want to be an electrician, you’re obviously going to need the right training.

2. “Sometimes you have to work for free.”

Unpaid internships and working for “exposure” are all too often a way for for-profit organizations to exploit young and hungry workers. If you’re trying to break into an industry but don’t have the experience, look for volunteer opportunities with worthy organizations and apprenticeships where you’re getting solid work experience, contacts, and references out of the deal. Don’t kid yourself that addressing envelopes all day long for a boss who can’t even remember your name is helping your career.

3. “Don’t risk everything on a career change!”

So you’re starting year two of your shiny new career … and you absolutely hate it. Common sense says not to throw all your hard work away on a career change, but if you know you’re not in the right place, it won’t get better if you force it.

It’s never too late to try something different – in fact, the sooner you figure out that a certain path is not for you, the more time you’ll have to spend on a job you love. You may not have to start over from scratch, either. Once you start looking you may find that pivoting slightly within your field – like from nursing to healthcare communications, as one of my friends is doing – will make all the difference.

4. “Never say no to an opportunity.”

Saying yes to everything that comes your way may position you as an eager go-getter and seem like a good idea at the time – and saying no can seem risky when you’re just starting out. But saying yes to every opportunity that comes across your plate is also one of the fastest ways to burn out.

One of the most important things you can do in your career is find the balance that works best for you, and learn how to maintain that.

So what’s the one piece of career advice I think you should take?

Besides telling you to trust your own instincts when it comes to your career, here’s my one piece of advice you should actually pay attention: If you’re working for a company that offers a matching retirement plan, take advantage of it.

I know I began by saying you shouldn’t pick a job solely so you can retire from it, but starting your savings early – even if it’s just a small amount – will allow Future You to breathe a bit easier. Plus, if your company offers matching funds, you’re leaving money on the table by not saving.

(Hear that, 20-year-old Jessie? *sigh*)

What’s the worst career advice you ever ignored? Tell us in the comments!

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