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The worst career advice in the world

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23 19

Today, some gut-wrenching stories about the worst career advice you’ve been hearing for the last 25 years.

It is truly amazing how bad most career advice is. The only comparable industry is “financial literacy,” which mindlessly repeats the same 5 tips over and over, is completely out of touch with how real people use their money, and genuinely believes that the world needs yet another compound-interest chart. Even the name “financial literacy” makes me want to urinate all over my computer.

So it was with great trepidation and reluctance that I began doing career research.

In true IWT style, we have an extraordinarily rigorous process for studying advice: We buy every course, product, and book. We study them intensely, keeping blind notes and comparing them. We build iterative models and frameworks, relentlessly test them, and in some cases rip them up and start again (in early 2011, we spent 4 months and tens of thousands of dollars on one approach because we’d missed something subtle — only to have to throw it all away). By the time you ever see a course from me, it has been quietly vetted by tens of thousands of people.

After all this research, what I found was seriously disheartening.

I found advice written by people who haven’t looked for a job in 30 years. (In fact, most career experts have never found a top-tier job.) If they haven’t interviewed with the world’s top companies, how do they know how the game is really played?

I found advice that tried to be “modern” — by slapping on words like “social media” onto the same old tired advice that’s been passed around for 50 years.

I found that career advice for women is almost unreadable. With phrases like “You go, girl” and approximately 68,000 references to shoes and “climbing the ladder,” I found myself wondering: Are women really this dumb? The answer is no. But the advice is.

So here are 5 of the most egregiously bad pieces of advice — THIS IS REAL CAREER ADVICE — that we found. Seriously, these are actual things that people wrote and were paid for.

Some of the worst career advice on the internet

I pulled these 5 pieces of hilariously bad career advice from our internal research vault.

Let’s start with…

1. The #1 thing you need for a job search is…

Yes! If you’ve been looking for your Dream Job, the first thing you need is NOT a strong network, or a process to identify your targets, or a way to narrow down the infinite universe of job options available to you. No, you don’t need to understand your psychological barriers, or the interviewing game, or how to master negotiation.

Nope! You need business cards.

2. This is what passes for “scripts” from other sites

Notice my favorite part: the last line.

Simple! Just expand! Hey…start a business. That’s right, just start it. Now, get some customers and you’ll be a millionaire!

3. Follow your passion!

It sounds logical to find your passion using self-examination. But has that worked for you? Just like “keep a budget” sounds logical for money — but doesn’t work — looking inward is only a small part of the puzzle. On its own, it doesn’t work. Of course, you would need to test it to realize this. Bonus: Notice the very American idea of looking inward, as if you can “think your way to clarity.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Here’s my view on passion:

This is me smiling
4. Don’t close any doors!

Notice that this idea of “keeping all of your options open” is so deeply entrenched that many people cannot fathom another way. But if you’re honest with yourself, you know that having too many options is crippling.

5. If you tweet it, they will come.


Why is this career advice so bad?

That seriously passes for career advice — in SOME OF THE LARGEST MEDIA SOURCES IN THE WORLD.

Are you kidding me?

Is anyone else outraged?

I’ll tell you why I’m mad.

I’m mad because this terrible advice is written NOT to help people, but to drive pageviews. If one of these writers helps literally zero people, it doesn’t matter — they still get paid. In fact, I am changing “Doesn’t matter, had sex” to “Doesn’t matter, got paid.”

God I love that song. Anyway, since these career “experts” are never held accountable, you get low-quality writers who come up with obvious ideas, then write the same article 1,500 times. GTFO, horrible advice-givers.

I’m mad because we’re fed platitudes for our entire adolescence (“Go to college! Get a good job! Buy a house!”) and provided no guidance on how the game is actually played. For example, who ever told you that buying a house is very often a horrible investment? Who told you that submitting your resume through the front door of a company (via its website) is a quick route to being considered a total commodity — like the hundreds of other applicants?

I’m mad because the career advice we get is unspecific at best, and blatantly wrong at worst. Telling people to get business cards? Please leave this industry and never come back. I have literally never, ever gotten any job because of my business card. In fact, I will bet anyone with a $1,000 set of business cards that I could out-perform you in any job interview.

(I’m going to teach you how to do EXACTLY that — including the words to use in an interview — on the Dream Job launch list.)

After we spent 4 months going down the wrong path of constructing our Dream Job material, we realized we had taken a wrong turn and we had to go back and do it all again. But that’s not what makes me mad. I’m mad because I realized 90%+ of the books we read had never tested their theories with real people.

When you read other personal-finance books and they start with, “Let’s figure out how much you’re spending,” do you know what the vast majority of readers do? They put the book away. Nobody wants to write down what they spend because it makes them feel guilty. Of course, you would only know this if you tested your material. The same is true here: Most career “experts” sat in their room, concocted some ideas that SOUNDED reasonable, and wrote a book. They never tested it. They never systematically identified the flaws in their plan. They just “put it out there.” And the results have been terrible.

That’s one of the reasons we get people like Beth:

“I am angry that I am working in a silly job after spending a lot of money on a master’s degree to get out of silly admin jobs. It makes me feel foolish, BROKE (student loans), and like I’m a waste of space. I’m not contributing the world in a way I consider positive.” — Beth H.

And I’m mad because most of YOU have never taken the time to learn this material. Yes, the media gives us bad advice, and so do our parents, but when was the last time YOU took a successful friend out to coffee to learn how s/he did it? When did you ask one of your top friends how they got their job, and asked them do a practice interview? When was the last time you systematically tried to figure out the job game?

It’s fun to blame everyone else, but you ultimately need to take responsibility for yourself. I want to kill you right now.

The result of this? We end up feeling betrayed by a system that promised us success, but never gave us the tools to find it. In a fascinating comment on Reddit, someone wrote about why men often seem bitter about not finding women (substitute jobs for women, yeah I said it):

“I think a lot of Reddit is young dudes that focused on school and homework and such and figured that if they just checked off the boxes their parents and teachers told them were important, everything would fall in their laps. Especially if you’re a smart kid, opportunities seem to come to you pretty much constantly and everyone tells you you’re great. So they do well in school, do all their homework, focus on studies, and eschew social occasions for being dumb/beneath them.

Then when the hot girl doesn’t fall all over them for having good grades or being an engineer or whatever, they get bitter because hey, man, I’m smart and I majored in a real major not that liberal arts crap and so on. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do! They feel entitled to have the girl of their dreams just because they’ve checked boxes and do the “But I’m a NICE GUY” thing and when that doesn’t happen, they get more and more angry and settle into the “Women are just crazy bitches!”

One of the code words of our generation is BETRAYED. We were promised so much, but the chasm between expectations and reality is vast.

(By the way, this isn’t just for people with low or middle incomes. I know people with 6-figure jobs who feel the same way.)

We graduated into a terrible economy, a world with more choices than ever before, and an entirely new life situation to navigate. Our parents’ advice (“Pick a good job and stick with it!”) worked for them, but today is simply irrelevant. Worst, there is nobody who’s been through it — someone we trust who understands how the system REALLY works — who can take us through it.

You’re not finding Mildred, the 62-year-old lady at your career services office, throwing her fist down on the table and saying, “LISTEN UP, ASS. HERE’S HOW YOU GET A BIDDING WAR STARTED BETWEEN FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE.”

It’s no surprise that we end up feeling betrayed. Take a look:

Seriously, whoever picks these screenshots needs to be hurt
And so an entire generation — our generation — has been raised with this low-level anxiety in our heads that we NEED to find our passion, but we don’t know how. Start a twitter page? Clean up our resume? Buy a new suit? WHAT? WHAT DO WE DO?

We’re repeatedly told to find what we’re passionate about…but how? We see our friends posting stuff on FB they’re doing — traveling, getting prestigious appointments, buying a new car — and we just don’t know how to craft our lifestyles to be about that. Some of us even have these things — a nice apartment, a new car — but we’re still not happy.

Over time, we naturally become more risk-averse.

#1: I am afraid to fail. Not so much out of fear of failure itself, but moreso the fear of wasting time and energy in doing so. While typing this, I realize this is more like a FEAR OF RISK: I feel like I should not put my efforts into something when I am not certain that the payout will be worth the time I put in.
–Eric M.

How many of us would do ANYTHING to find our Dream Job…but we’re not sure what to do? Notice how over time, we become more and more concerned with wasting our time. The phrase goes like this: “Yeah, I would try anything…but how do I know it will work? I don’t want to waste my time on something that won’t work.”

Sound familiar?

The ultimate irony

The ultimate irony is that there are top performers getting the BEST jobs in this terrible economy. And most of us don’t even know that it’s happening.

Most of us simply accept what we read in the mass media, which is produced for the LCD — lowest common denominator. I don’t give a damn about the LCD. I’m not writing this for people who are unemployed or have $10-an-hour jobs. They need an entirely different skillset. I created this material to impress my Stanford friends, because I know that you’d rather have material that brings you HIGHER rather than panders to the most basic needs (“Wear a clean shirt!”) ever. There’s enough of that worthless advice out there.

I’m focused on results. Like how one of my students got a dream job offer within weeks of starting my Dream Job program…even before he finished the 8-week program.

So, ignore the terrible advice that is designed for pageviews, not results. There is hope. There is a SYSTEMATIC way of finding your passion, turning that into clear steps to find your dream job, and interviewing against people with years more experience — and winning. I’ve done it, I’ve helped MANY people do it, and I want to show you how.


Leave a comment with the following:

  1. What is the most ridiculous piece of career advice you’ve ever heard? Be specific please.
  2. How has bad career advice kept you from achieving your goals? A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE PLEASE.
  3. When you graduated college, where did you think you’d be in 5 or 10 years? Where are you now? Please share a specific story about the difference between expectations and reality.

23 19

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  1. RE: Questions 1 and – The worst career advice I ever received wasn’t actually bad advice; it was poorly framed. “Have a fall-back plan, something practical, in case you aren’t successful in your writing/music/art/etc.” Nothing wrong with this advice, but it’s about failure, so people either ignore it completely and become broke artists, or they’re discouraged completely from even trying to do the thing they really, really care about doing. This advice could be reframed like this: “How will you make money to support yourself while you’re writing/composing/painting/whatever-ing?” Now it’s about enabling the lifestyle that matters to you.

    RE: Question 3 – This is a silly question, along the lines of ‘what’s your passion?’. No one knows where they want to be 5 years after graduation, and if they do, they’re wrong. First of all, no one has the knowledge of their industry to understand (that early) where the power positions are, where they’ll be able to leverage their abilities to get the things they care about. For that matter, no 22-year-old can predict what they’ll care about at age 27 or 32.

    • Another big flaw in the passion discourse: it presumes that passions line up directly with jobs and job descriptions. There are many artists making great money in areas like packaging physical products. It is not business majors who get these positions! Yet people will advice would-be artists not to major in art, and then tell skilled, accomplished artists that they need to go back and take business classes to get a job.

      And that’s not some new “creative class” era phenomenon. My father had a friend, probably almost 80 years old now, who worked as a pattern illustrator for the Singer company while establishing himself as a fine art painter. When he quit his job, Singer hired him back as a (much better paid) consultant based on his reputation as an artist.

    • I agree with your first answer. When people ask you to create a fall back plan, it automatically triggers you into thinking “Oh No! I’m not going to succeed”.

      Then you end up spending all your time working on Plan B while ignoring Plan A. And when you don’t get what you want, you end up settling for the back up plan, telling yourself, “I just knew this was going to happen”.

      Great point, thanks for sharing it.

    • agreed! one of my pro artist buddies told me once he was good at cashiering in case his art career didn’t work out. like, grocery store, minimum wage cashiering. there’s nothing wrong with that, but he’s an artist making 6 figures a year, why does he have a minimum wage “backup”??

      luckily my computer hobbies lined up with art in college, so now post-college I can pick up computer/graphic design work with light programming as well as art. i don’t love it like i love being an arteest, but it’s a backup gig that’s more satisfying (and higher-paying) than cashiering.
      a bit annoying though, i do make way more in computers than art, and jobs are much easier to get, but it’s not my main, ah, groove or whatever. if i gave up the art and went 100% computer i’d probably have a bit more spending cash, but for what? (my art professor answered “to buy a very nice gun to shoot yourself with”, har har).
      anyway, the passion video was an eye-opener. it’s a common trap for freelance artists realize there aren’t markets for every kind of art, and you have to compromise sometimes.

      but anyway, i guess in the end i’m glad i have my plan B. I’ve got two plan B jobs juggling while looking for more plan A, so I’m not filling out Starbucks applications yet and i can still work in my jammie jams.

      BTW, I loooove the videos. I know you don’t allow debtors into your paid courses, but I’m well on my way and saving up for them is on my list once the debt is gone. I’m already down to $8,500 from 19,800 a year or two ago. SOON!

  2. Barbara Saunders Link to this comment

    There is a special place in hell for those blogs that attempt to coach people on how to answer standard interview questions. If you’re stuck in one of those standard interviews, you’re already at a disadvantage. The only option at that moment is to flip the script entirely, not provide one of the groveling answers usually advised.

    Cocky and honest works better than people realize – provided you are actually a fit for the job.

    • To me, it seems likely that if the company is pulling that bullshit, they’ll be doing it over and over again during the course of your job. Fuck ’em from the get go. If a company asks how much you’ll work for and you know you wont get the interview if you go too high, just lie. Demand more once you know they want you, or walk on the job.

      In the capitalist system it is the onus of the workers to demand every penny they can get (and demand more often). Part of the reason wages are so low is because workers are so damn lazy/fearful and they’ll take what they can get. When you “just take what I can get” you’re hurting everyone else in your industry because you’ve lowered the bar for hiring wages. Refuse to work for peanuts and keep stomping on job offers until you find a good wage. If every person who interviewed for a walmart door greeting job refused offers below $15 an hour, walmart door greeters would probably be paid $15 an hour (their value is about the same as a security guard).

    • Your comment reminds me of a canned interview question I got when I was 22, and I how I totally blew it because I was trying to appease the interviewer, yet at the same time didn’t have much respect for him, but I needed a job. The question was canned, but not standard. I was asked, “What is your philosophy of life?”

      I was thinking, “Is this guy for real? I’m 22 years old. I’ve never thought about my life philosophy, and I don’t think I have one. All I know is I need a job so I can move out of my parent’s house.”

      Well, I tried to pull some answer out of my arse. I don’t even remember what I said, but I’m sure I screwed up the question. Friends told me I should have just said something about working hard and being rewarded.

      I told my boyfriend at the time that I really wanted to tell the guy, “I don’t have a life philosophy. I’m not philosophical, and I’m not sure how being philosophical will help me to do this job (at a financial firm). Can you explain why I need a life philosophy to do this job?”

      My boyfriend told me if I had actually said that, I might have gotten the job. But as much as I needed the money, I didn’t really want that job.

    • unfortunately this is true. i’m a freelancer that occasionally picks up PT jobs for extra cash, every time it’s like “wellllllll i don’t NEED the money but it would be NICE so this place better be good otherwise no way.” i’ve found myself interviewing the people as much as they interview me, mostly trying to get out of the damn thing without a job (ugh a job), but most of the time i get it anyway.
      so yeah, apparently acting cocky and like you barely want it if THEY even meet YOUR criteria works really great. word to the wise. go into interviews like you don’t even want it. (it helps to be qualified of course). my husband is currently interviewing and he’s polite but he’s definitely interviewing them more than they’re interviewing him. he’s got one large company who called him several times for an interview because he was ignoring them (too many other interviews).
      seriously, maybe there is something to this here…

  3. Yeah, you got me there at “keep your options open.” It’s crap advice.

    I’m a living testament to the non-efficacy of open options.

    Peter Drucker (if I recall correctly) said something to the effect of “I walk away from sunk costs.” That’s closing options which don’t work.

    • Keeping your options open is one of the crippling ideas of our generation. It is so pernicious and invisible that we often can’t even imagine there’s a different way. In our research, we found that it’s so deep, it’s almost a guiding principle for career decision-making in 20s and 30s. And not in a good way.

      Will cover this more later.

    • I feel like keeping your options open is really advice for a different problem. There are tons of people who are out of work because they never bothered to learn new skills and became obsolete. People see this and think to themselves so-and-so didn’t keep their options open, except that really so-and-so was just too lazy to learn new things and somehow didn’t notice their industry evaporating around them.

    • I think it’s more appropriate to keep the right doors open in the near future, and figuring a way to open the right doors when you need them by tapping into the strong network you have.

  4. I haven’t received particularly bad career advice. It was more staying at a job that wasn’t going anywhere. Staying at that job cost 5 years and the company went under.

    I didn’t go to college, but I am in a field where most people have Bachelors and Masters degrees. I never thought I would be where I am now 10 years ago. Now I know I want that Dream Job.

    BTW The personal branding strategy worked for me. I got my current job through it and it continues to get me interest. The problem is that I don’t have a dream job.

  5. Wow, Ramit, this is pretty much what I’ve been saying for years. Thank you for writing this. We have indeed been betrayed, and I’m glad the message is finally reaching beyond my dining room table at Thanksgiving.

    In response to the above questions:

    1. The most ridiculous career advice is the mindlessly obvious quips that maybe work for one in 1000 people. I’ve actually been told — in 2011 — to “print up some resumes and mail them to companies.” Seriously? Seriously. I’ve also been told to “ask around”, which is basically like saying “that sucks for you.”

    2. I wouldn’t say that I received bad advice, per se, but it’s the systems you describe above, such as Mildred the career counselor and the guy on Reddit who has spent 20-odd years ticking boxes. I think the biggest example of promises unfilled is when my parents, teachers, and everyone else said “you have a degree in engineering; that means you can do anything. People will hire you no problem.” The reality is that NO ONE GIVES A SHIT. Having done a Master’s, we rarely discuss my Bachelor’s in an interview, and very few people are going to view me as a leader solely because I did 5 years of Calculus and Thermodynamics (yes, it was a 5-year course). I don’t regret studying Mechanical Engineering, but that major has only so much currency after graduating.

    3. I was so stupidly naive in graduating and looking for work. When I left grad school, I thought I’d apply to A FEW jobs ads, and in no time a hot agency would snap me up. After all, I had lots of good attributes: engineering degree, post-grad degree, international experience, web design skills, speaks Spanish, etc. I thought by the time I turned 30 I would be living it up, running the show. The reality is that I’ve spend more than 6 years freelancing, job-seeking, being laid-off twice in one year, and eventually running my own business because the hiring environment is so harsh (acknowledging, of course, that little recession thing). I had no idea how hard interviewing was, how shady people are in their evaluating of candidates, how no one returns phone calls, how some job vacancies can get 700 applicants in a weekend, and how unscientific it all can seem at times. The sharpest contrast, though, is between the formulaic expectation of “if you do X (study hard/earn a degree), then Y (you can enter your chosen profession).” Maybe int he 1960s it was true, but we live in interesting times.

    These days, I’m not totally unhappy running my own practice, but I’d still prefer a full-time role. But like you, even if I got my dream job tomorrow, I’d still be mad for being lied to my entire life.

  6. Terrible advice I’m sorry I took: Just take the job and if you really don’t like it you can quit later. Staying unemployed until I found the job I really wanted would have been a better idea. I am so drained after work it’s very hard to focus on bettering my situation so instead I’m ‘getting through’ every week.

    When I graduated college I thought I would be able to continue to live at the poverty level and save all my salary in order to pay off a house and quit full-time work. That has definitely not happened. I also married well and we make a lot more than our parents but thanks to student loans, we don’t feel better off.

    • Plus you totally get “comfortable” when you get a job, making it harder to get what you want. One thing on the side of taking a job is that people seem to want to hire employed people more than unemployed. @Ramit, any stats/research on that last statement?

  7. 1. Go into accounting, because there are always jobs in accounting. Also, you could replace “accounting” with any job which sucks but is widely necessary…garbage collecting, fast food fry-serving, etc.

    2. I am an accountant who is unfulfilled with his life and feel like I’ve wasted years on education which I no longer have a desire to use when I could have pursued a field I was more interested in.*

    3. When I graduated college I definitely thought I’d be a millionaire within 5 years and a multi-millionaire within 10. Let’s just say I’ve got some work to do to make that happen within the next 12 months…

    * This realization some time back has led me to actively pursue other fields by contacting people in those fields, asking them what their job is like, and testing whether I like that job by assisting them for free. Needless to say I’m now much more excited for the future!

    • Speaking of advice I’m glad I didn’t take, one of my high school teachers told me I should go into accounting because I was so good in it. Of course, I was good because I knew math and could follow rules, not because I liked it, and I learned this by the end of the second year of the courses. Fortunately for me, I already had plans for engineering (in which many of the same traits help).

    • Hey cj, same exact thing and timing applies to me. Of course after I left business I took a rest stop at psychology before moving on to computer science.

    • i did that – the working for free thing – very, very successfully. i was a single mom, on welfare, my only skills working in fast food restaurants and no education to speak of. and the worst thing was that i had NO CONFIDENCE (born a girl into a family that only values boys). so i started investigating what i might want to do, but didn’t have the ability to believe that i could do anything, even though i knew i was smart. so i started working for different companies in my community, working basically as an assistant to the people who were doing the jobs i was interested in. i researched the people and company ahead of time and then went for it. i got enough confidence to apply to a very good college, got a grant to go, and used work study money to continue to explore careers and work that i would not otherwise have been able to do. best thing i ever did.

    • Fellow Accountant here. Which fields have seemed more interesting? What kind of assisting are you doing to find out what you like? Its an interesting strategy for sure!

  8. 1. “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.”

    2. I really DID hate working in retail and in admin jobs after undergrad, and it was definitely not an attitude problem. Had I not taken the above advice, I might have thrown my hands in the air sooner and starting working towards an actual long-term goal, rather than wasting time by trying to “accept” that I was not too good for any job.

  9. The single worst piece of career advice I ever received (and had to implement):

    In college, our career services department sat down the entire senior class in an auditorium to listen to a presentation about finding your dream career. We were given worksheets we HAD to fill out. They consisted of the following instructions:

    Draw three circles that all overlap in the middle (like a Venn diagram, I suppose). One is for your interests, one is for your skills, one is for (if I remember correctly) your goals. The intersection of these is your dream job.

    WTF?! Sesame Street taught me more about how to find a career. I walked out and never looked back.

    • Yeah, I’ve seen those Venn diagrams too. Often there are circles for ‘what you love to do,’ ‘what you’re great at’ and ‘what people will pay for.’ Problem is, EVEN IF we have enough insight to fill in the first two (which we aren’t; most of us have no idea what things we’re actually great at), we then go on to make a bunch of random assumptions about what people will or won’t pay for – a topic Ramit’s covered before in SOME depth. =)

      It improves things slightly to ask in that third circle ‘what do people need?’ but I’m not sure that would remove the need to actually do some reality testing to find out the answer.

    • It’s amazing how these things don’t work over and over, yet “experts” trot them out time and time again. It’s almost as if they never followed up with their students to see if it really caused any change…

    • I believe this is Ramit’s advice in Earn1K about how to find your free-lance trade.

  10. 1. The worst piece of advice I’ve gotten would be to “follow your dreams.” Really? Following my “dream” would make me a multimillionaire without having to do anything. Or getting paid a six figure sum to read sci-fi/fantasy books. Something like “don’t change your computer science major to a classical languages (Latin) degree! You’ll realize you don’t want to teach and be SOL,” would have been much more useful.

    2. It’s more lack of good career advice that’s kept me from my goals, see above. Additionally, it was recommended that I return to school for an MBA, which I have yet to do, because I don’t want to spend that much money to get a degree I don’t want. “But it’s more marketable! Everyone looks for that!” Everyone being places I’m not interested in working for.

    3. Where did I think I’d be? I figured around 27 I would have been married for several years, had children and be working a job I could work from home and have time for my family. Seriously. Where am I now? Married for two years, no children on the horizon, working a job that isn’t bad but is far below my skill level. Fortunately, I read this site… so that will change. The job thing at least, haha.