Pluralistic ignorance is a fascinating concept in social psychology. It’s a phenomenon “which involves several members of a group who think that they have different perceptions, beliefs, or attitudes from the rest of the group.” For example, Prentice and Miller, two Princeton social psychologists, found that college students tend to think other students drink more than they actually do. Schroeder and Prentice noted that “the majority of students believe that their peers are uniformly more comfortable with campus [drinking] than they are.” This means that
“…because everyone who disagrees behaves as if he or she agrees, all dissenting members think that the norm is endorsed by every group member but themselves. This in turn reinforces their willingness to conform to the group norm rather than express their disagreement. Because of pluralistic ignorance, people may conform to the perceived consensual opinion of a group, instead of thinking and acting on their own perceptions”
I find this time and time again when I talk to my friends. People will say things like, “Everyone’s earning $70,000/year when they graduate, so I should, too.” Or “nobody lives with their parents so it would be embarrassing if I did.” We often make decisions based on what we see of our friends, but we don’t see the bigger picture and realize the differences in internal attitudes and behaviors across individuals and groups. Pluralistic ignorance colors our decision-making and the worst part is, we don’t even know it.
That’s why I like the new book by Penelope Trunk, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. Penelope writes for the Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance (she’s covered me before), and she has an attitude. I mean that in a good way: Unlike so many books for young people, this one reads like a real person wrote it, not a damn robot. You can actually hear her in her writing. Now, she and I disagree about some career-related things, but she does a great job explaining her reasoning.
And her advice is good. She talks about issues we care about – living with our parents, getting our first job, negotiating salaries, starting a company, how to make ends meet – but reassures us that the things we feel guilty about are actually very common (see my thoughts about young people and guilt here).
For example, she writes that “Job-hopping in your early twenties is a great idea – especially if you’re still sleeping at your parents’ house. After all, the point of this period in life is to find the right work for you. But if the job-hopping doesn’t stop by age thirty, the feeling of instability intensifies to crisis.” How many of your friends don’t know what they want to do, but feel pressured to pick one single job and focus on it?
I know plenty. I also know plenty of friends who don’t know what they want to do, so they go back to grad school. Penelope shows a better way to think that decision.
That’s what’s interesting about the book: It includes not only advice on how to think about large, ambiguous topics like going back to grad school and office politics, but also includes tactical advice that’s actually good. When it comes to creating your resume, for instance, she writes,
“One page. That’s it. I don’t care if you are the smartest person on earth or if you have founded six companies and sold each of them for $10 million. The point of a resume is to get you an interview, not a job.”
She writes excellent tactical advice for building your cover letter, negotiating your salary, writing a resume that stands out (“Ditch the line about references on request. It’s implied. Of course if someone wants a reference, you will give one”).
But more than tactical advice, she uses research from places like Harvard Business School – not just her personal opinions – to remind us not to feel guilty about what we’re doing. For instance, did you know that 50% of the Class of 2003 was still living at home 3 years later?
This book reminds me to stop fighting against the same things that everyone else my age is struggling with. If I wanted to live at home so I can afford to take a low-paying job that I love, that chapter on living at home would be worth the book alone. In other words, stop worrying and feeling guilty about what other people think and focus on the important goals. The best thing a book can do is reassure us, refocus us, and then give us the tools to do more than we thought we could do. This book is a great start.
Brazen Careerist isn’t perfect, of course. It’s overly list-y for my tastes, reading in some parts like a “Top 10 Reasons to…” blog post. Also, the book is itself a bit unfocused, with points on starting your own business, perfecting your resume, working with your manager, optimizing your personal life, and doing yoga (?). But the number of insights I got from the book made up for it.
A few things that stood out to me:
- The importance of telling stories on page 52 is absolutely 100% true. So many people take the engineering-esque mindset of “If I just explain my accomplishments, they’ll understand.” Wrong. Craft a story and you win.
- A controversial and pointed suggestion about harassment on page 123 (“Use harassment to boost your career”). I don’t know what I think about this, but I’m curious to see others’ reactions.
- A pointed reminder to ask your company to pay for your training on page 178. Not only will you be more valuable to your company, your career will be enhanced. It just takes you asking.
- One more thing: What the hell is wrong with young people being afraid of using the phone? One of my stupid friends lost his Wells Fargo password and looked completely helpless. “Hey idiot,” I told him, “why don’t you just call them and get your password?” “Umm…,” he said like a beaten, sad man, “it’s not that important. I’ll just wait until I go in there next time.” On page 42, Penelope lays out why to use the phone. Key point: “You can’t lose making a cold call. No one ever says to themselves, ‘I wish I hadn’t been so aggressive in trying to get what I wanted.’”)
The book is good. So is the blog. And Penelope is a great woman with tons of interesting thoughts about career issues.
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