Nana May Not Be the Right Person to Ask for Career Advice

I always tell therapists to choose the people they consult with carefully and that not all consultants are created equally.  Here is a great read from the NYTimes that speaks to this. Written by Adam Grant

When we turn to others for advice on major career decisions, they sometimes steer us in the wrong direction. Warren Buffett’s father, along with his mentor, discouraged him from entering the securities business. Walt Disney’s brother and wife both tried to talk him out of making “Snow White.” And last summer, when I polled my Twitter followers about the worst career advice they had received, Monica Lewinsky’s response went viral. She had been told that “an internship at the white house will be amazing on your resume.” Why does so much career advice end up being misguided? As an organizational psychologist, I’ve given more than my share of bad advice. After encouraging multiple students to take jobs that made them miserable, I decided to study how we can get better at giving and seeking advice.

The problem starts with who we approach for advice: We often listen to the wrong sources. I’ve watched many students rely on their parents and grandparents for guidance, forgetting that they were raised in an era when it was common to spend an entire career in one organization.

“Today, the world is changing so fast that people become wise for a world that’s no longer there,” the Wait but Why blogger Tim Urban said on my TED podcast, “WorkLife.” “There are some times you should listen to Nana, but career is not one of them.” Although we say we want advice from people with relevant expertise and experience, we end up reaching out to the ones who are enthusiastic and approachable. In hospitals, my colleagues and I have found that when health care professionals need a second opinion, they turn to their most accessible colleagues instead of the most knowledgeable experts.

In tech companies, evidence shows that when trying to solve problems at work, people seek advice from the colleagues they like most, not the ones with the most competence.

And in a study of hundreds of singers choosing their coach on the TV show “The Voice,” they favored coaches who showered them with praise over coaches whose past artists had won the contest.

Even if we go to people who are qualified to give advice, it’s no guarantee that they will know what’s right for us. Advisers often fall into what sociologists call conversational narcissism, focusing too heavily on their personal preferences and experiences rather than taking our perspective. If we’re nervous about the decision, we’re less likely to notice those discrepancies.

Anxiety impairs our information processing, making it difficult for us to distinguish between good and bad advice and recognize conflicts of interest.

Here, advice-givers can help. When people come to us for advice, we can resist the urge to give them a single recommendation. People rarely need to hear our conclusion. They benefit from hearing our thought process and our perspective on the relevant criteria for making the choice. The most useful advice doesn’t specify what to do; it helps people see blind spots in their thinking and clarify their priorities.

Now, when students come to office hours, I start by asking them what they want. Are they looking for me to validate a decision they’ve already made, challenge their assumptions or help them think through the considerations? Then, if I share a lesson from my own experience, I make sure to qualify that it may or may not apply to them. “Here’s how I landed on my career.

Which aspects of my approach make sense for you, and which ones don’t?” At some point, you have probably noticed that you’re wiser when giving advice to others than you are in making decisions for yourself. You’re not alone.

In psychology, it’s called Solomon’s paradox, and it often happens because we have more distance from other people’s problems than our own. When making our own career choices, we tend to zoom in on all the ways that the options differ. I’ve seen students make Excel spreadsheets comparing jobs on 23 dimensions, which is an easy way to get stuck in the weeds. When we’re giving advice to others, we’re more likely to zoom out to see the big picture. Instead of trying to weigh all the factors, we base our recommendations on the two or three most important factors.

The lesson here is that one of the most effective ways to get better advice is to give it. Sure enough, psychologists find that our reasoning becomes wiser when we think about our own problems from a third-person perspective.

“I very often have to remind myself to take my own advice,” Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild” and a professional advice-giver, told me on “WorkLife.” “I know what the right thing to do is. I don’t always do it.” Advising others doesn’t just help us make better decisions — it also leaves us more motivated to follow through. In one experiment, when high school students were randomly assigned to give advice to younger students on how to stay motivated in school, their own report card grades improved.

In further experiments, people expected to be more motivated when receiving than giving advice, but the opposite was true. It was people who gave advice — not those who received it — who became more motivated to search for jobs, save money, lose weight or control their tempers.

If you want to get better career advice, you can start by reflecting on what you would tell someone else with a similar question. Listen to the advice you give to others. It’s usually the advice you need to take yourself. And it might be the best way to motivate yourself, too.

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