Why Does Most Career Advice Suck?

My good friend and roommate just started the challenging career path of becoming a successful architect. As we spoke about the difficulties of making a name for yourself in an established industry, I realized I was unequipped to offer advice. It had been almost five years since I had a real job.

Instead, I asked him what books he had read on building a remarkable career. To my surprise, he said he hadn’t read any.

This is a surprise, because I can’t think of any entrepreneurs that don’t have at least one or two favorite books on building a business. When I first got the idea of starting a business, I was voracious, reading everything I could on sales, entrepreneurship and marketing. If 80% of businesses failed, I wanted to know everything I could to be in the minority of success stories.

But becoming a successful architect is no less difficult than starting a business. Then why hadn’t my ambitious and capable friend read a single book on starting a career?

Most Career Advice Sucks

The problem is that most career advice sucks. While books on entrepreneurship are varied and numerous, most career advice falls into one of two categories: “follow your passions” and “use your network.”

Telling someone to simply follow their passions is a nice thought, but supremely unhelpful (similar to the entrepreneurial mantra to “just start something”). What if you don’t know what your passions are? Or if your passions can’t earn you a living?

Similarly, telling someone to use their network is empty advice. What does that mean exactly? Should you be spamming your Facebook friends for job opportunities?

There are some good writers on career issues, but their ideas tend to be a minority in a sea of easy affirmations about following your passion.

Maybe Employees Should Think More Like Entrepreneurs?

Perhaps some of the blame in lousy career writing is due to the extreme shift in the accepted norms on employment. In my parents generation, you traded loyalty for lifelong employment. Today, I have friends in their mid-twenties who have already switched firms several times.

This liquidity in the employment contract also means employers are less willing to carefully guide your professional development. As my friend discovered when looking for his first job, HR managers wanted concrete skills, not just “potential” and a university degree.

These are new challenges for this generation of employees, but they’re the same challenges entrepreneurs have always faced: how do you take intelligent risks? What constitutes a useful network? How do you market yourself and pick the right abilities to develop?

The Startup of You

This is exactly what Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman have done in their book, The Startup of You. The thesis is that you should think like an entrepreneur, even if you never want to start a business.

Readers here will note I’ve been a fan of Ben’s writing for some time. Aside from having staggering career acceleration (started his first company at 13, best-selling author and speaker in his early twenties), he is able to give thoughtful analysis to complex topics, instead of resorting to cheap platitudes.

Here’s some gems I found while reading the book:

  • ABZ Planning. Having a plan is great, but you won’t feel comfortable taking risks if you don’t have a safety net. Best-case/worst-case style planning is classic entrepreneurship, but rarely applied to career leaps.
  • Cultivating allies and weak ties. Networking is a prominent topic, but unlike most pundits advocating conferences and business cards, the book goes into great detail on which relationships you should build, start or even let fade.
  • Competitive advantage, not just passions. Passion is great, but it’s just one factor in having a great career (earning a living is another one!)
  • Who you know is the what you know. We’ve all been told, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But more emphasis on this book is put on the proposition that your network can be the source of your intelligence.

The book stays aspirational without sacrificing nuance. I get a lot of books to review in the mail, but fewer I’ve actively sought out. If you’re trying to build a remarkable career, this book is a must-read resource.


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