“Have you ever considered consulting” and other unsolicited, well-meaning but unhelpful career advice

In the classic 1960s movie, The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), who has recently completed university, attends his graduation party, and a friend of his parents takes him aside, places his arm around his shoulder and utters: “I have one word for you: Plastics.”

This scene has become the synecdoche for the all-knowing family member, relative, friend, acquaintance, or stranger (and people who we sometimes refer to as know-it-all’s) who freely and frequently dispense advice, with the belief that if only you follow it, your problems will be solved, and your life will be improved.

Many unqualified non-experts dispense unsolicited, well-meaning, but unhelpful advice. This guidance can cover the gambit from how to be a better parent, make fantastic margaritas, or how to protect oneself from COVID-19.

Predictably I have been the recipient of a considerable amount of non-expert professional and career advice.

Almost always this kind of counsel is very general in nature, and the advice giver knows considerably less than I do about my profession (i.e., academic), and the unique labor market in which it is situated (i.e., colleges and universities).

Over time, I have learned that instead of immediately rolling my eyes, interrupting the advice giver to point out just how poorly informed their suggestions are, and risk the possibility of offending them, like I used to, now I generally smile and feign interest, and try to change the subject.

Alternatively I attempt to find a polite way to disengage with that person as soon as possible.

This begs a couple of questions.

Why do some people proffer all sorts of free advice?

Some individuals truly do care, and they try their best to offer guidance that they think will be helpful.

Others simply want to show you (and perhaps others who learn about this behavior) “how smart they are.”

Alternatively advice givers may want to demonstrate to you and possibly others that they care. In short the activity is performative and symbolic in nature.

Many people want to be helpful as long as it is doesn’t require a large expenditure of resources. Unlike contacting a relative, best friend or acquaintance, and singing your praises to someone who may actually help you, or writing a meaningful letter of recommendation on your behalf, giving free advice is a low effort activity. Comparatively it’s not resource intensive.

Why is giving unsolicited advice a bad practice?

Most advice givers are not really familiar with your job, work, or career specializations. They also don’t know the unique job obligations, and the intricacies of the reward structure, including the requirements that one may have trying to secure an appropriate job, and then once this is done, what one has to do to excel in this kind of work.

Moreover, most recipients of unsolicited professional and career advice, have heard this type of guidance before and sometimes numerous times.

Uninformed advice givers often fail to acknowledge the recipient’s unique knowledge of their own job, career, profession and skill set. I’m not saying that advice givers must engage in the due diligence that a hiring manager should perform, including carefully studying a person’s vita, resume or bio, but this does not dissuade people from dispensing free advice.

Final Thoughts

Undoubtedly sometimes people can give you helpful advice that broadens your knowledge, skills and career prospects. This can be put to good use by people who are at the beginning of their career trajectory.

All in all, it’s important to avoid ascribing malice to individuals who frequently dispense unsolicited free advice. Thank them for their council, but learn not to take it too seriously. You are the one who is in the trenches, not them.

Meanwhile, if you are the type of a person who loves to give advice, try to restrain yourself unless you know the person wants it. Chances are the person you are speaking with has already knows about or has tried the solutions you are suggesting, and it may become grating over time.

Running at night as exercise, urban exploration, and street ethnography

Running, as a physical exercise, has numerous benefits.

One of the best things about this activity is that it’s low cost, and you can do it just about anywhere and anytime.

Up until recently, the majority of my running was done in urban environments, on the streets, and at night. Sometimes I used to run with our dog in tow.

Running in this context can and has periodically been an exhilarating experience.

Under the cloak of darkness and enabled by speed, I’ve been able to visit, explore, and take more risks by visiting neighborhoods and places (e.g., back alleys) that I might avoid on foot during the day or night.

Running at night has allowed me to see the city (in fact many urban locations) during different times when the lights are off, most people are at home, and typically everything is quieter and less observed.

In order to more comprehensively understand a part of town, visit it at 2am, listen to the sounds and noise, and feel the level of safety, etc. Almost immediately you should notice that some neighborhoods that are relatively docile during the day become foreboding at night, whereas others that are boring by day may be transformed and become welcoming when it’s dark outside. They are teaming with pedestrian traffic, and people sitting outside on door steps and on their porches.

Running at night has provided me with sneaky thrills when rodents and felines of all sizes unexpectedly cross my path, and occasionally barking and mean ass looking dogs have confronted, chased, and attacked me. Sometimes I’ve had to dodge both parked and moving cars, bicycles, and motorized scooters.

I’ve also been called names, yelled at (i.e., “Yo get the fuck outta here”), and chased by people (some very intimidating and some not so much) who appear to be angry, drunk, high, and provocative. Arguably, my running times improved because of these stressful experiences.

I’ve been lost a fair number of times too, forcing me to embarrassingly search for someone who I think might be able to help me, and who I also feel comfortable with asking for directions, even if this requires me to gesticulate in a foreign language.

In addition to stepping on shit, puke, and flattened rodents, and tripping multiple times, I’ve barrel rolled, face planted, and sprained my ankles (all on separate occasions). It’s times like this, with adrenaline rushing through my veins, when I have felt the most alive.

All in all running at night has been an informal and unconscious method of data collection. I get to see who is out on the street, what they’re doing, who they are interacting with, and make inferences regarding their behavior and the street culture that exists in those specific locations. Sometimes I find interesting graffiti, street art and murals. Running at night also gives me ideas about where I might like to explore in the future during the daylight hours.

This experience contrasts with the flaneur, especially the romantic notion of a person who walks the street seeping up what’s going in, periodically sitting down to collect oneself, observe, and to take notes in a sacred writing journal. It’s also not systematic like a street ethnography should be. But it’s data none the less and it helps form impressions, hypotheses to explore and investigate if one chooses to do so.

I miss running at night with the street lights, the sounds, smells and liminal aspects of the experience. I feel like I miss out on a side of city life and street culture that is so integral to understanding the people who live, visit and work there.

Photo Credit: Giuseppe Milo
The runner – Chicago, United States – Black and white street photography

Accessing the lived experience of others

Lived experience can be an excellent data source for scholarly research and career development. In particular, lived experiences can provide anecdotal evidence and inspiration for hypotheses that investigators may want to empirically test using different research techniques. It may also motivate and drive scholars’ passion to conduct research regarding a particular topic.

That being said, researchers frequently do not have access to relevant lived experience that will assist them to conduct their studies. How then do these investigators and others who don’t have appropriate lived experience, that wish to benefit from it, collect this data?

There are a range of research methods and data sources that investigators can use to better understand particular learned experiences.

These include, but are not limited to ethnographic research, observation, face-to-face interviews, and well-designed and administered surveys with individuals who have relevant lived experience. Alternatively we might consider using thoughtful and well-respected memoirs and autobiographies written by individuals who have lived experience.

In principle, if researchers have unlimited resources (e.g., money, time, expertise, access, etc.), it’s helpful for them to use as many of the previously mentioned strategies as possible in order to come closest to understanding the lived experience of the people and groups they are interested in understanding.

Then again there are advantages and disadvantages with each of these options. One need only consult a well-respected introductory social science research methods textbook to understand the situations where a particular technique works best and ones in which they are ill-advised.

Success or failure in this regard usually depends on the questions investigators want to ask (and be answered), and the subject population from whom they want information. For example, asking individuals who are long time methamphetamine users about what it’s like to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is probably not going to be that helpful. On the other hand, conducting a well-designed ethnography of graffiti writers, over a respectable period of time, may yield valuable insights into their experiences, motivations and constraints.

To top things off, just because researchers have lived experience (or access to data that will provide insights into lived experience), it does not necessarily mean that they and others can make appropriate generalizations.

Over time, however experienced and skilled researchers should be able to better determine which research method/s works best, with what population, and situation. That’s why it’s important for scholars to get into the field to observe, ask important questions of their subjects, and be self-reflective regarding the kinds of information they gather.

Photo Credit: Matthew
Safe cracking – Day 11, Year 2