“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.