Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Career Advice Sucks

It's not easy to give or receive career advice. I've talked with loads of people, read stacks of books, and even tried to offer guidance to a hapless few. And I've come to the conclusion that it's all a bunch of cliches.

For instance, everyone knows that they should be good communicators. Communication is what gets you a good job and it helps you figure out whether or not a job is a good fit for you. If your interviewer doesn't see the interview as a two-way street, get out!

Communication is essential on the job. If you don't understand requirements, you'll waste valuable time coding. You have to talk with your boss about what's going right and what's going wrong. If you can't communicate with your boss, get out!

Finally, you have to be able to communicate in order to get ahead. The powers that be need to know what you're excited about and where you want to go next. If you're unable to discuss your future at your company, get out!

But everyone knows all this. Two thoughts:

One is that it's not easy to see how to become a better communicator. I really like Michael Lopp's idea of a 'Trickle List'. This is a list of things you try to do every day, which you check off regularly and use to track your goals over time. For example:
  • People — Have a random chat with someone
  • Write — Write something, anything
  • V — Take a vitamin
  • Biz — Learn a part of the business
  • Book — Read something in a book
I've copied Lopp's list exactly for myself, but the item I want to focus on is having random chats. I tend to get in early, put on my headphones, and am in the Zone by the time most people arrive. If someone starts talking to me, I think, "Why are you bothering me? I'm trying to work!"

Now I'm trying to have at least one random conversation a day. This improves my skills, helps me understand what's going on and, hey, I might make a friend or two. The point is that the Trickle List is a simple way to do something every day to improve something you want to improve. It helps achieve a cliche.

The other thing is that obvious truisms like 'be a good communicator' are easy to 'know' but harder to do. David Foster Wallace pays a lot of attention to cliches in his mammoth Infinite Jest, which is about addiction and takes place in a halfway house. Everyone knows the AA slogan 'One Day at a Time,' but until you actually have to work on just getting through the day without touching a substance, this cliche is meaningless. The people who stay clean longest are the ones who stop over-analyzing cliches and just repeat them until they actually mean something.

You don't have to be an addict in order to make sense of this. Every issue of the Harvard Business Review says exactly the same thing as every previous issue. Every management book repackages every other book, whether it's Seven Habits or Good to Great. You will not learn anything in a management class that you can't read on a bathroom wall.

This isn't a bad thing. You shouldn't stop reading. While skimming a blog post, you may just come across the truism you need in order to solve the problem you're currently facing. Since we face different problems all the time, we need to be reminded that we should work on our communication skills, or make sure we're prioritizing our time better. (Again, Duh.) We can always improve, and the things we need to improve are all obvious. It's the way you need to improve that can only be figured out by you.

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