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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

My Mentor's Advice Would've Killed My Career: 3 Strategies to Make the Right Choices

Advice: How many times have you asked for it, yearned for it, or received it over the course of your life? You probably have had many experiences of all three, and sometimes it comes without asking. Advice is a critical part of one’s career journey—something that can be beneficial, but if not used with caution, also can be downright harmful.

First, why it’s good: Aside from the obvious reason that you’ll get some potentially helpful information, according to a Harvard Business School-led study, you can improve other’s perceptions of you by asking for advice. The research team, led by Alison Wood Brooks and her colleagues, writes:

Not only is advice-seeking beneficial for the spread of information, but it may also boost perceptions of competence for advice-seekers and make advisors feel affirmed… By failing to seek advice, individuals and their organizations miss opportunities to share knowledge and improve interpersonal outcomes.

Now, the bad news. There is a critical aspect of advice that you can’t ignore—advice is someone else’s point of view. We often assume that if the giver is older, more successful, or more powerful, that he or she knows the answers to what we are seeking, but that’s not always the case. As such, following someone else’s advice blindly can be a career killer.

Here’s an example: When I was in the early stages of my career, I was set on living abroad. At the time, I was working at Capital One as a marketing manager, and I wanted to explore the opportunity of working in the company’s new international team. I sought out the hiring managers, met with the leaders who were in charge, and pitched them on why I would be a great addition to the team.

I was offered the job—working and living in South Africa for two years. I will never forget that moment, as I jumped for joy in my cube and called my parents. I was set to leave in two weeks.

My excitement faded quickly when one of my mentors, a woman I had worked for previously, sat me down and told me that if I moved to South Africa, it would be the biggest mistake of my life. I really admired her—she was smart, a great leader, and someone who I thought had my best interest at heart—but when she said the words, everything in my body rejected it. She just couldn’t be right, my 25-year-old self knew deep down.

If I had been less passionate about my goal, I may have taken her advice. But I didn’t, and I consider my two years in South Africa as one of my top life experiences. Those two years were the launching pad for almost everything I am doing today.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about a similar story in his baccalaureate address to Princeton University’s Class of 2010. In the talk, he says that before starting Amazon, he consulted with his boss, who was someone he really admired. His boss said, “That sounds like a great idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who already didn't have a good job.” At the time, Bezos was working for him at a financial firm in New York City. Bezos so admired his boss that he followed his lead by thinking about it for another 48 hours before he quit. However, Bezos says that ultimately he took the less safe path to follow his passion. He didn’t take the advice, left his job, and started Amazon.

These stories have a good ending—however, it can be easy to follow advice from someone you respect, even if it doesn’t feel right in your gut. So what’s the best way to know which advice to take to heart and which to ignore? Here are three tips.

1. Remember That Advice Comes From Someone Else’s Experiences or Expectations

Even if the giver is doing a job you may want one day, he or she still isn’t you. You will always have a unique perspective and a unique path. Honor that, and learn from advice, but don’t make the mistake of taking it as the rule. It’s just another person’s thoughts.

In my case, my mentor was worried that South Africa was a dangerous place and thought it would be reckless for me to move to a country where the crime rate was really high. Though it was positioned as advice for me, in reality it stemmed from the fact that danger was a deal breaker for her. But at that point in my life, I didn’t care. I’ve always been an adventure seeker, and to me, the risk was worth the opportunity.

2. Don’t Make Someone Else’s Opinions More Important Than Your Own

Even if this person is famous or particularly successful, make sure you don’t hand over more power than he or she deserves. You are the guide of your life and career, and you should put someone else’s advice on equal footing as your own instinct and thoughts. Even if your thoughts are in the process of forming, if you give someone else’s opinion more weight, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to cultivate your own thinking.

3. Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

You may be seeking out others’ advice because you think it will help you avoid failure. And while more information can be a good thing, consider that Jon Oringer, the CEO of Shutterstock, says in his commencement speech to Columbia University’s engineering grads that failure was the key to his success. Oringer isn’t the only one who says this—check out this list of 50 inspiring quotes to help you overcome the fear of failure. As you can see, failure can be something that you should welcome in your quest for career success—not something you should avoid at all costs.

The conclusion? Ask and seek out advice, but don’t devalue your own perspective and instinct in the process. Learn as much as you can from those who have chartered their own paths and who you admire, but know that your own journey and career is yours and only yours.

Photo of thumbs up and down courtesy of Shutterstock.