Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Commentary on Career Advice. Caveat Auctor.

Immediately below here, I have a post on Bad Advice, and perhaps this is in that category, so I'll go ahead and add it to this mid week entry.  This topic is commentary on career advice.  It isn't career advice, it's advice on the advice.

 Great Depression era career poster. During the depression there was a fair amount of attention given to student and adult career education.  This one actually promoted the field of drafting.

It would not be true to say that I get a lot of people asking me for career advice, and by and large I don't think most people do either.  I get a little of that, from time to time, as I'm sure most professionals do, and it tends to fall into two groups.  One set comes from people pondering a career, the second set comes from their parents or a parent.  FWIW, I tend to find that when people ask themselves, their more sincere in asking, and because I think most people don't ask anyone at all about potential careers, I tend to think they're truly very much searching. When parents ask I tend to find that they're seeking affirmation of an opinion they've already given, and they're not really that interested in a sincere opinion.

Perhaps somewhat related to that, I find that career commentary itself is much more common within a career, and those conversations constitute insider knowledge.  That commentary also falls into two groups, one being observational about the career itself, and the other being observations on new entrants into the career as a class.

A third set of commentary is that which people independently put out about any one field. I suppose this post fits into that category sort of, although its not propaganda, and this sort of gratis unsolicited advice is the most dangerous of all such advice.  It might be accurate, or it might reflect the strongly held view of the individual.  I'll touch on that in a moment, but people who independently give such advice tend to fit into one of three categories, those being; 1) somebody who is some species of recruiter, whether or not they're officially that, and therefore have a vested interest in promoting the career to anyone who will listen and who tend towards propoganda; 2) Unicorn riders who have a happy view about things to such a degree its absurd; and 3) people who are in black despair and have nothing really good to say about anything, but who have focused on their career as the epicenter of their discontent.  The fourth group here is the rarest, that being those people who truly are their brother's keepers and who seek to advise accordingly.

So why am I mentioning this?

Well, partly because as I get older I'm slipping into the fourth category just mentioned above.  Over time, a person either becomes numb to things, only know those things, or begins to worry about things, and I guess at age 51 I'm in the latter category.  Having teenage kids, I'm amazed by how to this day there is so little effort to actually help kids find a career that will work for them.  When I was in high school the amount of effort devoted to this by officialdom in the school district was a negative number, and it doesn't seem to have risen up to much above single digits right now.  That's flat out bad.  Yes, I suppose most people can and do find their own way, but a little help might be warranted.  When you see somebody headed off for a career of some sort based on a book they read, or a movie they saw, it's really hard not to start worrying.

But it occurs to me that the first thing a person should note on this topic that whenever a person starts to ask for, or even receive, career advice, there are certain massive caveats that apply to it.  So, that's what this post is about.  The topic, basically, is Caveat Auctor.

Or in other words, Listener Beware.

So, what should a person be so wary about?

1.  How well do you know the person who is giving you advice?

This is important in two context, one is people you solicit for advice. The other is the professional recruiter.  Let's start with people you solicit.

As noted above, I only very rarely get approached by anyone who is looking at career stuff, but on odd occasion I do.  Interestingly, I've been asked, at various times, whether the questioner should 1) become a lawyer (the most common question); or 2) enter the Army; or 3) pursue a career in agriculture.  My guess is most professionals get asked something about their own profession from time to time.

Okay, so what to note about this?

If the person you are asking is somebody you know professionally, or that your friends or relatives know professionally, you should take their advice with a grain of salt if their employment depends on those people.  In other words, you are unlikely to get the unvarnished truth from somebody you do not know really well, if that person is in business, and needs the business, and you are the business or are associated with the business.

Let's take an example.  You are thinking of becoming an accountant.  Your father's business, Amalgamated Duluth Widgets and Law Ornaments, Uses Al Gebra as an accountant.  He looks to have a neat career, and you muscle up the courage to ask him about it. Good for you.  However, if it is the case that Al has a secret drinking problem caused by his despair over his career, and his regret that he didn't become a Yak Herdsman in Mongolia, he's probably not going to tell you that if putting food on his table depends on ADWLO.

Now, it might be the case that Al actually loves his job.  I'm not saying he doesn't.  I'm just saying that a person should consider this.  If you don't know him personally, chances are that he may be careful about what he tells you, or tell you nothing really at all.  Of course, he might tell you nothing really at all, even if he loves his job, as he knows that just because he loves it, doesn't mean that you will.  Indeed, that's the scary thing.  If you love doing something, but know somebody else might not, maybe its' just better to say nothing at all?

I think this danger is less, however, for people whose jobs don't depend on customers, of which there are a lot.  I can't think of all the examples, but let's say you are thinking about becoming a fireman and so you ask a fireman you don't know super well.  He's not going to get fired if he tells you the disadvantages of the career (I think), so I think this danger would be less..  However, I will say that generally people tend not to say negative things about their work unless they know a person really well.

Here, however, there's also a danger.

Any time you ask this question, you must be aware that a person's view is always unique to them.  And that makes a huge difference.

I've known one or two people whose personalities were so rosy, I truly think they'd be happy doing anything. That is truly a blessing, but it also means that their advice would be suspect.  If you were to ask them if they liked their jobs killing surplus kittens at the pound, they probably would, as they're just incapable of being unhappy.  Conversely, there are certain people whose view is so dark, they couldn't be happy about anything.  Those people would look down a job that paid a vast amount doing whatever you can think of, as they just view the world that way. So their view is also suspect.  If you don't know a person fairly well, either of those situations could apply, although I frankly think it's easier to tell a chronically unhappy person from a chronically blissful person.  Or maybe it isn't, as I suspect most really unhappy people probably don't announce that.

2.  What is their experience?

I think people asking about careers often forget that most people's experience in their profession is pretty limited.  As a trial lawyer, for example, it's probable that I know a lot more about other occupations than I do about the jobs some other types of lawyers do, as one of the pluses (or at least I feel its a plus) of my line of work is that I get to learn about the jobs of a lot of other people.

About our own lines of work, however, we usually know what we do.  So when a person asks "what's it like to be a . . . ?" you have to keep that in mind.  Asking a person what its like to be a "lawyer" will probably result in a different answer for a trial lawyer, than a divorce lawyer, or prosecutor.  And most of us don't have a really good idea what members of our profession do, if they don't do what we do.  A policeman in Chicago knows what its like to be a policeman in  Chicago, I suspect, and probably not what its like to be a sheriff's deputy in Raton New Mexico.  A game warden in Massachusetts is probably occupying a different job from a game warden in Wyoming, and for that matter, a game warden might not really be too familiar with what an officer from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife does.  A surgeon probably has a different life than an ophthalmologist, I'd guess.  A heavy engine mechanic doesn't do the same thing as a small engine mechanic.  The point is, you have to keep this in mind, and you probably have to keep asking too, to get a complete picture.

As part of this, I think it matters to be aware of what stage a person is in their career, and how careers change.  For example, looking at the law again, a person usually graduates with a JD in their 20s, but you don't spend much of your 20s practicing law.  Quite a few lawyers practice pretty actively well into their 60s.  But the overall experiences of a lawyer in their 60s might not reflect the conditions of a lawyer who is their 30s, and may very well not reflect the conditions that will dominate in that younger lawyers career.  I guess this is a way of saying that at some point our advice on careers tends towards the out of date, whether we know it or not.

There are certain professions (non legal) that I've really heard people express this view about.  People now in them, in their 40s, note that the careers have changed so much, they neither recognize them or like them anymore.  I doubt that they could have done anything about that, but the lesson here is that if you are entering a profession its good to know what people with some experience, but maybe not decades of it, think about it.  Keep in mind that overall, by the end of things, most people spend the same amount of time in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they do in their 60s and 70s.  So if you have a person finishing out a career saying its great, it'd be nice to know that they also thought that in their 30s and 40s.  And not too many people finish an entire career and want to admit that they wished they hadn't.  Of course, most people probably don't finish out an entire career they didn't like.  Or at least I hope not.

Maybe another thing to consider is when people retire and why.  That almost never matters to people in their 20s, but it starts to by the time you are in your 40s.  By your 50s, you'll notice your friends who were in some government jobs retiring, and its hard not be be envious about that.  In some other professions, people never seem to retire, and it might be worth knowing why that is.  Either they really love what they do, became what they do, or they can't afford to retire.

Finally, career impetus varies by generation, something that I've  heard made as a career observation in different careers more than once, but which really matters for a person's view.  People who grew up in the Great Depression (now mostly retired) tended to have very strong views about the simple value of work over everything else, and I've actually noted the same thing with people who came of age here in the 1970s and 1980s.  Work became so tight, that the simple concept of actually having a job dominated over everything else, and to many of those people, that's still true.  So, they'll heavily value an occupation in which there has been steady work and are often amazed by younger generations that do not.  By the same extension, people who came of age in the Great Depression often have very distinct ideas about the concept of dignity in professions, conceiving of it as its own reward, but are also very accepting of class distinctions. They also will sometimes value distinctions over income, and because they started working in booming economies after World War Two, they also tend to think that a person will become a financial success because they will. The Boomer Generation that came of age in the 1960s and often started careers in the 1970s, however, is ironically (given their Hippie reputation) often highly money oriented and have had the impact of converting careers, in some instances, into very money centric businesses.

In contrast to this, the generations that started entering the work force in the mid 1990s and every sense tends to value work place stability and career longevity not at all, and it also sometimes seems comfortable with money being pretty fluid.  One thing that lawyers my age and older tend to note is that new lawyers quit jobs and even the entire practice of law fairly frequently, fairly often, and fairly early.  This has lead to the claim that that generation is lazy, but it isn't.  It just is looking for something else.  For those sorts of people, freedom in fluidity must be pretty important, and if they're talking to an older generation, they might want to consider that that wasn't important, or not even admired, in earlier eras.

Motivational poster from the 1920s, urging employees not to change jobs. This poster expresses a value that tends to be contrary to the one held by people who have entered the work force post 1995 or so.

3.  What's their motive for giving you advice?

If you just asked them for advice, their honor and interest in their motivation.

 British Army recruiting poster from  World War One. This poster is absolutely true, for its era.  Being a farrier was a career, albeit one that was about to see a big reduction in numbers due to mechanization.  But the Army wasn't taking these guys in as a job program, it was fighting the Germans.

But for people who are basically recruiters, and I'd include anyone associated with a school with that, they have an additional motivation, which is to get paying customers in classroom seats.

That doesn't mean that everyone who is in that role is dishonest.  I've heard of university professors in some cases dissuading people from majoring in a particular field, and I've actually heard some professors do just that.  But when you hear really rosy predictions about a field from a department were employment opportunities are lacking, buyer beware.  I myself once had the experience of being in the hospital with pneumonia at Ft. Sill Oklahoma in which I was in a ward in which everyone else was a missile crewman who had enlisted in the Army under the belief that they were going to get to study computers.  Yes, missiles in 1981 did have computers, but. . . .

Note, none of this advice tells you to major or not major in any one field, or to go into one career or another.  I frankly won't do that.  When people do ask me this question, I generally try to tell them what I do or what I know, but I don't encourage them or discourage them from doing anything.  I don't really want the responsibility for one thing.  I guess I give advice the same way that I used to read the movie reviews in The New Republic, i.e., for informational purposes, and to make up my own mind.  What I am saying, however, is that when such advice is given, consider the advice, and consider the person giving it and what you know about them.  I also feel, FWIW, that a person should really try to get advice from somebody who will give them a full opinion, and that getting real experience in a field is the best teacher.

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