The worst career advice I’ve ever received

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Many years ago, when I was a new college graduate, an employment agency “counselor” presented a job that was clearly an underpaid dead-end. “Perfect for you!” she smiled happily.

I was clueless about careers in those days. Career counselors gave preference tests, people went to agencies instead of networking events, and coaches hovered on the sidelines of the basketball court. But even I could see how bad that job was.

The agency woman shrugged. “Well, you have to start somewhere,” she said.

“In other words,” she was advising me, “operate with a scarcity mindset.”

Taking The Easier Path To Go Nowhere

Many years passed. I forgot that brief encounter with an employment agency. I’d gotten graduate degrees, left the corporate world, and became a college professor: one of those people who decided to teach rather than do. And then I left academia to start an online business.

But one day I ran into someone I’ll call Eileen. We’d met in a networking event and hadn’t seen her for months. Now, she told me, she had a new goal. She had just heard a powerful motivational speaker.

The goal? Play on a big stage.

“This guy was so great,” she said. “I want to be like him.”

“Terrific!” I said. “Go for it!”

The plan? Start small.

“So,” Eileen continued, I’m going to get more involved in Toastmasters. Maybe I’ll enter some contests.”

I must have shown my surprise.

“Well, you have to start somewhere,” Eileen shrugged.

What’s the most direct path?

I have a lot of respect for Toastmasters. I was in a group once. (No, I’ve never been afraid of speaking. That group had a lot of hams, comics, and even a radio announcer.)

But Eileen already has a lot of speaking experience. Now she needed visibility and connections that are not easy to come by.

Toastmasters offered the easy path. Sign up, pay dues, and go to meetings. The worst that can happen? They’ll hate your speech that day.

Playing small when you want to be big?

There’s an old English saying, “Begin as you mean to go on.” The way you start can influence the way you end up.

True, you do have to start somewhere. But hopefully, you’ll take some time as you pick the starting place.

Eileen’s not the only one who decided to start with whatever’s available.

Aspiring writers often begin by writing for club newsletters — easy opportunities with uncritical audiences that lead nowhere.

Aspiring entrepreneurs work with low-paying, demanding clients; their work won’t help their portfolio and they’ll waste time with clients who won’t give them testimonials.

Aspiring actors and singers start with small-town community theatres. They won’t gain experience, credentials, or credits for professional venues.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these paths. The question is, do they lead you to a place where you want to end up?

Generally, it is better to go into action early rather than late. But random action, just to get moving, can take you on costly, time-consuming detours.

If you’re standing at a crossroads, it’s better to consult a map than to close your eyes, spin around, and point.

“You have to start somewhere” is code for, “Operate in scarcity mode.”

People who accept this advice tend to operate with a scarcity mindset. When you operate in scarcity mode, you’re ruled by fear. You say things like, “If I fail, I’ll never recover.” Or, “I don’t have time to check off all the boxes.” You say, “I’ll take this step because it’s free and easy.”

Of course, a scarcity mindset can keep us realistic. A reasonable amount of fear will keep us from emptying our bank accounts to pay for a guru who makes big, splashy promises. It’ll remind us to keep our jobs till the time is right to go off on our own.

Will Toastmasters help Eileen achieve her goals?

I have no idea. But she should do her research and review her goals before investing huge amounts of time here.

Originally published at on May 11, 2020.

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