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11 Women on the Worst Career Advice They Ever Received

May 31, 2018 | Filed in: Your Career

“Pipe down.” “Speak up.” “Don’t ask questions.” “Question everything.” “Stick it out.” “Leave.” As professionals, we are inundated with conflicting advice—some of it solicited, much of it not. But here’s the thing about advice: Even when it’s terrible, it has a way of pushing us to do better, think differently, and challenge the status quo. Here, we asked 11 women about bad career advice they’ve gotten—and how they turned it into something positive. 

1. “The customer is always right.”

“I have been in sales for 12 years, and while this may seem like the only way to succeed in the beginning, you eventually learn that you do not have to abide by everything a customer asks of you. Being a young woman in a male-dominated industry has its challenges to start with, but if a woman lives to appease every customer, she not only sets herself up for failure, but opens the door to being demeaned and degraded. I have learned it is okay to say no, and to walk away. The customer is not always right; your intuition is.”

—Kristi Buckholz, VP of Global Accounts at WEST Forwarding in Westlake, OH

2. “Keep your head down and do what you’re told.”

“I began as an autism support teacher in the public school system in Philadelphia 10 years ago and have since become the director of a school for young children with autism. A fellow teacher was the person who said this to me—but in this field, innovation is everything. In order to instill positive change in children, you need to be creative and push the envelope. Have an idea? Let’s pursue it! Every effort gets us closer to our goals, builds our knowledge base, and changes lives for children with special needs.”

—Ashlee M. Lamson, M.Ed., BCBA, Director of Elwyn Seedlings in Philadelphia

bad career advice

Keeping your head down might work for some—but for many women, it’s a surefire way to get overlooked.

3. “Don’t show your emotions at work—ever.”

“As a psychologist, I now know that’s pretty much the worst advice you can give a person—it’s like telling someone not to think about a white elephant. I spent too much time and energy in my twenties and thirties trying not to ‘feel’ at work. Instead, what I should have been doing was learning how to channel those feelings in productive ways. Emotions are a source of wisdom. People who feel emotions have a competitive advantage, especially if they can learn to manage how and when they express them. Our emotions and our instincts are closely tied: They yield insight about whom we can trust (or not); about which ideas make sense to us and which don’t; they even let us know when we are worn out and need to take a break. And when you thoughtfully allow emotion into communication, it can be a source of connection and inspiration to others.”

—Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL

4. “Serve your time for two years—until then, don’t even think about a promotion.”

“I was told this as a rookie employee in sports marketing. In my review at year two, my company tried to retain me without offering a promotion. However, they had me written down—mistakenly—as a level above my actual position, because I was over-performing in the role for which I was hired. I did get the promotion then, but realized that I could have gotten there faster had I not taken the above advice. In business, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

—Meaghan Kahler, Partner Program Manager, EMEA, at Marketo in Dublin, Ireland

5. “Don’t show frustration.”

“I received some of the worst and best advice in the same meeting. During one of my performance reviews, I was told that one partner I worked for thought, “Risa shows her frustration too easily when she is not satisfied with the performance of her staff. She should work to change this behavior.” I was really taken aback by the comment, as all upward feedback from the staff on that team was very positive. I knew who gave the feedback, and I knew that same feedback would not have been given if I were a man. Lucky for me, my performance manager was a very senior woman at our firm. She told me to disregard it and keep doing what I was doing. To this day, I think it is important to not sugarcoat disappointment. When my staff are not performing as expected, I let them know—but I also provide guidance and coaching so they can improve.”

—Risa Morrison, Senior Manager, Audit at KPMG LLP in Ashburn, Virginia

bad career advice

What, me frustrated?

6. “Don’t quit.”

People have told me to stay in jobs for all kinds of ridiculous reasons: for instance, the reputation of the company, or that I haven’t worked there long enough to be able to ‘explain’ it on my résumé. What these people fail to understand is that a résumé is a story. If I have a good narrative for why I was in a job for only three months instead of three years, that can be an extremely valuable tool for speaking to my strengths, skill set, goals, and desired outcomes. Quitting is also sometimes a form of sticking up for yourself. And once you start sticking up for yourself, it’s damn addictive and you won’t stop.

—Cassie Marketos, VP of Community at Kickstarter and resident of New York City and Los Angeles

7. “Play it safe” and “Do what scares you.”

These two gems were given to me separately but neither have helped me on my career path. And they’re on opposite sides of the spectrum! When I was told to ‘play it safe,’ I felt stuck in my life, with zero connection to my work. But the job was stable: good salary, full benefits, a 401k, two weeks’ paid vacation. I eventually left, but only after I realized that I get to define what ‘safe’ means to me. My whole life changed after that. Until recently, I believed you should ‘do what scares you,’ but now I very humbly understand that even with my great curiosity and desire to throw caution to the wind, doing what truly scares me isn’t part of my life equation anymore. I still believe in doing things that give you goosebumps—but good bumps, not bad bumps that make you anxious in the middle of the night.

—Alison Sager, founder of VIVA PR and Traveling Yogini in Boston

8. “No one is interested in staying in a shack in the jungle.”

“When we built our very first dirt-floored, stick-walled cottage in 1981, I proudly took my hand-drawn brochures out to Ambergris Caye, Belize’s main tourist destination. At the time, there was no tourism in the jungles of the Belizean interior and the few hoteliers I met in San Pedro laughed at me and suggested I scrap the idea of opening a hotel there. Lo and behold, nearly 40 years later, comprising 400 acres and employing 160 staff, The Lodge at Chaa Creek proved them wrong.”

—Lucy Fleming, founder of The Lodge at Chaa Creek in Cayo, Belize and Unique Hotels of Belize

9. “Make yourself known: Push your way into every opportunity, share your opinion no matter what, and make sure your voice is the loudest.”

“The bulk of my career has been in corporate retail, which can be very competitive. Everyone is looking for their chance to speak, or get in front of head merchants and designers. While I’ve always cared about working hard and moving up, I don’t like to fight for the microphone. When one of my most vocal peers was promoted, she shared this advice with me. I tested it briefly, but it just didn’t work. It never felt natural, and it wasn’t my style. I went back to approaching my work in the way that felt best to me. Later, I was promoted to a role which required me to run weekly meetings, and my new manager informed me that one of the reasons I was selected for that role was because of my ability to listen and to speak meaningfully.”

—Alexis D. Kahler, Research Analyst, Retail and Apparel at Mintel in Chicago

bad career advice

The face of a woman who knows that it’s just as important to know when to listen as it is to know when to speak.

10. “Expensive education is always worth it.”

I was convinced that I had to go through years of higher education in order to have a good career. It started with pressure from my family, where everyone has at least a Master’s degree. I assumed that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to be taken seriously professionally. But what I’ve found most useful in my career is confidence, intuition, poise, and creativity, none of which I developed in a lab in the college chemistry building. I will always value my education—I just wish someone had told how long it would take to pay off my schooling and how little of it would directly apply to what I ended up doing professionally.”

—Céline Vaaler, Senior Account Director at Camron PR in New York City

11. “It’s a learning opportunity.”

“For much of my career, I’ve been an independent business woman, happily self-employed. But some years ago, I was wooed into the employ of a larger company. The owner was a friend and mentor, and the opportunity sounded amazing. The worst advice of my career came from this person a few weeks after I started. He wanted me to step into an additional role—concurrently, at a different company—that would teach me new things, have me hobnobbing with important people, and earn me the respect of wealthy investors. It wouldn’t be paid, but “learning is more valuable than any paycheck,” he said. “It was the best thing I could do for my career,” he said. “It would be considered a huge personal favor,” he said. “It was only temporary,” he said.

I wasn’t completely naive. I knew I could have pushed to be compensated, but I wimped out and avoided the conversation. Soon I was working out of two offices, with two teams and two titles, for two companies. One of them was a role I had accepted. The other was a personal favor—which lasted more than two years.

The lesson here is not about fair pay or lost fortune. It’s about free will. This was a role that I didn’t ask for and didn’t enjoy, and I became bitter and stressed-out. I worked insane hours. I barely slept. Fear of disappointing a friend and mentor kept me going. Until one day, it didn’t. I made an announcement that it was my last month. I offered to interview replacements. Nobody seemed interested in this idea, but then again, why would they be? My ‘notice’ was just a mousy squeak that wasn’t taken seriously. At the end of the month, I simply stopped showing up.

And guess what? Everything was fine. Today, we’re all still friends, the company no longer exists, and the whole thing feels like a distant memory. And I did learn valuable lessons, though perhaps not the ones intended. I learned that I don’t need to fix everyone else’s problems. I learned to prioritize myself. I learned that my time has value, and I must be the one to assign that value. Here’s what else I learned: Don’t take advice from the person that has the most to gain from it. Life is too short to do anything that makes you unhappy. And quitting is always an option.”

—Saundra Marcel, Managing Director and Creative Director of Design Minded in New York City


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Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edits New York Magazine's pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Airbnbmag, and Wired. After spending 3.5 years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she has settled in Minneapolis, MN—the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme. Read more of Ashlea's posts.


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