Why Career Advice From the Past Can Lead To Career Disaster In The Future

John Bogle, the legendary investor, who turned the financial industry on its head by creating Vanguard’s Index Funds was fond of saying “past performance does not predict future returns.”  He would say so in rebuttal to financial salespeople who would show an inflated investment return for a stock or a mutual fund as evidence that the same return was destined for the future.  In 2007, I’m sure there were many financial salespeople who convinced unwitting investors that the market’s stellar returns would continue into the future based on historical stock market averages.

Parents/grandparents/uncles/aunts who are well meaning – as opposed to self-serving salespersons – often provide career advice in a similar vein. They will tell the career confused young adult of tales of success from the archives of the past.

Some of this career advice will be excellent.  This type of advice usually comes in the form of guiding “principles”, as opposed to specific strategies.  To continue the financial industry metaphor, wise financial advisors will suggest that diversification is one way to minimize investment risk.  Career advice that conveys insightful career counseling principles often are in the “excellent” category.  If your grandfather tells you that his success stemmed in part from “being the first one in the office and the last to leave”, he’s conveying the principle that hard work leads to success.  If your Aunt tells you that “the most important thing is your reputation”, she’s conveying the principle that your “brand” matters.  If your mother provides you guidance on manners, she is conveying the principle that social etiquette matters for developing personal relations, particularly with older people.

Some of the career advice will be incorrect but not terribly harmful.  This type of advice usually comes in the form of general strategies.  “Buy government bonds”, you might be told a financial advisor.  Depending on the timing of this advice, your investment portfolio, and your other financial needs, this advice might be good or might be bad but, as a general rule, buying some bonds probably won’t be terribly harmful. Career advice that might be incorrect but not terribly harmful might come in the form of outdated career strategy: “check the newspapers for help wanted ads”.  This is not terrible advice. People do get lucky.   In today’s age, it is likely an ineffective means of finding a job.

Some of the career advice will be positively disastrous if followed.  This type of advice almost always stems from very specific guidance given by someone who doesn’t know your situation precisely enough to give such advice.  “You should buy stock in Apple.”  That doesn’t sound like bad advice.  Apple is a great company.  Even if its stock is overvalued, it would seem to be a safe bet that Apple will be going strong into the near future.  However, if the person didn’t ask about your investment portfolio and suggested that you buy a single stock – a highly risky move for someone with a portfolio under $100,000 – then this advice is positively reckless. Career advice that might be horrible usually stems from the well meaning advisor giving specfic advice to head into a field that might have been wonderful in year’s past but has a less shiny future.  While I do not want to denigrate any particular field, I’ll suggest that fields where the work can be outsourced to foreign countries provide such an example.

Learning to distinguish the good from the bad will be part of your job if you are seeking career advice from “the village”.