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Stop Telling Me to Follow My Dreams: 3 pitfalls of life advice


If you have ever sought out career advice, you were probably told one or more of the following:

  1. Follow your dreams
  2. Live out your passions
  3. Do what you love
  4. Work where your greatest passion meets the greatest need
  5. Find your inner voice
  6. Perseverance is key
  7. Embrace your unique story

During my time of soul searching for my own professional next steps I heard these platitudes over, and over, and over again. In short, these statements are all true. The problem is that they lack context. In search of this context, I attended many networking events for creative professionals like myself. Many of them feature speakers sharing about their experience in their creative fields. Like a fly bumping into the glass and believing the next time will be different, I come to these events anticipating, if not something life-changing, then at least something useful. Alas, I often leave heaving a sigh.

Put another way, these speakers fall into one or more of the following traps:

  1. The speaker forgets he/she is making an argument. 
    Any communication you create–article, letter, lecture, film, etc.–in which you want your audience to think differently by the end is an argument. In the case of these network lectures, the speaker’s goal is, or should be, to empower their audience, and make them believe that they have the capacity to do great work. Most of the time, the speakers forget that they need to persuade. They cover the WHATs of the conclusions they’ve drawn, but neglect the HOWs and WHYs. You can tell me THAT your string of accomplishments was hard to come by, but I won’t care and I certainly won’t be helped until you tell me WHY it was hard, WHY you were driven to persevere, and HOW you solved the problems that hindered you. Without these critical elements, it would be faster if you just sent me your resume.
  2. The speaker fails to tell a story. 
    These days it feels cliche to say that the best way connect with an audience is through story. I couldn’t agree more, but like Inigo in The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Stories require conflict. Think about it–all stories recount something that went wrong: Nemo gets stolen, Dorothy and Toto are stuck in Oz, Bernie is dead. Stories involve pivotal moments, dealing with change, and the decisions that make or break the protagonist(s). At the last networking event I sat through, the speaker told the “story” of how he really wanted to join this band so he worked really hard and practiced all the time and beat out 99 people to get the one spot. Face:palm. Story:fail. There is no conflict in this anecdote, and therefore it is not a story. Life, and the pursuit of creative success, is full of conflict, and if you are going to tell me about your experience I want to hear the juicy details of the obstacles in your way and how you made the decisions that shaped your path.
  3. The speaker edits his/her story and loses his credibility. 
    There are (at least) two ways in which speakers edit their stories and, in so doing, ruin their credibility. The first is similar to my point about conflict, in that the speaker leaves out the parts they’d probably wish to forget, i.e. how hard something was, how long something took, or how they never really knew what they were doing. These details about doubts, fears, and failures create an empathetic connection with the audience. After all, most of the audience is there to be comforted and encouraged. We need to know we are not alone. If the speaker glosses over the harder times, I begin to doubt their story altogether. This leads me to the second way speakers edit their experience: they are not forthcoming about when they were lucky. Being in the “right place at the right time” is not a skill, it is an accident. Knowing the “right people” is not only a function of diligent networking, but it is also luck of the draw. Access to the right tools–education, technology, an uncle in high places– can make all the difference, but access is rarely something we gain by merit. As Malcolm Gladwell tells us in Outliers, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gained access to computers way earlier than other mortals, and at a time when they were both unhindered by restrictions or responsibilities and allowed to experiment. While extraordinary innovators in their own right, the argument stands that Gates and Jobs owe much if not most of their success to this unusual good fortune. Likewise, if you are going to preach platitudes with your advice, you should have the humility to point out that you were blessed with great business partner, or with a professor who gave you a job recommendation, or with a pile of gold you found in a ditch, or whatever else helped you leapfrog towards your goals.

My goal with this post is twofold: first, I hope this encouraged other soul-seekers like myself in their quest for thorough advice, and second, I hope anyone who is giving advice can adjust the content and delivery of their thoughts to be most advantageous for their audiences. Please comment below and keep the conversation going!


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