The Best Career Advice I Ever Received

In the second semester of my senior year of college, I sat down on the overstuffed sofa in my advisor’s office and buried my hand in her communal bowl of M&Ms.

“I still don’t know what I want to do,” I said. I’d been repeating this unproductive lament during my weekly visits with her ever since coming to terms with the revelation that, despite my deep affection for The Good Wife, I actually did not want to be a lawyer when I grew up.

My advisor stopped chewing on the end of her pen and gave me a look I couldn’t read (although in hindsight it might have been an expression of annoyance given I was treating her communal M&Ms like an individual serving). She began telling me about how she worked in consulting for two years after she graduated. Every time she was bored — on her lunch break, waiting for a document to print, or even peeing on the toilet — she found herself thinking about the concluding paragraph of her college thesis about postmodern theater and how she would elaborate on it.

“That’s why I became an English teacher,” she said. “Because I couldn’t get that out of my head.”

She asked me what I thought about when I was bored and my mind was free to roam around and noodle whatever it wanted to noodle. She asked if there was anything in particular that buzzed in the periphery of my thoughts as I went about my day, or inspired me to open multiple tabs to browse on my computer. She told me to consider what the answer was, and warned it might take some time to identify, because sometimes the thing you’re thinking about constantly has become so ingrained it feels like an actual part of you, like a nose or an eye or a name.

“Once you figure it out, ask yourself if there’s a job where you could think about that thing for a living,” she said.

That turned out to be the best career advice I’ve ever received. I realized the thing I loved to think about when I had nothing else to think about was my (now-defunct) blog, where I posted photos of dorky outfits I was wearing and wrote entire essays about them that no one read except my mom and a few other internet weirdos. Clothes were the recurring theme that colored in the gaps of my mental white space — clothes, and the stories they tell about who we want to be.

It would be a long time before I had the opportunity to think about those stories for a living. There were multiple years and multiple jobs in which I didn’t feel particularly fulfilled, but my advisor’s words of wisdom helped me navigate each career shift, bringing me closer and closer to what I knew I wanted.

What about you? What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Finally a piece of career advice that I haven’t heard 1000 times before!

    I think the best tip I’ve ever received was to find something you enjoy doing, and then try to focus on just that one hobby or interest more intensely than on other interests. It might not be your favourite hobby, but I’ve noticed that everyone I know who found their “profession” early on in life, enjoy it even more now because they had time to improve so much. Perhaps it’s simply because being good at something fulfills you, no matter if there’s something else you love doing even more, if that makes sense?

    • Lil

      So true! Also something that I see that is so difficult for others, and myself included, to get over is the money aspect.

      Do what you love and the money will follow is so true. Even if what you love is just a side job or hobby, it’s what will keep you sane

  • Lil

    This article definitely came at such a perfect time since I’m planning to move back home and do some, “career soul searching.”
    I’ve been working in accounting, but it’s SO unfulfilling. I want to do something else, but the problem is I don’t know what. What’s worse is that I knew that I didn’t like accounting in college, but was too lazy to change my major back then because I wanted to just graduate and get out of college ASAP.

    Long story short I’m sad to be moving back home to the clean and quiet suburbs of LA. And I love my current city (gentrifying yet still grimey Echo Park). But, I realized that although no job’s perfect, I need a career that’s at least somewhat meaningful to me!

  • Unemployed Alicia Florrick

    Oh my god, this legitimately came at the perfect time! I’m a lawyer and had to leave my firm (long story, but was a necessary decision due to workplace abuse, harassment etc.) and have been unemployed for 2 months. I’m half-heartedly applying for legal jobs everyday, even though I never really wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I’m at that stage of unemployment where i’m second-guessing my entire resume, feeling inadequate and like a failure that nobody’s responded to my applications. I was just about to break down, when I thought to myself “give me something, just tell me what I should do” – lo and behold I open ManRepeller (my source of comfort and guidance obvs) and this is the article I see.

    This is such great advice. There’s always been a nagging voice in my head telling me I should write – and all I used to think about while I was doing mind-numbing legal research was stories people would be interested in, how to craft them etc. I always have a list of ideas on my phone, but the long hours and procrastination always got in the way.

    tl;dr thank you for writing this, just had an “Ah ha” Oprah moment during a time of struggle. Also cc: Universe, thank you for bringing this to me.

    • Amanda Faerber

      Hi, fellow lawyer here who also doesn’t particularly love the practice of law. I’ve been in the unemployment downward spiral and it sucks. I quit a job/moved and was unemployed for about 7 months. I considered being everything but a lawyer – a baker, working retail, trying to write a great novel – but eventually found a legal job I actually felt compelled by. I reply to you to say that you are not alone in the second-guessing and feelings of inadequacy, especially after coming from a job/culture that seems super bad. I say write. I know it’s easy to say but why not? There might be something in you that the whole world needs to read 🙂

    • VK

      Congratulations on having your moment! I’m a writer, too — DM me if you want to be friends 🙂

    • Lisa

      I’m also an unemployed lawyer. I’ve been licensed for a little over a year and a half. I spend every morning looking for job postings and haven’t even been called in for an interview anywhere. I don’t feel like law is for me and have been debating what would make me happy. I’m glad you realize writing is for you. I wish you the best of luck!

    • There is a really, really good German writer, Ferdinand von Schirach, who uses his knowledge of law and human nature to put out great stories. Just do it. We need more of those.

  • My college had an introduction day for schoolkids like me and there was this strange professor of literature who told us we should not want to study there because we had some talent and wanted to speak foreign languages. What would be required of us is scientific approach to various language-related topics, some of them not interesting to us at all, yet they had to be studied as hard as the rest. For a school-spoiled kid like me (my German and English teachers were my best friends, so to say), this sounded like quite a challenge. One I could not possibly resist. To this day, I expect of me to tackle topics I am not overtly interested in in an appropriate manner and I still like all those strange learning fruits gathered by this method.

    • “strange learning fruits” is possibly the best phrase I have ever heard. Thank you.

  • I didn’t. I didn’t receive good advice. I was top in everything in high school and I KNEW I was a writer… but everyone else pushed me to choose “safer” and “professional” subjects for university. I eventually went on to do architecture in university, hated it from the get go, still ploughed on, got a degree, worked in architecture for a year… until I finally made the decision to become a writer. A bit late, but best thing ever.

    Charmaine Ng
    Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    • Cristina

      If I could do anything now, I’d be a food writer. But man if that isn’t the most saturated market, which makes it so intimidating. In general, I’m a great writer, but people want proof and articles etc etc. And I don’t want to start a food blog and invest the time to make that popular. I want to really write. It’s sometimes defeating!

      • Anna Impson

        I would say I’m a decent writer at best, but I feel you on this. A food writer would be amazing. Except I’m gonna take it a step further. Like, Anthony Bourdain mixed with Harling Ross. So writer, food, cool fashion. DREAM.

      • Áine Hegarty

        Everything is an over-saturated market these days. Do it anyway!

  • Adrianna

    I literally received two job applications rejection letters within two hours today. Most of the time my job apps are just ignored – the non-personal, formulaic rejection e-mail still stings. I felt that that my professional experience warranted at least a phone interview for one of the positions. (E-commerce post production is *very* specific.)

    Yes, I don’t daydream about retouching images of laptops while I’m in the bathroom. But we still need to take roles that can open doors to the job we really want. I managed to turn my hobby into a paycheck after I quit publishing and experienced unemployment for over a year. I’ve been explicitly told that there are no new opportunities or responsibilities at my current job for 4 years – I’ve been actively looking for a new position for 2. I feel stuck, and I have no idea how to move past this current life phase.

  • Laura

    From my dad– Have an opinion, and politely let people know it.

    From my 7th grade science teacher (and I suppose Dylan Thomas!)– Do not go gentle into that good night, let ’em know you’re here, kid! I think about this one on the reg.

  • Mare

    From Elizabeth Gilbert. That there are people with a clear idea of what they want, and there are pollinators. Pollinators can have many passions. I always did. The tabs open on my computer spanned everything from genealogy to mortgage overlays. I never considered I was something that had a title, instead I felt so lost and behind the game. Her words were the reminder I needed that I am doing okay. I am a pollinator. Many passions, many hobbies, and I am NEVER glued to one job or industry for the rest of my life. That realization took the concrete blocks off my chest and I was able to try my hand at one or two of them right away, instead of being frozen in indecision.

    • Thorhildur Asgeirsdóttir

      Wow love this~

    • Adrianna

      Hmm I would also describe myself as a Pollinator. One week I’m considering law school, the next I’m researching and trying out food photography in my tiny kitchen. Trouble is, HR and the people who interview me for jobs are baffled by this

      • Mare

        I agree- I also think being young (ie under 35) hurts me in interviews if I also mention my “pollinator” personality type. It’s easy for interviewers to write me off as inexperienced or not introspective. I hope that the game is changing, considering people my age just don’t stay in the same job forever anymore.

        • Ana

          that’s interesting! I’m 31 and have the opposite problem. Because I’ve had different “careers” I always end up with superiors in their 20s just because they’ve been doing the same thing, slowly working their way up, since they left school.

          • Mare

            Whoa! Must be a difference in industry or even a sub-category of industry. I am in a super old profession- average age of 53.

          • Adrianna

            I previously worked in scholarly publishing – same exact thing. The work flows and management style were super antiquated. (Small example: we’d email and fill out a massive production schedule excel spreadsheet between six people instead of sharing Google Docs)

            I like to say that my current company is people’s second or third job. They’ve worked before, but they’re still young. There’s a lot of engagement and first baby celebrations.

        • Adrianna

          I mentioned in my longer comment on this post that I’m kind of stuck at my current job, despite actively looking to leave for the past two years. (It’s been made very clear to me that there are no growth opportunities.) It seems no one takes my application for (junior, more entry level) Photo Editor or Art Direction positions seriously, because I didn’t start off as an intern in those industries.

          The last person who interviewed me was surprised that I didn’t pursue a creative career. (I work in image production, which is very regimented.) It seems people have forgotten that the recession happened – I took what I could get, and ended up with kind of a random set of professional experiences.

          • Mare

            I so feel that. I took what I could get. I am in the industry I want to be in but its almost impossible to move vertically. It’s tough to even go horizontal! I have been boxed in by my industry. I too find myself with all these years of experience and a high skill set for a job I don’t want. In fact, I feel incredibly qualified as a person- but interviewers only see me as qualified for ONE job. I’m job hunting now and I think I may take an offer that is more or less the same I am doing now, but with a clear (and on contract!) growth path towards the position I want. For now… haha. Good luck to you. I hope you are able to break in. It stink we have to take a pay cut and start over.

          • Mellisa Scarlett

            I resonate with this so badly.

      • Ana

        Agree. I think working freelance in multiple fields/position is definitely the future of work however atm it’s really hard to get to a senior level (and a liveable salary) without HR being able to put you into one of their boxes. And it’s harder to get really experienced at something if you constantly try out new things.

    • Cristina

      Thank you for sharing this! I dabble in a bit of everything too and despite my degree, I’ve worked in various fields. I sometimes feel like I’m having an identity crisis because I don’t know what I want to do, or I’m not passionate about a thing but like.. I like to do lots of different things and I’m not good at one very specific thing like other people are.

      • doladex

        I’m totally with you on the identity crisis thing. When I read this piece I was actually like eeeek I will never have that THING that drives me. I love a lot of things but I don’t know if any one of them is worth putting my whole self into. So reading these comments reminds me that there is more than one way to be!

    • Kate

      Yeah totally feel this – have you heard of Puttylike? It’s a great site with tones of resources for people with loads of passions/ambitions. Keeps me sane! I’m like – of course there’s a job for a film maker/poet/theatre maker/analyst/dressmaker out there, right…. right?! …

      • Fabiana Copelli

        There’s a great TED talk on multipotentiality and not having one true passion/calling that’s super interesting. It’s by the same person as the creator of Puttylike.

        • Kate

          Great shout, thanks!

      • doladex

        Thanks for sharing this! I get kind of caught up in the idea that because I have so many interests and not one (or even two or three) clear path or goal that I’m just unfocused or even lazy sometimes.

        • Kate

          Yeah definitely felt that and have been really critical of myself in the past for being fickle. Have you heard about portfolio careers? I don’t have a link to hand but I’m sure a quick google will give you lots of good stuff. It’s how I’m trying to shape my career now (albeit only very much at the start of that journey) I’m really optimistic that I can find some way of turning that identity crisis into simply an identity… good luck with all your interest – and it’s definitely not laziness!

  • Court E. Thompson

    I’ve heard something similar to this: When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you think about? Do that.

    Alas I’ve yet to find a position that will pay me to snuggle cats and go back to sleep. I have hope though.

    • Adrianna

      My first thought is FOOD and My Cat!, so basically I should open a Cat Cafe

      • Court E. Thompson

        Do you need a business partner? I’m on board.

      • Miciah

        There’s 1 in Atlanta

    • Hannah Greene

      I just figured this one out! I started fostering kittens and bring them to the office in a little playpen that I put by my desk. Now I’m fulfilling my dream of ‘hanging around with cats all day’

  • Teresa

    I feel all your words 🙂 <3

  • Not advice I received, but something I came to realize recently, four years post-college. And that’s how lucky I feel that I’ve been able to take something I’m good at and enjoy doing (writing) and using that skill as a way to work within the myriad of interests and industries I’m drawn to. I used to view writing as my passion, but now I see it as a tool, my trade. The stories that can be told through the lens of my interests in fashion, sports, etc., that’s my passion. And my trade as a copywriter allows me to work in whatever fields and companies I’m interested in!

  • Anna Impson

    Similar to others, I didn’t get great advice. The “important” people in my life pushed me to do the things I was good at and the safer options. Before I went to college, I wanted to do something in fashion. I loved it so much, and I still do, honestly. But I was told that it was an area I wouldn’t succeed in. Unfortunately, I trusted this opinion, and didn’t pursue it. I still think it’s an area I could be successful in, and I’m constantly looking for my in or trying to create my in. It’s a work in progress for sure.

    Super happy that you got such great advice, and even happier that you’re sharing with everyone because it’s a 10/10 on the advice scale.

    • Kiks

      Same. I originally wanted to do hair, actually. My mom told me I was “too smart” to become a hairstylist. I lived in a small town and didn’t know that a career doing hair for fashion shoots, runway shows, etc. was a thing.
      I still do my own hair most of the time, so at least I save money! 🙂

      • Anna Impson

        If you have the time/money to pursue hairstyling, I think you should! Low key I would love to write for Man Repeller. I simply don’t have the credentials right now seeing as I’m a web developer. Last night I just kinda decided that I’m just going to try to do something in my spare time to actually get myself some credentials. With that said, I def think you should follow your passion if it’s still something you want!

        • Kiks

          You’re so sweet. I’ve definitely realized in the last couple years I need to start pursuing creative outlets in a bigger way. I stopped for a long time — my anxiety was so severe from my teens onward, I buried myself in math & science because it was easier than feeling vulnerable and being judged on my own work & thoughts…if that makes any sense. But painting, drawing, design, fashion…those were my first true loves and I want them in my life in a more meaningful way.

          That’s awesome that you’re going to do some work to go after what you want!
          (I once had a dream that Man Repeller hired me and it was the best day of my life. I totally get it.)

  • Rafael Lumang

    Wow, I needed this. I just started writing a blog and it’s all I think about wanting to update more than anything whether or not someone reads it or not. I just felt kind of bad admitting that my blog was what I wanted to pursue because I felt like it was too vain??? You put it into words and now I don’t feel so wrong for wanting to write and share what I know best: me!

  • Emily

    I love this advice. I think if you know something’s right for you, or you know you feel passionate about it, follow that. And to some extent — you can’t listen to anyone else about this, because it’s so internal. When I went to college I studied art history because looking at and learning about art was the one thing I’d really loved throughout my whole life. It was almost a secret passion as I grew up, and I’m sure some of my friends were surprised when I declared my major haha. But I knew it was right for me, and it clicked in a way little else did. In my art history classes, I started shining in a way I never had before. Doing what I loved also allowed my best and truest self to shine through, and pushed me to work hard because I truly loved the work and wanted to get better and learn and succeed. I’m now in my career and am thinking this over again as I start making small course corrections job-wise. Not to sound cliche, but life is a journey (ha!) and it can take a while to assess where you are and figure out where to go from there. Love this article 🙂

  • This is really, really good advice. I’m still in college, but one piece of advice that I was told when I first started interning was to try everything. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, which was work as an editor at a publishing house, but I didn’t get the opportunity to be an editorial intern until a year and a half into my interning experience. Prior to that, I did sales, publicity, and marketing in all sorts of departments, and I genuinely learned so much about myself and the things I like to do from jumping around and trying new opportunities! Never limit yourself 🙂

  • Bee

    This thought has been in my mind for awhile now. I’m realizing that photography is generally all that I think about throughout the day, so I’m trying to come up with a plan to ease into making that a full-time thing!

  • Ambie Gabriela Rietjens Grapig

    I heard a similar advice but it didn’t take me to a good track. I was on a social communication degree (teacher recommendation) but the money went low, so I had to work with my father in his architecture office. Two years later, I could start college again but in a public University (those are free in my country) and I thought of what I would think about day and night — that would be videogames.
    I went for a computer science degree, but I always was super awkward with numbers despite trying my best. Going for game design? Not an option, I have never had any interest in “drawing” or visually putting together anything…
    But every time I worked with anything I learned and tried my best, I went to Manager of a fan website once because of my efforts; became chef redator of a blog despite no degree; revamped my father’s office into dropping CAD for Revit, a better tool; got my name in a article in Germany with my teacher about BPMN tools. I am a never-give-up person.

    In the end, what we should do, is what we can do. My best asset was learning new languages easily — I’ve picked up English, Japanese and I’m starting on Korean now — and although I am not passionate about reading or translating or whatever, I will use these skills to translate things while I work on my part-time jobs.
    It isn’t always “follow your guts” for everyone you know. Besides, I love more my waitress job than any other year I’ve spent on University trying to learn anything. I am passionate and dedicated as long I am getting something from what I’m doing. In work there is bonus and a salary and you can try what you learn for real. Where I get nothing from University, just pay my money….

  • Ellie Wendland

    as a second semester senior, thank you!!!!

  • Tanya Andrews

    The best career advice I ever received was, ” do what you love because it won’t even seem like work and don’t worry about the money…everything will eventually work out.” While the last part about the money has never worked out it may be because I always chase that instead of what I love. I love real estate. It has been my passion since I was a kid. I need to remember that.

  • My college professor/mentor told me – in the midst of my junior-year breakdown – that there’s plenty of time and no real deadline in figuring out what you want to do. Probably the most helpful and comforting thing someone has ever said to me in terms of life plans and goals.

  • leetiffer

    Fantastic article. This website is becoming a fave. Thank you!

  • Marta P.

    I realized I wanted to be a software developer in my mid-twenties because all I could do was learn coding bits and pieces in work downtime. Currently undergoing a total career switch because of that hunch. Don’t follow your dreams, follow your gut!

  • Basil

    I didn’t really receive any helpful career advice as my mother never wanted a career (or to work) and my father was chronically unemployed. Despite that, I lucked out and ended up in a well paid job that I’m really good at and find interesting, but now I’m at an impasse. Im on my second maternity leave so I have lots of time to think and what I constantly think about in my “down time” is writing. I have half a novel and a plan for the rest, but it’s very hard to find the time with two very small children, but I feel now is the time

  • Tse Paco

    so far, I never heard of any advice.

  • Julia

    The only thing I can ever think of is clothes. literally. I made myself to think it is not normal, when in reality deep down I know that it is more me than anything else

  • Pedro Adrián Medrano

    I think about meth. What kind of living can I make doing meth? See, that advice doesn’t always work.

  • Jessica Davis

    I think the best career advice I had was going against it, my college kept telling me studying Psychology was a good path for me, but I went against that and studying Journalism and just kept doing what I loved which was writing and thinking about clothes. Sometimes it takes bad advice to make you realise what you really want to do and what’s right for yourself 🙂

  • Lana T.

    For many who aren’t sure what they want to do, I suggest reading Strength Finders. One of my top 5 Strengths is Learner. I think this is why I get bored easily and change jobs. I can see myself as a Pollinator.

  • Julia Fitzpatrick

    I I have been working as a Registered Nurse for over 30 years. I recently went part time and am looking at alternatives to my current job. I’m too young to retire and have many interests. Thanks for this info and discussion.

  • Caroline Christianson

    I struggle with this, and it reminds me of something Leandra said in an interview once re: working in fashion may be not what someone imagined, and that for a lot of people it fits best into their lives as a precious hobby (I’m paraphrasing and may even be misremembering, but this is how I remember it). I’m in a career that’s all about the long game—med school has been an investment of time and activity that I don’t care for. A lot of times, it feels like I’m killing myself to get a PhD in biochemistry, something I certainly would never sign up for. But the payoff? I’ve obviously decided it’s worth waking up (for many years) not excited about what I have to do, and using hobbies, like fashion and the humanities, to keep me afloat during that investment time. I think delayed gratification, especially in a career, is undervalued by our generation

  • Sally

    Growing up around a close-minded Arab culture that only wanted everyone to revolve their lives around becoming doctors, I’ve learned one thing: Go against the mold! The people around you will only value your success when it is proven to them. And while I’ve obviously not cared about people’s opinions over the years about choosing a more creative marketing career over science, I’ve used it as internal energy to progress and move forward. Proving people wrong has truly been my greatest motivator – and always will be! There’s a certain taste to being a stereo-type breaker that fills the empty & confused void I once had.

  • Darlene Garcia

    Have you considered career couseling with a licensed counselor, who can assess your expriene, values, interests, and personality? A good one takes the mystery and anxiety out of making a decision.

  • Mellisa Scarlett

    All I think about is outfit ideas and new restaurants 🙁 lmao!

  • derp

    The thing I think about when I first wake up would qualify as a shameful and inappropriate career…

  • Beth

    The best advice I’ve gotten is to take note when you’re jealous of another person’s accomplishments and recognize that that’s probably what you want to do. Why else would you be jealous? Conversely, if you’re not jealous of the people succeeding in your current field, it probably means it’s the wrong job for you. Follow your passion- and recognize when jealousy is just misdirected passion!

  • Julia

    My dad had always had the motto “do something you like so you have the means to do what you love” or something like that. I think it’s a little bit of a cop out because obviously having a job you love would be awesome but it does help if the things you love aren’t really an option for a job. I’ve always wanted to open a bakery but I’ve kind of used this motto as motivation to go into a more traditional professional career until I’m in a place with my personal and financial life that i can afford to open a bakery on my own.

  • Lesley Butler

    What inspires me to open multiple tabs on my computer? Late night talk show clips, clothes I want to buy, grad school programs (because I’m a masochist apparently …) and Man Repeller articles. Now I need to figure out what this means career-wise!

  • Divya Khosla

    Beautiful piece of advice, thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom 🙂

  • Sabi Na

    The best career/life advice I got was when I was around 15:

    “You have to take each step of the way, just like on a staircase. And you can’t skip any step. Can’t skip the the happy one, the difficult one, the successful one, the depressing one…”

    I’ve ignored this advice for the longest time and was even surprised to remembered it as at that time I didn’t think of it as a valuable advice.

    But it would come to me at times I would ask myself why something is not working out the way I want. When a thing takes longer or it fails, I get impatient and start questioning everything including myself.

    I just have to remind myself that everything has its own time and place and all you have to do is persevere. Every step is necessary to be taken in order to bring you closer to what you want/are destined to have.

    Good luck everyone! x

  • Rebar

    I had a friend die when we were 19 and whilst I always knew what I wanted to do, his death was the push to pursue it. All I could think was, ‘He didn’t a get a chance to live let alone discover his dreams’. I think it’s a case of one of those ‘be your own best friend’ sort of situations, ‘what would you say to your best friend?’. Well, if you’re an able-bodied person that hasn’t been sold into slavery, prostitution, had a teen marriage/pregnancy – nervousness isn’t a good enough reason to deny yourself happiness. I’ve never doubted my choice because I committed to it once I knew I wasn’t just doing it for myself but for all the people who don’t have the privilege of choosing how they spend their time. It does require you to know what you want though lol.