MTI Collective Responses: What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

We received incredible responses to our first MTI Collective question, “What is the worst piece of professional advice you’ve received?”. The respondent’s professional experience range from military, law enforcement, fire, and private industry. Thank you to the respondents for sharing your lessons learned, as we hope others will be able to utilize these anecdotes in their own lives.

Based on the responses provided, the major themes are listed below, followed by the full list of responses with no edits.

  • Honesty and Integrity: Many responses emphasize the importance of honesty and owning up to mistakes. Lying or denying involvement in mistakes, as advised by some seniors, often led to worse outcomes and damaged reputations.
  • Career Path and Personal Goals: Several individuals were advised to follow a specific career path or to stay in a certain job for promotions, often at the expense of their personal or professional goals. The advice to stick to traditional career trajectories sometimes led to missed opportunities and unfulfillment.
  • Gender Stereotypes and Limitations: A few respondents mentioned being discouraged from pursuing certain careers due to gender stereotypes, such as women being advised against roles typically dominated by men. Overcoming these stereotypes led to successful careers in their chosen fields.
  • Lifelong Learning and Open-mindedness: The importance of continuous learning and staying open to new ideas and opportunities is a recurring theme. Those who were advised to be know-it-alls or to stop questioning things often found themselves stagnant in their careers.
  • The Fallacy of “Playing It Safe”: Advice to play it safe, strive for mediocrity, or not take risks in careers was often regretted. Respondents found that taking risks and challenging the status quo led to more fulfilling and successful careers.
  • Misguided Educational and Financial Advice: Some respondents regretted following advice to go into debt for education or to choose a career solely based on financial prospects. They found that passion and interest in a job are more important for long-term satisfaction.
  • Ignoring Health and Well-being: Advice to ignore health issues, especially in military or physically demanding roles, was highlighted as detrimental. Prioritizing health was seen as essential for long-term career sustainability and personal well-being.
  • Questioning Authority and Procedures: A few responses indicated that blindly following orders or not questioning procedures can be harmful. It’s important to understand the reasons behind actions and to challenge inefficient or outdated practices.
  • Valuing Depth Over Breadth in Skills: Some were advised to diversify their skills at the expense of developing depth in a particular area. However, specializing and excelling in a specific skill or passion often led to greater success and satisfaction.
  • Self-Advocacy and Pursuing Personal Aspirations: A common theme was the importance of advocating for oneself and not solely relying on others’ advice for career decisions. Pursuing personal aspirations and not being afraid to deviate from prescribed paths were key to many respondents’ success.

“When I was serving in a U.S. Army special operations unit, I made a major mistake that could have had significant negative consequences for my career. I approached another, more senior, soldier that I trusted and asked his advice. He advised me to lie, deny that I committed the mistake, and deny that I had any involvement in the entire situation.
Initially, I took his advice and lied. I signed a sworn statement saying I had nothing to do with the situation. Immediately after I signed the document, I knew I had made the situation worse. I spent several sleepless nights mulling over the issue and dealing with the regret for what I had done and how I had compounded the issue by lying. After four days, I returned to my commander, confessed everything – both the original mistake and the lie – and prepared to deal with the consequences. Ultimately, my career in the U.S. Army ended.
While I don’t know what my fate would have been had I told the truth from the beginning, lying ruined any chance I had at recovering from my first mistake. Lying about the situation broke trust with my leadership and created a situation where keeping me would have not only undermined my command’s trust in me, but also my command’s trust in any unit I lead from that point on. In short, I was now more of a liability than an asset.
What I learned is that lying is never the solution to any problem, at work or outside of work. The only way to move forward from any career mistake is to own it, learn from it, accept the consequences, and try to move forward. Attempting to avoid the consequences is never a real solution and our personal reputation and honor are the bedrock of our reputation. Once that is gone, we have truly lost everything.”

“I work for the federal govt in a three letter agency. After I got out of training and assigned a “mentor” I was told to not ask questions or bring up anything to my superiors. I realize now that was said to keep me below others and to maintain their status quo . Ten years later I’m understanding the intentions behind that and now doing what I do . I was played for a fool. ”

“Military and federal law enforcement. In both tracks I’ve been advise to follow the promotion roadmap. Take this job to get that one. For things like command and leadership jobs there are mandatory boxes to check but if you invest too deeply, time flies by and you might never reach for personal or professional goals. I stayed in a job for too long hoping the next would get me somewhere. It wasn’t until I left and took a chance did I start doing work I felt was important. I still missed out on a career I would have loved and thrived in but I’m doing interesting and important work now. ”

“Women can’t be: in a professional orchestra, a park Ranger, a firefighter. Stick to secretary, teacher, nurse, maybe researcher. Embarking on my 26th season as a backcountry ranger in May, 20 years in an orchestra and 12 years in wildland fire. Just ignore the naysayers.”

“Bricklayers labourer and firefighter. Not that i have been told this, but at 31 yrs old i can definitely say anyone who is a know it all and close minded, are people who do not advance in their lives let alone their career. Don’t ever stop learning. Met a lot of miserable people in construction who would complain about work but not do anything to change their situation. Take action and don’t stop learning.”

“Don’t worry, you have time…. I was going to get a cert a few years back and decided to hold off. Now I am scrambling to get that cert, that will allow me to reach a level professionally I should have been at years ago. Moral of the story is, you have to take responsibility for your development. ”

“Land surveying, 7 years. “Women shouldn’t be working in this line of work. I can’t help that they hired you, but the best thing you can do is sit in the truck.” Working fire suppression in combination dept in suburban area, 10 years. I wanted to volunteer first, since it was a busy and big department and saw a lot get chewed up and thrown through the ringer. “Get the job, and learn it after. People here will teach you. There’s a ton of people that start here that don’t know anything.””

“Farming. Don’t quit the job that is making u miserable. I suffered from major anxiety, constant head aches. My dream each morning was to get in a car accident and have a compound fracture in my leg so I could get a break from work . 28 years later I run my own business and always think about how we won’t treat people. I have told both my kids get good a quiting. We spend to much time thinking we need to see a bad situation that we have no control over through ”

“Federal law enforcement. My boss told me the best way to stay out of trouble was to “strive at mediocrity.”

“I am a civilian pilot and aircraft mechanic. The worst career advice I received was “it’s worth going into debt to have the career you want.” I realized about 3/4 of the way through my very specific aviation degree that I wanted to do something else but I was already 6 figures into student loans, and graduated into a recession that made sure my salary wouldn’t ever reach the advertised earning potential of my degree. I did get to eventually work with the military in a high-paying job that I ended up loving, but it wasn’t because of my fancy college degree. ”

“”You need to go to University, get a degree, get employed by a good company, work hard, keep your head down and be grateful for that opportunity…” Bullsh*t!! Working hard to make someone else wealthy, and ‘being grateful for it’? F**k that!! I would’ve been better off travelling to live & learn; build genuine independence and self-reliance, and finding out where my true strengths and desires for development lay. Come back home and start something meaningful, either on my own or in partnership with other, like-minded individuals. Or pursue academic pursuits when they had real meaning and relevance, rather than being yet another social badge it was necessary to collect and tick off the list.

As it was, I eventually ended up following my own heart, meeting the people who supported and facilitated that journey along the way. But it could’ve been done with a lot less guilt, anguish, wasted time and wasted money than that original straitjacketed philosophy created! Take the time to listen to your own inner feelings; explore your genuine emotional response when you think through various options and scenarios in life. And then act on them. Your inner spirit will guide you, and keep you right. It knows the path you truly want to follow. Listen to it.”

“I’ve been a firefighter for about 6 years. When I was first getting into my field I was told by my instructors that the best department to work for was the one that will hire you first. 20 years ago that may have been the case, but with the increasing demand for first responders post COVID, there is not shortage of job opportunities, save for the most venerated fire departments in the region. I did not take the advice and landed a position with my choice department, but I’ve had friends and classmates that did suffer following it. They end up bouncing from one department to another, hoping the next will be better than the last. Meanwhile they get a reputation of moving jobs quickly and departments become wary of hiring them and not seeing a return on their invest. They also end up resetting their retirement every time they move. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a department , and it’s wise to admit when you’re unhappy, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little more selective about who you choose to work for. ”

“The worst advice is that I needed to go into a leadership role. I work in the information technology space. I left my technical career for a management track. Huge mistake. I’m miserable dealing with corporate politics every day. While I’m successful as a leader, not a day goes by that that I regret not being able to do the hands-on technical work. Don’t let someone else tell you what your path is. I decided early in my career that I wanted to stay on the technical side. I let someone else convince me otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with remaining in a technical role. You can still be an informal leader in the organization.”

“When I was a new patrol deputy I expressed a goal of going to a specialized unit in the future. My lieutenant said “Well here the sheriff has a plan for everyone and that’s what we go with.” I left shortly after to pursue an agency that encouraged you to set goals and pursue what you want. I understand there are needs of the agency but not being able to even dream put a damper on my desire to work there. ”

“I’m a mid career military pilot on an exchange flying training tour with another branch in the Southeast US. Part of the spin up training in this command required me to shadow a practice field supervisor shift. The training supervisor was an end of tour Instructor Pilot with the second most hours in the training air frame on this station at the time. We were in different stages of family life. They being single and me with a toddler and another baby on the way.
During one of our conversations later in the shift, seemingly out the blue, they advised I should buy a boat and spend my free time boating while stationed here. I responded by asking if that’s what they did in their free time to which they said yes. I asked a few more questions about the topic then moved on. I was surprised internally that of all the experience that Pilot could share from this tour, boating was the one piece of advice they explicitly chose to share. Needless to say I did not buy a boat and spend my free time, and disposable income, boating. Instead, I flew slightly more than the required hours/missions for my rank, took care of the members assigned to my element, made time for appropriate professional development, and invested my free time strengthening the relationships with my wife, toddler, and our baby we had while stationed here.
As a family, our finances have been secure but through disciplined effort we were able to significantly grow them this tour while still having fun as a family, traveling, and helping extended family visit. Had I bought a boat, I’m certain I would have made some memorable excursions and fishing trips with friends but would have missed out on some of the professional and financial opportunities experienced this tour. Finally, I would have missed some rich relational opportunities with my young family as we have grown together, traveled, and created memories that will last a lifetime.”

“I’m a helicopter pilot in the Army. Once upon a time, as a junior warrant officer, many senior mentors advised that I will need to “diversify my resume” if I wanted to move up in rank. This is code for “stop flying and take a role doing staff work”. That was 15 years ago. Spoiler alert: I didn’t listen.

I stuck with flying because that’s what I love, and guess what? I still got promoted, again and again. Here’s the takeaway: Passion trumps protocol. If you’re exceptional at what you do, you’ll shine, regardless of the path you take. If you take jobs you hate – and you’re just punching the clock- you’re missing out the high’s of life. Looking backwards, life’s too short for a monotonous march. Find your groove, stick to it, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s the secret sauce.”

“Become irreplaceable!” I did and spent years being passed over for promotion because they couldn’t find anyone to perform at the expectation I had created. I spent years working towards the promotion until the manager I had at the time told me he couldn’t afford to not have me where I was-and that’s where I would stay as long as I was employed there. Took 10 years to learn that one. “

“Fitness coach – I’ve been very blessed to have had solid mentors over the last 13 years. The worst advice I’ve received – “the industry is headed in X direction (that I didn’t agree with on an ethical level) and you need to get on board”. Led to a lot of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and fear of the future. Thankfully I got out of that environment and stayed true to my own ethics and vision. And now I am seeing that the advice was incorrect, short sighted, and ultimately led to a bit of an implosion. I definitely do NOT believe I’m always right. But I learned that when something stinks, it’s probably BS”

“Military, 20 years. Several times in my career I was told “no, that’s not possible.” I have found, more often than not, that saying no to reasonable requests that can provide a net benefit to an organization and an individual represents a lazy, stuck-in-the-box mentality. To paraphrase a former great First Lady, “never accept a no from someone that doesn’t have the power to say yes.” And to add to that, never accept your first no, or maybe even your second, or third. Persevere. ”

“I was in an Intel position, and was told I couldn’t ask “why” something needed to be done. That’s the exact opposite of the position requirements. If something isn’t understood from the intel perspective, it needs to be understood in order to develop a holistic approach. ”

““Don’t go to JSOC” – As a support guy in the Army, I’ve spent half of my career in special operations units like the Rangers and JSOC. Some senior leaders in my career field served in SOF once or twice 20 years ago, but most spent their time climbing the traditional military career path in conventional forces.

Some hate SOF, while others don’t know or care enough to have a strong opinion. Either way, most think you should follow their career path. After all, it worked for them. I’ve had leaders say things like – “you’re just hanging out with the cool guys” or “you’re hiding behind the ruck” because I by choose to support the national mission force over traditional “hard KD time”. This “career advice” made me annoyed with those leaders and question my future in the military. How could they be so dismissive or condescending to a young officer? How will you inspire next generation by putting them down? If this is a prevalent opinion, do I stand a chance at promotion or command boards? My contributions to the mission, the skills developed and shared across the force, and the services provided to those who sacrifice so much improved drastically because of my time in SOF. Now it’s time to break the cycle of bad career advice and embrace multiple definitions of success and routes to get there! “

“From a “leader” who had the pedigree, but lacked the competence: Breadth of experiences is more important than depth of experiences. ”

“For a long time I was my own source of bad career/life advice. Younger, I was arrogant and self-righteous. I’d run my mouth and my actions would be short of resulting expectations. I’d let anyone in on my next big idea. I’d over-estimate my skills. I’d complain vocally. I’d talk shit of colleagues. I’d haze, harass and bully. Yeah… From 16 (when I joined the Canadian infantry reserves) till 32 (last year) I’ve maintained these behaviours and they’ve cost me jobs and the chance to build a lasting career in any environment I was in (military, hospitality, barbering)

“Keep your head down, always say yes and do your work….. yeah NO! That created the worse work experience Ive ever had. Master the art of saying No & delegating (within reason) and your life will be so much better.”

“Going to medical is a bad idea. In military culture the idea of “going to medical” is ridiculed very harshly. Some view it as weekends while others view it as letting the team down. Unfortunately, this still continues to this day coining the term “BAS Warrior”. This not only impacts your efficiency as individuals, but also impacts the team. Years later, after ending service and stop moving as much we start to feel the effects of not getting treatment. Not just physically but mentally and spiritually. My best advice is, stop trying to “tough it out”. Stop saying, “just change your socks, drink water, and take some Motrin”. Go see a medical provider and don’t stop seeing them until you’re can be an asset to the team. Failing to do so will not only increase issues with you, but also create a liability for your team. Semper Fi.”

“I am retired military (USAF, 30 years). I was once told, “never pass up the opportunity to say nothing.” Basically, keep your mouth shut. It took me several years after hearing that advice from a trusted mentor to realize that I missed many opportunities to chime in with thoughts/ideas that were actually valuable.”

“If you hit .300 in baseball you still fail about 70% of the time, baseball is a sport of failures. I quit playing baseball because I felt like I was doing nothing but failing even though I hit over .300 in high school and college. ”

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