What’s the Worst Advice You’ve Ever Received?

I’m a fan of the podcast Women with Balls, on which Katy Balls interviews accomplished British women from politics, business, and the arts. It’s better than many shows of this sort because Balls takes her guests seriously as people and professionals and not just as women.

My favorite standard question on the show is “What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?”. We are often asked about the best advice we’ve gotten; Balls’ question directs attention in an unexpected direction.

It takes me back to a professional conference in Los Angeles that I attended right after earning my doctorate. I had finished my degree at a young age and I had an ever younger face in those days, so I was repeatedly mistaken for a graduate or undergraduate student (many of my female colleagues will know the feeling). Once it was revealed that I was in fact Dr. Humphreys, a very large number of older male faculty quizzed me aggressively about my current job in Palo Alto and immediately told me I was making bad career decisions. My friend Eric Mankowski, with whom I roomed at the conference and with whom I attended many convention events, told me he had never seen a person — male or female — subjected to a steadier stream of unsolicited, patronizing advice than what I endured throughout that conference. The specifics of the advice varied across giver, but the consistent theme “You will never succeed in academia unless you follow my path” was the worst advice I ever received.

What about you – what is the worst advice you ever received?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Worst Advice You’ve Ever Received?”

    1. I got that advice too, also with bad results.

      I don’t know if it was the worst I ever got, but I suspect that if you multiply its frequency by the weight of its badness it is probably the heaviest piece of bad advice around.

      Investment advisors are thieves, out to “rob you with a fountain pen.”.

  1. My first job out of law school was at a 40 lawyer contingent fee plantiff’s firm in Philadelphia. After I was there a few years I was recruited by the office of general counsel for Pennsylvania Bell, which had a similar size. The general counsel pointed out that contingent fee work is very risky, that they can never find enough clients, and that plaintiff’s firms generally fall apart when the founder retires and the founder of my firm was pushing 80. By contrast, Pennsylvania Bell’s general counsel office had a client hich always needed lots of lawyers becase it was a heavily regulated monopoly, had never laid off a lawyer in its history, and had been based in Philadelphia for about a century and wasn’t going anywhere.

    I didn’t take the job. The next year, local and long distance telephone service became mostly deregulated and Pennsylvania Bell’s counsel office had a roud of layoffs. The year after that, Pennsylvania Bell was merged with some other companies to become Verizon, and the Philadelphia office closed completely.

    25 years later, I’m still with the plaintiff’s firm, now up to 65 lawyers.

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