Why I don’t take career advice from anyone

Published by Nela Dunato on in ADHD, Personal, Thoughts

Why I don't take career advice from anyone

The other day my phone rang, and it was a dear friend I haven’t heard from for a long time. We exchanged the pleasantries for a couple of minutes, until I asked how come he decided to call me right now.

“A friend came over and he showed me some videos on YouTube of this artist guy with an afro…”

Bob Ross?

“You know about him?”

“Of course I know about him. My ex K. was a big fan. He tried his techniques, too.”

“And they really work?”

“Yep, once he made like 3 or 4 landscape paintings in a single day.”

“Cool, anyway, he reminded me of you, and I got some ideas for you so I decided to call you. You could earn some real money doing this, sitting on the beach and just painting trashy landscapes to sell to tourists…”

(This is where he launches into a whole business plan for my kitsch landscape artist career.)

I laughed and did the telephone version of smiling and nodding as he wrapped up his story, and then we agreed to get together one afternoon to play same tabletop games, and hung up.

This conversation reminded me of a blog post I had sitting in my drafts folder for 3 years that I never got around to publishing.

At any rate, I get a lot of career advice from friends. Everyone who knows I can draw and paint seems to have a million dollar idea for me that’s just ready for the taking, and they’re eager to share it with me, probably thinking that it has never occurred to me before.

(Trust me, it probably did, and there’s a reason I’m not doing it. I’ll tell you all about it in a minute.)

Most of these people are not artists themselves. Maybe once or twice a fellow artist suggested I do what they’re doing, but usually it’s the people who have never done art that are the most passionate about telling me what I should do with my talent. I’m not sure why that is, and I’m not going to try to get behind their motivations, but I’m going to focus on being on the receiving end of such advice, since you probably get a lot of that as well.

The multi-passionate curse

If you’re a multi-passionate person, then it’s already hard enough to pick a career to stick with, out of all the possibilities out there.

One thing that many people miss is that the idea of doing something is very different from actually doing it. The idea is always glamorous and focuses on the end result: beautiful art, fame, magazine features, exhibitions or concerts, money, fans…

Doing the work on the other hand usually consists of:

  • Working hard all day long.
  • Practicing boring fundamentals.
  • Making mistakes.
  • Starting over.
  • Studying the masters.
  • Getting our of your comfort zone.
  • Sacrificing socializing, reading and video games.
  • Being a nobody for years until someone finally notices you.

We expect to feel every day as we would feel the day when our work got featured on Juxtapoz Magazine, or The Rolling Stone, or Vogue, or Wired, or the New York Times bestseller list—which just isn’t realistic. The moments of having achieved success are rare, and the moments of working hard with no reward (apart from the pleasure of doing the work itself) are abundant.

If you don’t like the doing, and are only doing it for the promise of money and fame, you won’t be very good at it.

This is something that well-meaning friends and strangers often don’t understand, or they project their own ideas of what pleasurable work is on others. If someone enjoys a certain thing, they expect other artists would enjoy it as well, which isn’t always the case.

The idea of doing creative work is very different from actually doing creative work, day in and day out.

The problem with multi-passionate people is that we tend to go through life doubting that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and other people’s comments can steer us away from our path.

Throughout your life, people have probably told you “You’re so good at X, you should be a [profession].” If you’ve heard the same thing over and over again, maybe you’ve ended up believing that was what you should do.

But what if you are good at multiple things, and every person told you a different story? Stories like…

  • You’re so good at explaining math to your friends, you should be a math teacher.
  • You love computers so much, you should work in IT.
  • You’re so good at art, you should be a painter.
  • You’re good at languages, you should be a translator.

And so on. With every new skill you’ve learned, you had people telling you that this is what you should do with your life. But turning something from a hobby into a career comes with some drawbacks.

Maybe when the time came to decide, you had no idea what to do, and likely picked “the most reasonable” solution. Maybe later you realized it was the wrong decision.

I went through this process so many times that it seems like the only constant in my life is that I have no idea what to do with my life. Because every time I make a choice, I feel like I shut the door on something greater and more expansive.

The problem with well-meaning advice

I’m not saying advice is necessarily bad (it shows that people care about you), but you have to realize that the advice people give you is based on their unique viewpoint, which may or may not be aligned with your unique viewpoint.

People don’t see the entire world and all its possibilities, they only see a tiny fraction that corresponds with their point of view. It’s a mechanism designed to save us from cognitive overload. Your brain learns to tune out the “noise”, and call for your attention only when what’s important to you is in sight.

This is where listening to other people’s opinions gets problematic.

Each person you ask for advice is like a blind man from the elephant parable (if you haven’t heard of that story before, here it is).

In the story, it turns out all the blind men were correct, in a way. But neither of them knew the whole story, and in the end neither of them really knew what an elephant was. They had their own partial experience, and other people’s words to rely on.

Each one of us is a bit like that elephant – we have a unique set of skills, talents and experiences. No one else knows your own life better than you do (not even your parents). When people give us advice, they focus on one aspect of us that they’re attached to, and disregard all the other aspects that are equally important to us.

I’ve heard a quote about advice that goes something like this:

“You should only listen to advice from the people who have achieved what you want.”

I believe that’s a good rule of thumb. If somebody hasn’t achieved what you want in life, how can they even comprehend what your goals are, and what the path to achieving them is?

(I guess I knew this on some level. When my parents gave me career advice, I concluded I should do the absolute opposite, since I didn’t want to end up doing what they’re doing.)

It’s not just about hating “doing what you’re told”. There are benefits of seeing the problem from another person’s perspective, and when asked for advice, I’m willing to provide it. However, I get a lot of unsolicited advice from people who don’t even know what I want. Advice from those people, no matter how well they mean it, doesn’t necessarily work for you.

To illustrate my point, I’ll mention just a few things that people have told me over the years, and why that wasn’t good advice for me in that situation.

“You should graduate.”

When I was voicing my decision to leave university, everyone had a mouthful of advice. “You’ll regret it when you’re older”, they said. “It’s important to have a degree, you’ll be eligible for better jobs and higher pay”.

My best friends didn’t say that. They knew I didn’t want a good job. I didn’t look forward to climbing the corporate ladder, in which owning a degree of any kind would be very useful.

Why bother being eligible for something I don’t even want to be doing?

I don’t regret my decision. I’m self-employed, and no one has asked me for a degree, ever. At the same time, many of my friends with university degrees are unemployed, or work jobs well outside of their major. A lot of my friends with degrees and jobs are still unhappy, and live only for the weekend and The Vacation. What a horrible way to grow old.

“You should start your own business.”

Sometimes good advice comes at the wrong moment. While I was working at an agency, I was constantly asked why I don’t have my own business instead. (Of course, it’s the people who never owned a business that asked this question.)

People think owning a business equals more money, and don’t see any of the drawbacks (you pay your own health care, taxes, vacation time, and actually spend only a fraction of your time doing creative work).

Owning a business means being responsible for a lot of things your employer used to take care of. You have to go out and find new clients. You have to make sure to add up all taxes and expenses on top of your hourly rate to make up prices that support you. If you have a slow month, your paycheck takes a hit.

For a more detailed list of everything freelancers are required to do, check out my article: Nela’s ultimate list of 32 freelancing tips

It’s hard, and at the time I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to enjoy a carefree life and having a reliable income every month, go to festivals and concerts, and buy anything I wanted.

Since I became a freelancer, my life has been very different, and I had to give up many things I used to take for granted—things that those folks who advised me to become self-employed will never have to give up.

It’s very easy to say things like that when it’s not your money on the line.

“You should become a tattoo artist.”

There was a friend who was really pushy about the idea of me becoming a tattoo artist. He offered me to practice on his skin and threw all this information and videos at me without pausing to ask if it was something I was interested in.

I thought about this when I was younger and had a passion for body modification. Being a tattoo artist sounds like a badass job. But when I considered it more seriously, I realized I’d hate it.

The thought of doing my work around people every day, all day long sounds horrible. There would be people walking into my shop all the time asking for a quote. There would be smelly people, obnoxious people, ignorant people… (You should hear the wild stories from body modification artists!)

And the reason I’d hate this job the most is that the majority of people would show up with a picture they’ve found on the internet. I’d be spending most of my time copying other people’s stuff instead of drawing my own things.

If this guy knew me well, he’d have known how important my own ideas are to my work, and how I actually love working alone. He’d be aware this advice goes against everything I want.

“You should sell physical products.”

Another friend suggested that I use my drawings for products like clocks, bags, boxes etc. and that I could even make them myself using a technique like decoupage.

My answer was that I don’t want to spend my time manufacturing things and then attending fairs to sell them, or listing on various sites, packing, shipping etc. It’s not fun and I’d rather have someone else do that for me. That’s why I’m using printing services such as Society6, where I supply the artwork, and they do the rest for me.

I’ve tried making prints myself, but I could never get the same quality for a good price in local shops, and I don’t have money to invest in a new expensive printer right now.

I enjoy painting, drawing, crafting unique jewelry, sewing… new and original things. Whenever I have to repeat the same thing twice, I lose interest.

Leaving an agency job just to get into a different set of repeated tasks every day in order to barely make a fraction of what I used to earn… Yeah, not really what I want from my life.

“You should take this management position.”

I was offered a position that seemed like a step up from what I’ve been doing at the time to become an art director in an agency. When I read the job description I realized it was actually the opposite of my goals. My job would be to oversee the work of several junior designers, and be the bridge between them and clients.


I never wanted to be a manager. I’m a creator. I want to be making amazing stuff, not telling other people what to do.

I’m sure there are people who would tell me it was crazy to turn down such an opportunity, but those people don’t know me. (Did you notice there’s a theme to this?)

“You should get into [this niche] because there’s good money to be made.”

I occasionally take a side gig that is way different from what you might expect because I’m asked by an acquaintance, and I have the time.

I got this one scientific illustration gig in which was nice and quick. The client then approached me with the idea that I get into this field and start doing jobs like this regularly. When people come at me so openly willing to help, I don’t have the heart to just stop them right there and tell them I’m not interested.

Scientific illustration is not something I want to be doing the majority of my time. It’s not something I want to be known for. It’s not something I’d even put in my portfolio because it’s boring.

In each and every case I’ve described, the person giving the career advice was coming from their own experience, and genuinely thought it was a great career choice. When someone is coming from their experience, they have great conviction, and if you’re feeling a little shaky, you might actually listen to them. Be careful not to fall into this trap.

People don’t know you

They don’t know your goals, values or preferences. They don’t know what pushed you out of the regular job workforce to do your own thing.

They don’t know you’re actually dreaming of taking your career in a completely different direction, and that their well-meaning advice will take you away from it, not toward it.

Who can blame them? I don’t.

I don’t tell people about my dreams. I don’t plaster them all over my Facebook wall and speak about them to anyone who will listen. People wouldn’t understand anyway, and I don’t want to look at their blank and suspicious faces, or worse, being outright told it’s a dumb idea that won’t work.

When they give me advice, I smile and thank them, and shove it straight into the drawer labeled “Not in a million years”.

I wish I could be more honest, but this is where I’m currently at. Maybe this time next year, I will write about my big dreams on this very blog.

Or maybe by then, some of them will have come true. Who knows?


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8 responses to “Why I don’t take career advice from anyone”

  1. Great post, Nela about getting shoulded. :) Love that you get multi-passionates. Totally resonate with you here–“Whenever I have to repeat the same thing twice, I lose interest.”

    I’m gonna get a “not in a million years drawer” in my desk!!

  2. Thank you, Deborah! :)
    Ah, isn’t that the hardest thing? Curiosity and stretching toward a new skill inspire me, but when I know for sure that I can do something (because I’ve done it already) the spark is gone.

    Haha, love it!! :D

  3. I’m happy it helps, Ivana :)
    I guess you could say the main mission of my blog is to help creative people feel less alone surrounded by “standard thinkers” :D

  4. So interesting! I don’t recall this ever happening to me {if anyone did this it was me doing it to myself, or my parents/teachers saying I should get a degree, but nothing art related.} But I loved what you said about how the idea is always focused on the end result, not what it might take to get there. It seems to me that anyone pushing their ‘you should do this’ on others, however well meaning, are really just transferring what they wish THEY could do – but aren’t because of fear or whatever reasons – onto others who they could then ‘watch’ doing it. Like what Julia Cameron calls ‘shadow artists’. Such an interesting read, as always!

  5. Thank you, Tara!
    Ooh, “shadow artists” sounds interesting! I haven’t read “The Artist’s Way” yet because I’ve lent my copy to a friend years ago, and never got it back. I reckon there’s more to it than the “morning pages” exercise everyone talks about :)

    I think you have a point with people advising things that they wish they were able to do.
    For example, my mom always wanted to be a teacher, and then painted this beautiful image of teaching as a profession in an effort to push me towards it. I ran as far as I could from the academia knowing working in this education system is actually pretty horrible. Now I’m teaching part-time in a privately owned school for adults, and it’s better, but still very taxing energy-wise. But she was so proud of me when I took on that job. She never said she was proud of me starting my business, or for my international art shows, or awards. Teaching is an ideal profession for her, and that’s all she values :)

    Knowing this about her, it’s easier to understand the motivations of other people who do this too, though I wouldn’t go as far as to dissect them on the blog.

  6. Yes, there’s so much more to it! I never got on with morning pages and haven’t worked my way through it, but I did get a lot from it when I read it. For me the main interest lies in the process side of things, and I love how she talks about that.

    My parents always wanted me to go to university, and it turned out to be a big mistake for me. I think with the world the internet has opened up and the possibilities to create your own ‘job’, things are available now that just don’t fit the categories or boxes of what our parents saw as being the most valuable way to have a career. So maybe it’s harder to recognise these new ways as something that has as much merit if you’re not familiar with them.

  7. I agree completely. My parents grew up in communism, and there was this guarantee that people who graduate from university get to pick a job in a well established company where there will work until they’re retired.
    Then our country collapsed, we had a war, and all their ideas of what careers are supposed to look like went down the drain. Now it’s their generation who has to catch up with the modern technologies and continue to educate themselves in order to remain relevant in a marketplace with fewer and fewer jobs.

    There are no university programs that will adequately prepare you for the jobs of the future that don’t even exist yet. But keeping the finger on the pulse and observing what’s going on will.

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