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Beware of Superstars' Advice

By Marty Nemko

I was reading the press release for a book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Graduates: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. I started out impressed. It said the book consists of “the collective wisdom of a diverse and inspiring cast of success stories—23 liberal arts graduates.” Alas, not one was a student with average grades and average drive from an average college. Most of the 23 were cherry-picked people from cherry-picked colleges: Harvard, Dartmouth, Duke, etc.

For example, the first person profiled in the book is a biology (Is that what most people consider a liberal art major?) graduate from Brown, among the most difficult-to-get-into of the Ivy League colleges. His father is a physician and his mother was a physicist for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. He scored at the 99th percentile on the SAT. In seeking his first job, he had the drive to make hundreds of cold calls, and between each, “I’m like reading everything (about each organization.) You have to be like a sponge, to get to understand the dynamics of the organization, how everything works…Every day, from eight to five, all I did was job search. I had what my dad calls a PhD mentality—poor, hungry, and determined.” He got a job in Genentech’s strategic planning department.

The book used those 23 success stories as evidence that liberal arts graduates can have a great career. Should the average person bet their major and career that the book’s 23 success stories indeed provide “a path to your perfect career?” I sure wouldn’t. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005, for the first time ever, the unemployment rate among college graduates is higher than among high school dropouts (because we’ve increased the number of college graduates by 70 percent since 1970 while U.S. companies are cutting, automating, or offshoring or as many high-paying positions as possible. Many recent liberal graduates are un- or underemployed, working as office temps, putting in long hours for poverty wages at a nonprofit, or even driving a cab or waiting tables.

That book’s misleading advice is no anomaly.’s #1 bestselling self-help book is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. That book’s core recommendation: Make snap judgments. That might work for Gladwell. After all, he’s brilliant enough to be a staff writer for The New Yorker and Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people. Most people aren’t that smart. When mere mortals make snap decisions, they’re more often wrong.

Spencer Johnson, author of the long-time bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese, warns us that we risk starvation unless we’re constantly learning the latest and greatest. Easy for a smart guy like him to do: He is an M.D. who has held posts at Harvard and the Mayo Clinic. Most people have trouble just staying afloat at work and in life. The average Joe or Jane doesn’t have the time, ability, and drive to constantly learn new methodology and technology, let alone keep up with the ever growing mountain of new knowledge.

Even non-august authors are far more capable than most people. Today, more than ever, getting a book published by a mainstream publisher is a real feat: You need not only the diligence to write an entire book, it must be good enough to be among the tiny fraction of submitted books deemed worthy of publication and the even tinier fraction that gets publicized enough that the average reader hears of it. Today’s published authors are extraordinary people. The career advice that works for such authors is not necessarily what will work for just plain folk.

So, when you’re looking for career advice (or any sort of help: computer basics, writing instruction, whatever), don’t rely just on superstar authors or guests on CNN, let alone Oprah. At least supplement with people just one notch more competent than you. If you’re a manager, get counsel not just from that bestseller by a Harvard management professor but from a well-regarded manager at your workplace. If you’re trying to land a job, take professional advice (including that on this site) with grains of salt. Also get counsel from people you know as similar to you who have landed good jobs.

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