Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Unsolicited Advice is a Valuable Clue

Things I Learned the Hard WayIn this series, I’m recounting work stories to learn from my mistakes. I call them Things I Learned the Hard Way.

Years ago, I was considering a job. I had a series of interviews with people at the company, and I noticed something peculiar. Without me asking, each of them offered me tips for how to get along with the boss. At the time, I thought they were just trying to be helpful, but I didn’t take them very seriously. After all, their issues wouldn’t necessarily be my issues.

But when people give you advice, they’re communicating something in between the lines. They’re telling you what their problems are. And their problems could be a preview of yours. The trick is to decode the meaning.

In an interview, when someone says, “there’s a lot of politics,” they mean “you can’t trust anyone.” When someone says, “people here are very dedicated,” they mean “we expect you to work 80 hours a week.” When someone says, “I just couldn’t be happier,” they mean “please take this job so I can quit.” (No one’s happiest at work. Ever.)

In this case, when several employees separately offered me advice about how to work with the boss, what they were really saying was, “the boss is hard to work with.” Or, more simply, “the boss is an asshole.” (I’ve already written about that.)

When someone offers you unsolicited advice, your first response may be to ignore it, because you didn’t ask for it. You might also be tempted to hear it as criticism. (“He suggested I stay calm. Do I not seem calm? I’m totally calm!”) Instead, try to see it as a whispered clue. Mentally rephrase it to be in the first-person. “You should try to be calm” becomes “I struggle to stay calm.”

You’ll be amazed at how much insight this simple trick can provide.


What was the last bit of unsolicited advice you got? Tell us all about it.

Read more Things I Learned the Hard Way.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.