I’ve asked for and received a lot of advice over the course of my career. Some advice has been long-standing and helpful. Other advice purely comical.
In my quest for better work/life balance, I’ve polled co-workers who manage career and family about their life hacks. One swore by her crock pot. “Just stick a chicken in it, add water and some carrots and turn it on,” she instructed. “When you come home, dinner will be ready.” I tried it. And came home to a dish my husband aptly named “Chicken in Water.”
Some years back I worked with an on-air talent I had admired greatly. She was a little less impressive up close than she was on the screen. I asked what advice she would give me and she searched my face as if she’d find the answer there. Apparently, she did. “Change your eyebrows, change your life,” she told me, and gave me a card to her Eyebrow Lady. That was the woman’s business card – Eyebrow Lady.
I thought it foolish, of course. I was decidedly behind the scenes, not on-camera, so what did my eyebrows have to do with anything? But presuming she saw something in me I did not see in myself, I made an appointment. Eyebrow Lady scrutinized my face under a light, frowning. She plucked a few stray hairs and described my eyebrows as “sparse.” Would I mind if she filled them in?
I obliged because why else was I there if not to fix my eyebrows (and then, of course, my life)? She got to work, still frowning, penciling away at my face for the better part of the half-hour before handing me a mirror. She had drawn such freakishly large eyebrows on me that I laughed out of shock and then cried a little on the way out, mortified, after shelling out $79 + tip only to go home and scrub my face back to its normal sparse eyebrow state.
But wet chicken and freakishly large eyebrows are not the worst advice I’ve ever received. The worst advice came from a well-intentioned manager who offered the same feedback at each annual review.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
At its core, it sounds great, right? You’re doing a great job so just keep doing it!
And so I did.
And then the next year, the same feedback. By year three I began asking questions. I was eager to learn more, take on new challenges and get myself promoted. How could I do that?
“Look, you’re doing a great job,” he said. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
He indicated I needed to be more patient. And so I was, for a while. But there’s only so many times you can ride the merry-go-round before you start to wonder where it’s going other than in circles. He thought he was doing me a favor by telling me there were no major problems. Unfortunately, I didn’t sense any growth either.
I’m convinced now that those six words – just keep doing what you’re doing – initially sound ideal, but are the beginning to the end of career momentum. If you want movement, you need to dig in and I see now I should have pushed for more specific feedback and forward motion, if not from him then from someone else.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. What new skills and experience can we add to my plan in the upcoming months?”
“What are three areas where you think I can do a better job or more?”
“I intend to keep doing a good job with what I’m doing. I’d also like to do more. In the year ahead, I’d like to do xxx by taking on xxx. How can we formalize those goals?”
Here’s my advice to you. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten. So, if you like what you’ve been getting, great, keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you want something new or better or just different, don’t just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s time to do something new and craft a new story. After all, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
(Insanity is also putting a chicken in water and expecting a meal or thinking that drawing freakishly large eyebrows on your face will change your life, but you don’t need that advice from me…)
Valerie Gordon is an award-winning television producer, lifelong storyteller and the founder of career and communication strategy firm, Commander-in-She. She blogs about career and life and speaks to audiences about how to use the power of storytelling for greater success and satisfaction at work. Read her other career advice articles here.