There’s never any shortage of people who are ready to give you advice.

When I was in high school, the advice, invariably, was to go to university. For what, to what end, and how you were going to pay for it didn’t matter; you should go to university, case closed.  If you did, you’d be set for life.  No one seemed to have any information past that, but it was confidently stated, and since they seemed so certain, it only troubled me occasionally. It was my plan: Step 1, get a B.A. Step 2, apparently set for life.

I did, however, have to learn to be more practical.
“In the Real World,” they’d say “they don’t make exceptions or give extensions; you have to follow the rules.”

My choice to be a Classical History and then English Lit major was also considered impractical, unless I was going into teaching.  Since the very thought of teaching made me want to curl up in a ball and die, I was ‘tsk tsk’ed over by everyone who talked to me about it.  “What are you going to do with that degree, then?” They’d ask. I didn’t have an answer. People advised me on what I ought to do (teach; change majors; change schools; quit school); some looked down their noses at me because I was so flighty, willful, and wayward.

In university, of course, I found that people do indeed make exceptions and bend or break rules. If you ask politely, and are honest, university professors will often give you extensions.  No “My grandma is sick,” just “I have a lot of work and haven’t been able to get it done yet; can I hand it in next Monday instead of today?” It pretty much worked all of the time. In my mind – already pretty suspicious of authority, anyway – I started to wonder what else I’d been told about the Real World had been an outright lie.

I really enjoyed university – I learned a lot, had mostly excellent professors, and spent my time outside of school learning as well – how to shoot/edit video, promote live events, all sorts of things. I had all kinds of varied jobs (costumed museum interpreter, youth shelter mentor, life drawing model) because I impractically held out for something interesting, rather than something normal.  I volunteered for local organizations and helped out on friends’ projects.  It gave me the space to experiment with different skills, to talk to people about my ideas, to bounce arguments off of learned brains and see if anything would stick.  I thought that this experience was useful, because it gave me lots of transferable skills and taught me how to think independently.

I was still, I was told, being unpractical and unrealistic.

I graduated, miserable under the weight of people’s advice.  Eying my student loans, poised like the sword of Damocles over my head, and the terrible job market here in town, it looked as though I ought to have listened.  People shook their heads over me, obviously feeling the schadenfreude of those who warned you, but you just wouldn’t listen. They’d tell me about job postings; secretarial, temp, call centre.  Practical, normal work, and some people live and thrive in those jobs. But I kept my eyes open, and held out hope for something good. And it often came.

Since graduating university, I’ve had some really cool jobs.  No training, no diploma, and no degree could have landed me in any of these positions.  It’s all been experience, connections, help from friends and family, confidence (feigned or otherwise), and perseverance when nothing seemed to be working out.  I’m totally glossing my setbacks, which have been many and of considerable power, and I make less money in a year than many of my peers.  But I can see a track ahead of me that’s leading somewhere, and not just an unhappy trudge on a hamster’s wheel.

A million times I’ve had to turn down bad advice – just take the job until something better comes along, switch your path to something more predictable, more stable, more normal.  Sometimes I’ve taken that bad advice: take this job even though you have a very bad feeling about it.  And it’s been disastrous, for a little while.

But as it turns out, life offers plenty of opportunities to get back on the right track for those willing to wrestle their fear, make a scary choice, and stand their ground against people with the best of intentions but the worst of advice.  For me, the most useful thing has been to consider the source.

People who hate their work are the quickest to tell me to I ought to settle for any old job that comes along (especially if it pays well, as if that makes up for 40 hours/week of awfulness); people who’ve only ever worked as teachers are the quickest to give me advice on how I ought to pursue other career goals.  People who made their careers without university degrees insist you need one. The friends with the worst relationships have a lot to say on how you ought to go about dating, much of it culled from women’s magazines, those dedicated purveyors of misery and discontent.

Most of all, they were people who had no experience with my goals or the kind of work I wanted to do, and had no interest or background to relate to my situation.  I realized sometime last year that I’d often followed the path of fear, because all of the advice I’d been given was fear-based and backed up my own fears with the weight of a crowd.  I started to look for people in my life who took chances and whose chutzpah I admired, people whose failures were sometimes huge but whose successes were shining beacons of hope to me.

In a word, I was looking for people who were qualified to give me advice.

There aren’t very many.  I have lots of friends and acquaintances that I love and admire, but whose choices reflect, at best, a wisdom that isn’t applicable to my life, and at worst, no wisdom at all.  And it’s a difficult lesson to learn, that those you love and respect aren’t necessarily the people to whom you can turn for reliable advice.  It’s taken me years to trim back the majority to a slim few, less than a handful of people whom I regularly would tap when I was weighing options. Now, I consider carefully whom I’m asking as much as what I’m asking, and it makes for much better results.

But since then, most of what I’ve gotten has been good advice.  And my life has, correspondingly, been better.

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