The Best & Worst Advice I Ever Got in College About Work

Labor Day Weekend in Boston means two things.  Most working people with the day off flee, emptying the streets, taking to the highways, and soaking up the long weekend somewhere outside city environs, preferably with ocean or mountains and without discarded couches littering the sidewalks.  Meanwhile, most students from the city’s many universities (and recent grads from schools everwhere) are moving in, bloating the streets with their moving trucks and subjecting their dads to too many flights of stairs.  (A retroactive and eternal thank you to my own father who did this countless times, including when he hoisted a table through a window to fit into a tiny Cambridge apartment, after cutting my box spring in half so that we could maneuver it up the stairway and reassemble it once in my new room.  One could say I learned a thing or two about patience and problem-solving from that guy).

This year, I fell into neither category.  I’m a long way from college, and I just moved this winter and don’t plan to do it again anytime soon.  I no longer subject Dad to being Macgyver on moving days; I spring for movers.  I also labored on Labor Day, teaching yoga to a packed house of enthusiastic, sweaty, come-and-get-me-September yogis at Inner Strength Studio.  I planned for a video shoot with Runner’s World magazine this weekend.  I did a little writing.

Yet, the momentum around me got me thinking about labor and the best and worse advice I got about work while in college.  Two key moments come to mind, both of which occurred while I was choosing my major.  English.

I'm not being asked about my English major here, but I know it helped me with this interview for the Fox 25 Morning Show.

I’m not being asked about my major here, but I know it helped me with this interview.

And I’d choose the same way if I were to do it all over again.  Despite getting advice like the following, from the father of a young girl I tutored regularly as a side job.  I remember the scene in their impressive Virginia home well.  The older son was on the verge of an exciting milestone: his bar mitzvah, and the living room in which I helped his younger sister with reading and writing was overrun by elaborate party favors.  I wouldn’t see this many gift bags again until my time as a marketing executive at Boston magazine, while planning massive events like its annual Best of Boston party.

“You have to think about the things you want to have and figure out the job you can do to get those things.”

At this, he motioned around the beautiful home at the things his work had materialized.  I didn’t argue.  He made a valid point.  It was a beautiful home, and they were a lovely family.  They seemed happy. If you want a nice home, you have to work to get it.  This much I knew, and it’s in my DNA to work hard anyway.  But I disagreed with other aspects of his statement.  The pursuit of things wasn’t going to inspire me to study subjects about which I didn’t care or in which I didn’t excel.  And who’s to say that once I got these things, I’d be happy?

Thank you, sir.  Have a wonderful time at the bar mitvah.  Little Sally, nail that spelling test, girlfriend.   

Needless to say, this was the worst advice I ever got.  The best came from my friend, Doc, one year behind me in school but infinitely wiser in many ways.  He became a bit of an urban legend in the English department at the University of Richmond.  First, he was male, and they were hard to come by in our course of study.  Second, his memory borders on photographic.  For the first few weeks of September during the fall that we met, I thought he was a total slacker.  He never took notes, while I busily detailed everything our professor said.  He seemed a little aloof, sitting back in his chair and occasionally glancing out the window at the blossoming trees outside.  Why was he even in this class, I thought, my body pitched forward so that I wouldn’t miss anything.  Craning myself closer to the Shakespeare lecture would obviously implant the information into my brain more effectively.

When we ended up in a study group together, the other girls and I expressed skepticism before his arrival… until he showed up and schooled the sh** out of us by remembering pretty much every lecture, quotation, theme, historical context, cross-reference, and footnote we’d covered that semester.  Thus, Doc became my new best friend—and the source of the best work advice I ever got in college.

“College is not job training.  When you get a job, they’ll train you.  College is for studying what you love, enjoy, and want to think critically about.  It’s about learning and learning how to learn—so that you can learn to be an expert at what you choose to do.”

I’m paraphrasing of course.  I don’t have Doc’s memory.

So, I chose English.  I minored in Women’s Studies.  I was a class shy of an Economics minor, and if there’d been a major in Eastern Philosophy and Religion at the time, I’d probably have that too.  I loved these courses, and they led me to work in industries I enjoyed, including education, marketing, media, and, yes, yoga, until merging what I enjoyed most and was best at into my work today.  The way my brain functions is no doubt influenced by how it learned to organize and convey information learned in college.  However, the world changes drastically over a lifetime, and the best career investment one can make is the desire to work hard and tirelessly on a chosen path.  The quickest way to burn out and become miserable is to work at something you don’t like for things that can’t make you happy.

I don’t have a lot of things, but I have all the things I need, which means that in a weird way both pieces of advice worked for me.  Or, better yet, I worked for them.

What do you think?  What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?  What did you study in college, and how has it moved you through life?  

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  • cluttery

    The best advice I got in college (well, grad school) was from an older student who came back to school after having raised her family: “Decide what you want and cut everything else out.” She didn’t mean literally– and I don’t think your “worst advice” father/wage earner meant what he said literally, either. She meant to cultivate discipline and focus because that’s how you move forward. Your father/wage earner advisor was supporting a family, apparently quite well. “Decide what you want to have” might mean an Ethan Allen couch that he may have pointed to in that living room, or it might mean “it’s most important to me to have a good home in a safe neighborhood with good schools for my family and so I do what it takes to provide that.” A 20 year old might not think of that difference, but surely on reflection, that possibility might be valid? My mom’s advice was, “Major in something that when you graduate you can say, “I am a _______.” I am a nurse. I am a teacher. I am a nuclear physicist. Her thought was that if you go at it that way, you will never be under employed. I didn’t take her advice. I was an English major too. But I think she was right and if I could go back again I would do exactly what she said. But we all have to figure out our own way.

    • rebecca pacheco

      Love it. Excellent points, all. Thank you!

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  • Andrew Givens

    Great post, Rebecca! I can’t recall the worst career advice I’ve ever gotten. But my parents gave me the best advice, which was “do what you love to do”. The advice led me to study English. This led me to study film, which led to working in the biz and later to graduate film school to study screenwriting. After about four years of writing and only one little nibble on one of my screenplays, I had to get a “real” job because my wife and I started a family, and I needed to better help with the support. I was a copywriter at an ad agency. I was getting paid well to write. Although I really enjoyed the people I worked with, I didn’t like what I was writing – and I disliked the ad world in general (which is a completely different story). When a handful of us got laid off, including me, I knew I had to get back to “do what you love to do.” I grew up playing baseball and played in college. I was good enough to go pro, but nagging shoulder injuries kept that from happening. So, I set out to help keep that from happening to other players. I’m now a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and my first two clients are pitchers. It’s tough starting out completely new in a career, but everyday is more fulfilling than the next because I continue to follow that advice.

  • rebecca pacheco

    How heartbreaking that my words would make you feel this way, as it was not my intention and never would be. Bar/bat mitzvahs are exciting milestones (as I state in the post), and I have attended many. I disagreed with the father’s advice about basing my course of study/career path on acquiring material possessions, and I aimed to think critically about this– not his faith or a group of people. Absolutely not. The gift bags were elaborate, yes, and they were part of the scene that day. But they could just as easily have been birthday or graduation preparations. I’m sorry if I didn’t succeed in organizing my words to convey this sentiment. Again, my skepticism was directed at prioritizing “things” over work that inspires & gives purpose. Thank you for reading & commenting.