The Worst Business Advice I Ever Received

“Paying Dues” on your way to success can interfere with work–life balance and career satisfaction — and it really isn’t necessary at all.

In my 20+ years of business experience, I have received a lot of bad advice along the way from both colleagues and managers alike. It may not top Monica Lewinsky’s recent tweet stating that the worst business advice she ever received was “an internship at the white house will be amazing on your resume,” but still.

Funny enough in the business world, the worst advice is usually unsolicited; personally, I don’t often ask for advice, and yet many people feel free to give it to me regularly. It’s hard to choose just one thing, therefore, that I could deem as being the hands-down worst advice, but here goes.

The worst business advice I ever received is, “You have to pay your dues if you want to move up the corporate ladder.” That may not sound so bad, but here’s why it was. When I first started my career in marketing, I worked for a huge Communications & Public Relations conglomerate in Washington, DC.  I was young and ambitious, and eager to make my mark seen. My boss at the time was probably 20 years my senior, and had a very traditional style of management. He wanted me to be in the office before him in the morning and leave after him at night, even if I had finished my work and had nothing to do. It’s worth noting that that meant working between 10 and 12 hours a day, eating my lunch at my desk (he frowned upon 30-minute lunch breaks), and getting looks of disapproval if I deviated from his strict expectations. Occasionally working from home or being able to make up those extra hours by having a day off was out of the question. He didn’t provide much in the way of encouragement, guidance or support, and when I hinted to him that I was unhappy, the advice he offered up was that I just had to “pay my dues.”

I started to question why I should “pay my dues” to a job that was unfulfilling and a boss I didn’t feel loyal to. I certainly didn’t want to end up with his life as a 40-something single guy living alone with 10 cats (I’m not making that up). In fact, that moment was a pivotal one. I started thinking about how unsatisfied I was with my life, and that it wasn’t normal to feel that way about a job. I began to think about all of the other things I could be doing that would bring me a greater sense of accomplishment, where “paying my dues” wouldn’t feel like a chore. After careful consideration and several months of planning, I decided to quit my job and since then I have never looked back.

Some will certainly read this and criticize my standpoint, thinking that paying your dues is normal, especially when you are young and starting out your career. Showing dedication and commitment to your employer is important; but if you want to be good at what you do and achieve great levels of success, my personal opinion is that you should never feel that paying your dues is a necessary evil. When you love your job, are part of a productive and dynamic work environment, and have access to mentorship, enthusiasm and devotion will follow naturally. And in essence, the idea of having to pay your dues disappears.

In any business context there has to be give and take, but for me, the idea of “paying” into a system that provides little to no benefit in exchange makes no sense. It’s not always easy to find the perfect fit when it comes to work culture, but our ideas when it comes to defining success are starting to evolve with the times. Rising to the top of the corporate ladder is not on everyone’s agenda, especially as work-life balance is increasingly a goal in itself. Millennials (particularly those working in the software business) have shown employers that they will not conform to traditional workplace environments; they are demanding more flexibility, remote work, and other out-of-the-box incentives as a mandatory part of their retention package. Software vendors and start-up ISVs have been at the forefront of ingenuity when it comes to creating inspiring workplaces, and not only because they have installed couches and ping-pong tables in their break rooms. Allowing employees to have more autonomy over their work so that they enjoy what they do is key since unsurprisingly, the most productive employees are the ones that love what they do. In hindsight, the worst business advice I received was instrumental in changing my own life path, so maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. 


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Liz Lemarchand
Liz Lemarchand is the Chief Operating Officer of MediaDev, a global IT marketing firm. She has 20 years of marketing experience and provides strategic counsel to software vendors both large and small.