Everyone gets bad career advice at some point. Like Warren Buffett or Robert Kiyosaki, it might even come from a parent, and you might hear it from many sources, as did Mark Cuban. Or, like Elon Musk, you could even be taunted by famous figures when you’re on the cusp of success.
But if you’re secure in your own knowledge or trust your gut, you’ll recognize advice that’s not right for you and stay on the right path.
Click through to discover some of the worst advice these successful entrepreneurs received.
Warren Buffett: CEO, Berkshire Hathaway
Billionaire Warren Buffett told author Carol Loomis, who wrote “Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2011,” that both his father and his mentor, Benjamin Graham, told him not to go into the securities business. Buffett said, “Maybe the advice was their polite way of saying that before I started selling stocks, I needed to mature a little or I wasn’t going to be successful.”
Buffett ignored that advice and went on to amass a multibillion-dollar net worth. Buffett’s reaction lines up with a Cambridge University study that shows entrepreneurs take more risk than managers, and that when their behavior is combined with flexible problem solving, they can score big business wins.
Mark Cuban: Dallas Mavericks Owner and ‘Shark Tank’ Investor
Mark Cuban said he hears the same bad advice from multiple people. “I hear it all the time … ‘I’m not going to quit, it’s my passion.’ Or I hear it as advice to students and others: ‘Follow your passion.’ What a bunch of BS. ‘Follow your passion’ is easily the worst advice you could ever give or get.
“Why? Because everyone is passionate about something. Usually more than one thing. We are born with it. There are always going to be things we love to do, that we dream about doing, that we really, really want to do with our lives. Those passions aren’t worth a nickel. If you really want to know where your destiny lies, look at where you apply your time. Time is the most valuable asset you don’t own. You may or may not realize it, but how you use or don’t use your time is going to be the best indication of where your future is going to take you.”
Cuban realized time is an important indicator of a person’s priorities. You can claim certain things are important to you, but what you do with the precious commodity of time shows where your true priorities are. It’s valuable information that lets you narrow your true focus.
Oprah Winfrey: Founder, Harpo Productions and Talk Show Host
Oprah Winfrey recalled, “[There] was a piece of advice that I was given that I was thankful that I didn’t listen to. Yeah, I remember almost everybody in my whole life told me, when I was in Baltimore as a young reporter, that going to Chicago would be the death of me. That I would literally fall into a landmine and be swallowed up.”
Oprah was smart to ignore career advice from naysayers and take a risk — the willingness to take a leap from your comfort zone often leads to unexpected opportunities. Being a risk taker also demonstrates confidence and helps you overcome any fear of failure because you’re willing to gamble on the unknown.
Bill Gates: Founder, Microsoft
Bill Gates is one of the richest men in America. And he gave himself his own worst advice, based on Microsoft’s phenomenal success. He did not pursue search engine dominance, leading to Google’s rise, because he was complacent about Microsoft’s overall market dominance.
“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose,” said Gates. He found that success can lead to overconfidence, which impedes the ability to be prepared for future challenges.
Microsoft survived and is still successful, but Google became a behemoth that surpassed it in 2012. The world is ever-changing, and smart businesses adapt to serve the changing needs of their current customers and win new ones. They watch trends and develop new products or services to take advantage of them — even if they’re already well-established in the market. Otherwise, they could become obsolete like Blockbuster or Compaq.
Elon Musk: Founder, Tesla and SpaceX
During his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called Tesla a loser. Elon Musk retorted that Romney was “right about the object of that statement, but not the subject.” Sarah Palin shared the same sentiment in 2013. In that same year, Motor Trend named the Tesla Model S Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year. It was the first electric car to receive the honor.
Musk was confident in Tesla and didn’t let taunting by political figures shake his beliefs. Although others judge you, he proved you don’t have to let their criticism rule your choices. Ignoring them frees you up to pursue your dreams instead of wasting energy on worries.
Robert Kiyosaki: Author, ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ Series
The worst advice Robert Kiyosaki ever got was from his “poor dad,” who said, “Go back to school first.” According to Kiyosaki’s wife, Kim, he wanted him to earn an MBA — or even a Ph.D. — before starting up a business. She said, “There’s nothing wrong with going back to school. A lot of people find value in getting another degree. But let’s be clear: You don’t need an MBA or a college degree to start a business.”
College can certainly help you be successful in business, but many big names never got their degrees. People like Ted Turner, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachael Ray and Kim Kardashian all prove that you don’t need that diploma to become a successful entrepreneur and realize a multimillion-dollar net worth.
Tony Robbins: New York Times No. 1 Best-Selling Author
For Tony Robbins, the problem wasn’t the bad advice itself, but rather how to separate the good from the bad. He said, “In 1979, when I was 19, I had all these people giving me conflicting advice. Jim Rohn, a personal development speaker, said, ‘Tony, think about it this way. If your worst enemy drops sugar in your coffee, what’s going to happen to you? Nothing. But what if your best friend drops strychnine in your coffee? You’re dead. You have to stand guard at the door of your mind.’ He was saying that the selection of [my friends and advisors] will matter more than anything else, and that you can’t take anybody’s approach as sacrosanct.”
Choosing friends wisely has a number of benefits that spill over into business. Good friends help you make wise choices and support you when you need reminders to keep yourself disciplined. Those reminders help you stay focused as you strive to become a successful entrepreneur.
Daymond John: Founder, Fubu and ‘Shark Tank’ Investor
Daymond John is a nice guy on “Shark Tank,” and that ties in with the worst advice he ever received: “…you have to be mean in business, you have to be ruthless, you have to be cut throat and don’t take any prisoners.”
“I think you have to be considerate, I think you have to be somebody who thinks about what’s in it for the other person, I think that it doesn’t hurt to go an extra mile to make someone feel special. Because the moment that they are down and you make them feel special they are going to remember that when they are up. I don’t see any advantage to being ruthless,” said John.
John focuses on how being nice helps other people, but you also reap the benefits when you choose compassion over a cutthroat approach. Others will be more likely to help you in the future if they ever get the chance, and you’ll build loyalty and general goodwill if you follow this career advice.
Julia Hartz: Cofounder and CEO, Eventbrite
Julia Hartz said she was told to be fearless, but “this is unattainable, because humans are innately built with fear, and it’s part of how we survive. I think it’s better to examine your fears and divide those into buckets. There are irrational fears that you should pack in a box and put on a shelf, but then there are warranted fears that you should listen closely as you think through challenges. You will encounter fight-or-flight situations where you need to act fearlessly, but feeling the fear a little isn’t always a bad thing.”
Fear has its benefits, even for successful entrepreneurs, as Hartz learned. It warns you when you’re outside of your comfort zone and pushes you to act on important matters. Her policy of separating valid fears from irrational ones is sound — humans often blow irrational fears far beyond reality. Learning to recognize unrealistic worries from valid ones shows you where your true focus belongs.
Oliver Kharraz: Founder, Zocdoc
Oliver Kharraz said, “When we launched Zocdoc, there was a lot of investors that told us to go national right away. We had launched only in Manhattan, and we stayed in Manhattan for three or four years, which is forever in internet time. To actually learn how the business works at the smallest possible scale before we expanded as to the complexity of the business and ignoring the advice to go broader and staying hyperfocused early on was crucial to our success.”
Starting small is good career advice because you mitigate the risks of spreading yourself too thin and spending too much money before you have solid income. If you make mistakes, they likely won’t be large enough to destroy your business before you get a firm footing.
Angie Hicks: Founder, Angie’s List
Angie Hicks said she was told “to be someone I’m not.” “Early on in my career, I was getting advice about how to act and how to be because I was 22 and starting a business. Every time I tried to follow the advice it wasn’t genuine. I had to be me. Who I am had to come across. I don’t have an outside persona that’s different from who I am. What you seen in the brand is who I am as a person. If it’s not genuine, it doesn’t work. You always have to be true to who you are,” said Hicks.
This advice is important for anyone aspiring to be a successful entrepreneur because even if you’re not genuine it will come back to bite you — your true self will eventually work its way out. You won’t have to worry about misrepresenting if you’re true to yourself right from the start.
John Zimmer: Cofounder, Lyft
John Zimmer said, “We were told to shut down Zimride [a ridesharing startup — the precursor to Lyft — Zimmer started at Cornell]. They said, you guys are passionate about transportation, but what if you did something else? I think us deciding to stay on the course was the right thing.”
Sticking with one specialty is sound career advice because when you narrow your focus, you can and refine what you do to become the very best. Your niche needs to solve a problem — for example, Lyft filled a transportation need — and have the potential for profit. If it has those two things going for it, have faith in it even if others don’t.
Barbara Corcoran: ‘Shark Tank’ Investor and Real Estate Mogul
Barbara Corcoran said, “The best advice was the worst advice. It was from my boyfriend and partner in my first business when he told me I would never succeed without him. But thank God he insulted me because I would not have built a big business without that. It kept me trying everything because I couldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me fail.”
Corcoran became a successful entrepreneur by following her own good instincts. Without another person weighing in, she was able to run her business her way. Her type of independence also projects a strong image to others and earns their respect.
Randi Zuckerberg: Founder and CEO, Zuckerberg Media
Randi Zuckerberg said, “Someone once told me to be less interesting. I think they meant it in a constructive way, because in Silicon Valley there is a culture that you have to be 24/7 invested in your startup, otherwise you’re not taken seriously. It’s a very ‘all in’ culture, especially if you’re a woman.”
“People already expect you to be distracted by your family, so you need to go even more down that road to show you’re all in. I always loved theater and art, so I got some advice to be less interesting, because they felt like people might think I was distracted if they knew I also had an interest in theater. It took me a few years to realize that was probably the worst piece of advice I had ever been given.”
Making yourself interesting and finding ways to stand out add depth to how others perceive you. It also makes you more memorable, which is especially valuable when you’re just starting out in business. The only caution is to make sure that your personal passions don’t interfere with your business responsibilities.
Luis von Ahn: CEO, Duolingo
Luis von Ahn offers the disclaimer, “I don’t know if it’s bad universally, or if it was just bad for me” for the worst advice he’s gotten. He said, “When you’re building a product, typical advice is listen to what your users are saying. I have found that is terrible advice for Duolingo. The spirit of the advice is good, but a lot of times there is a problem that arises. If the feedback channels are such that that only a few users get to talk to you, you are only hearing the loudest ones, not all of them, and that is where it breaks down.
“We have a forum on our website where people can talk about language, but they often ask about features. I have found that listening to people in the forums is a terrible idea. For example, we redesigned the website a few years ago, and people in the forum were saying how terrible it was. Hundreds of posts about how this was the worst decision we had ever made. All the while we were looking at the metrics for the new website, and they were significantly better.
“If you are just listening to the people who reach out to you, then that is a biased sample of people who are a loud minority. Of course, that is not always the case, but unless you know what you are doing, you should watch out for that bias.”
“The customer is always right” isn’t always right if he’s being unreasonable or causing a stressful situation for the employees. It’s fine to cater to the majority of customers — but you have to admit some are more trouble to please than they’re worth.
Bastian Lehmann: CEO, Postmates
Bastian Lehman said the worst advice he received was “to be like someone else.” “I see that happening a lot in college when everyone has to fit into one thing. It’s totally okay to have a different playbook. Just listen to your heart and try to find what you want to do and the people that support you. That’s the answer,” said Lehmann.
Being surrounded by positive, supportive people keeps you in a forward-thinking mindset. Rather than conforming to others, do what Lehman did and find a group that won’t want you to fit into a specific mold. Fitting in with society has its time and place, but nonconformity is essential for running an innovative company.
About the Author
Barb Nefer has been writing professionally for nearly 30 years, cutting her teeth as a news writer for the Daily Southtown in Chicago. She’s a doctor of psychology, and her eclectic expertise includes personal finance, psychology, travel and the pet industry. Her work reflects that diversity, with pieces appearing in places like About.com, CBS Local, Yahoo.com, WebPsychology, and Animal Wellness magazine.