A few years ago, a student reached out to seek my advice on whether he should apply to MBA programs. I discouraged him—he’d already done four years of business school as a Wharton undergrad. Business is not rocket science; no one needs six years of business education!
A week later, he followed up with me by email. He was applying to MBA programs, and he wondered if I could write one of his recommendation letters.
I was dismayed, and it wasn’t because I expected him to follow my advice. It’s his life and his choice! I was disappointed that it seemed like he’d ignored my perspective altogether instead of weighing it carefully.
Then I realized I’ve been in his shoes before. You’ve been there too any time you’ve gotten advice you don’t want to take.
You’ll never agree with all the guidance you get. The question is how to respond so you don’t leave your mentors feeling like you wasted their time and didn’t value their perspective.
1. Up front, make it clear that you’re seeking wisdom from multiple sources. That sets the expectation that their perspective will be just one piece of your decision puzzle. If you’ve already gathered a range of views, you can explain that too: I’ve collected some conflicting stances on this—would love to discuss and hear how you’d approach this dilemma.
2. At the end of the conversation, summarize what you’re taking away as their main points for reflection. That makes them feel heard. You can even foreshadow your ambivalence: To be honest, that’s not what I was hoping you’d say. I know it wasn’t easy advice to give, and I need to reflect on it. I appreciate you looking out for my best interests.
3. When you follow up, tell them where you landed and why—and how their input helped with the decision even if you ended up veering in a different direction. Although I didn’t end up going the route you suggested, you pushed me to clarify my priorities, and I’m thankful for your time and insight.
That’s all I wanted to hear from my former student. He had his heart set on doing an MBA, and the time I spent challenging his thinking helped him crystallize the reasons behind that intuition. When I asked him what went into that choice, it turned out he wasn’t looking for two more years of business education per se—he was hoping to build his network and his leadership skills, which he’d neglected during the tunnel vision of his undergrad finance degree. I still think two years and $300k is an awfully expensive way to do that, especially when you take into account the opportunity cost, but I respect his decision as well as his right to make it.
When you seek advice, you’re not obligated to take it. You do have a responsibility to consider it seriously, show respect for your mentor’s judgment, and express gratitude for the thought that went into it.