how to crush someone’s dreams without being a jerk

A reader writes:

I was contacted by a recent graduate of my alma mater asking for advice on getting into my industry (publishing), and we’re having coffee later this week. I get these kinds of emails every so often, and I’m sometimes torn over how to respond. Because the honest truth is that most people should not get into publishing — especially the people who *think* they want to, i.e. English majors. These kids contacting me generally think that they’ll be having hours-long lunches with their favorite authors discussing literary theory. In reality, they will be working 12-hour days for little pay doing all of the worst tasks, only to some day, if they stick it out, get to be focused on generating sales, not on discovering great literary talent. I’m sure this isn’t a surprise to a lot of people, but it often is to recent grads with little job experience (and who majored in English because they *don’t* want to work for a big corporation).

There are some great things about the industry and I love my job, so I don’t necessarily want to crush their dreams — but maybe a little dream-crushing is needed? What is the best way to crush someone’s dreams without coming across as a complete jerk? I should note that in the past I have referred some younger people who’ve contacted me this way to jobs, and they’ve been really unhappy there even though I tried to be honest about what it’s like.

Be straightforward! Don’t think of it as dream-crushing. Think of it as guiding someone in the dark who thinks they’re about to step on to a delightfully cushy rug, and you’re letting them know that actually, they’re about to step on to a very crumbly patch of flooring that might cave in. Yes, maybe they have dreams of a luxuriously cushy rug (who doesn’t?), but they sure as hell would rather be warned that it’s not what they think it is.

Why not say something like this: “I’ve found that people often have misconceptions about what the business is like and how they’ll be spending their time, and I’ve seen a lot of people end up very unhappy in publishing when they go in without a very accurate idea of what to expect. I’d like to try to give you a clear picture of what you can expect so that you can decide whether it’s still something you’re interested in pursuing or whether you’d rather look at other career paths.” And then tell them what they need to know.

Of course, tell them about the good parts, too — because publishing might actually be right for a small number of these people, and you don’t want to steer them away in that case.  So present the whole picture — not just the good and not just the bad, but the full picture … although probably with a bit more emphasis on the bad, since that’s the part people are most inclined to tune out.

Also, keep in mind that you’re not responsible for forcing the blinders off people’s eyes, if they’re determined to have them. All you can do is to present a clear and honest picture. What they do with it is up to them.

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