The worst advice I ever got . . .

Sometimes it’s a good idea to take the ‘wisdom’ of others with a pinch of salt, as these highly successful individuals found out the hard way


Tanya Kiang - Director, the Gallery of Photography

Worst advice: “Don’t waste your brains on the arts.”


Tanya Kiang’s father was an astrophysicist and, as she discovered in school, she had a head for the sciences too. “The trouble was that though I knew I could ‘do’ it, I also knew I didn’t absolutely love it,” she says.

In the hothouse atmosphere of Leaving Cert study and CAO forms, Kiang put science at the top of her choices. “The school were delighted, and it was difficult to change my mind when everyone was so positive.”

As the deadline for changing her mind approached, a new course caught her eye, Communications in the then NIHE in Ballymun.

“Part of its attraction was the forward looking, pioneering spirit at NIHE. In comparison, to go along to an established university felt like a dull, conservative path and I’d just be sleepwalking through life. The Communications course changed my world view of what I could do.”

Kiang went on to edit Irish art magazine Circa and is now director of the Gallery of Photography – her ideal job.

“Science married to art is at the heart of photography. We’ve recently begun workshops in wet plate collodion photography in our darkrooms. You get to do it just as it was done in the 1850s: mixing and pouring chemicals, sensitising plates and working on large-format cameras under a black cloth.

“When you develop your plate and see the intensely detailed image come to life in your hand – it is truly alchemical!” 
Kiang’s advice: “If you’re doing what you love, don’t worry – your brains will be put to good use. You’ll be surprised at what ideas and challenges are hidden in different careers. Keep learning, keep your mind – and your eyes – wide open.”

Eleanor Walsh - Chef

Worst advice: “Don’t give up a ‘proper’ job to be a chef. It’s long hours, a precarious career, and too hard for women to get to the top.”


In 1991, at the age of 28 and against all advice, Eleanor Walsh gave up her full-time pensionable job as a teacher and enrolled in Ballymaloe. “When the course was over, I plagued Johnny Cooke for a job and started in Cookes on South William Street in April 1992.”

She started as a junior commis chef, “with a wage to match, I think £120 a week, much of which went to Grogan’s across the road.” Cooke had recently returned from San Diego and was introducing a new style of cooking to Ireland. “I learned so much from Johnny, and we’re still very good friends.”

 Five years later, Eoin Foyle and Jay Bourke approached her to set up their new restaurant, Eden, which would celebrate brilliant Irish ingredients – music to her ears. “My Nana had a butcher shop in Dingle, and I had worked with her all through my teens, so I was passionate about using the best of Irish produce.”

The collaboration was a huge success; and with Foyle, Bourke and, later, John Reynolds, she created the Bodega, Café Bar Deli, Mackerel, the Market Bar, and Bellinter House. Walsh now runs Food Stuff, where she helps people to set up, sort out, or further develop food businesses, with clients in Ireland and the UK. “I love it, it’s long hours, but it’s very satisfying. I wouldn’t change my choice for the world.”  
Walsh’s advice: “Listen to your gut: fear is temporary, regret is forever.”

Sean O’Sullivan
Inventor, entrepreneur, musician, filmmaker and investor.

Worst advice: “You know, you are just going to be an average student here, why the rush? Take a year at an easier school and wait.”


“It was my own fault, I’d missed a deadline, and I didn’t have enough financial aid to attend Rensselaer, a tough and competitive US engineering university.”

So says Sean O’Sullivan, Cork-based inventor, social entrepreneur and one the Dragons in the Den. “For me, a year delay would be like a one-year derailment of my life, but worse were the words: ‘You are just going to be average’. They burned into my soul and challenged me in a way I’d not expected. I am not ‘average’ and, frankly, neither is anyone else.”

But funding was vital, as O’Sullivan grew up in poverty, and so he set out to prove the vice-president of admissions at Rensselaer wrong. “A little wrangling” got him in, and he determined to take full advantage of university. This included learning from peers, and one of the key lessons was not to be defined by the views of others. “I will do my level best, and if you call that average, or below average, I don’t care. As long as I’m doing my best, I’m doing well enough.”

Right out of college O’Sullivan founded MapInfo, which brought street address-level mapping, now used by billions of people, to computers. He also coined the term Cloud Computing, invests in over 50 technology companies annually via SOSventures, and runs Carma: a new form of carpooling service which, he hopes, will change the way we get to work. “I don’t expect average from anyone either,” he says. “I expect everyone to do the best work of their lives when we’re working together . . . Now I’m one of the trustees of Rensselaer; and that particular VP of admissions? Long gone.”
O’Sullivan’s advice: “When so much of the time we spend in life is the time we spend in work, why would we ever shoot for ‘average’?  There is no such thing as average when it comes to the potential of a human life.”

Eileen Shields - Vice-president of footwear design, Donna Karan New York

Worst advice: “Don’t do this, shoes is too hard.”

Eileen Sheils

By age three, Eileen Shields wanted to be a dress designer. At 14, she asked her school guidance counsellor “how do I get there?”. With Dublin’s National College of Art and Design (NCAD) as her goal, she replaced academic subjects with art and music.

“Some of my teachers were up in arms, but my music teacher, Mr Geary, said: ‘Do what you want with your life! Though you won’t please everyone along the way . . .’” Three years later, after taking a portfolio course and a year at IADT in Dún Laoghaire, there followed two failed attempts to get into NCAD, before she won her place. “That’s where Frances McDonagh, head of the fashion department, changed my life. My drawings were changing, the shoes were getting more and more detailed, so I begged Frances, who had been a shoe designer, to teach me how to make shoes.” But, even then, NCAD refused to let Shields make footwear the major part of ger final degree. “I remember that moment when Frances looked at me in the hallway and said: ‘Don’t do this, shoes is too hard. We do clothing here . . .’”

Shields fought and the college relented on one condition: “I had to get 10 pairs of shoes made, and I had to get a first.” The rest is history. Shields launched her own range of shoes, and has a senior job in footwear at Donna Karan New York.

“I owe it to Frances, for pushing me so hard and to this day after millions of pairs of shoes, I’m still trying to prove to her I can do it. So, thanks Frances, I agree with you, ‘Shoes is hard’, but oh I do love it.”
Shields’ advice: “Take on the challenges of bad advice. Make it push you all the harder to prove them wrong!”

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh - Inventor of Sugru

Worst advice: “You’re the weakest link.”


When it was launched in 2010, Sugru topped the iPad in Time magazine’s list of inventions of the year. “I imagined a space-age rubber that could make it fun to fix or improve almost anything,” says Ní Dhulchaointigh, who also believed Sugru could be more than just a product.

“It could be really powerful – for the first time in recent generations it could become normal, even cool to fix and make things, instead of buying new.”

She sought advice and inspiration everywhere and teamed up with people who had scientific and financial expertise. The worst came when a business coach told her she was the weakest link due to her lack of experience. “I instinctively believed that this was absolute rubbish, but the words stayed with me. How could I be the weakest link when I was the one with the vision and determination, holding everyone and everything together?”

Too much advice was a waste of time, she realised, so in 2009 she decided to stop listening to experts.“The success of Sugru has come from the decisions where we’ve gotten excited and done things our own way,” she says. Her belief in the importance of failure has led her to guest curate Fail, a show at the Science Gallery, to open in February 2014.
Ní Dhulchaointigh’s advice: “So many discoveries and inventions wouldn’t have happened had someone not had the courage to try something, however nutty, without the fear of failure. Don’t listen to too much advice! Go with your gut.”

Colm O’Regan - Comedian, broadcaster and author of The Second Book of Irish Mammies

Worst advice: “You’d be mad to give up a good job in a recession.”

After 10 years working in “a good job in IT, with sound, smart people, I was getting more miserable”, says O’Regan, who’d been gigging on the side. “Before giving up the job, I got married. I didn’t want to be unemployed on my wedding day, but I also didn’t want to do what I was doing for the rest of my life. If there was a one-liner that stuck with me it was from my uncle, a priest in Japan. He said ‘Life isn’t a rehearsal.’ ”

Is it odd that a priest who believes in everlasting life would say that? “No, he’d think you were an eejit if you were waiting for the afterlife before doing any living.” 

As for the wisdom of Irish mothers, what does his mother advise? “She always says the most important thing is to be happy. While low on ‘specifics’, it’s really liberating when your mother tells you that well-being is more important than status. That’s the best start you can give someone.”
O’Regan’s advice: “Whatever decision you have to take – do your research.”

– In conversation with Gemma Tipton


You don’t say, Aunty Jemima! Readers share the worst career advice they were given

Marie-Louise Martin

Worst advice: “Why are you bothering with art school? You’d be better off with a job in the bank.”
In art school from 1979-1983, Martin and her fellow female students believed this advice inferred that they were taking up valuable spaces from more committed (male) students. “We were going to get married and never take up a paintbrush again. This advice generally had the opposite effect with most of my female contemporaries, who are still working professionally today, 30 years later.”

Over many years practising print-making at the Black Church Studio, Martin sometimes had to supplement her income by teaching, having a market stall and other art-related activities. A few years ago she was able to build a studio in Dublin, where she holds exhibitions of her work and that of some of the country’s top artists (
Martin’s advice: “If you can do it well enough, you will survive. It can be a terrible struggle, but it’s worth it”

Ciara Murphy
Chief executive, Society of Chartered Surveyors
Worst advice:
“You’re pregnant? You’ve ruined your life!”
Murphy got pregnant unintentionally during her final year studying business and economics at Trinity College, Dublin. After her father’s reaction to the news, Murphy dropped out for a few weeks. Then she got a call from a female tutor who said: “Get your ass back in here and sort yourself out.”

It was the best advice she’s ever got. A month before the birth, Murphy did her finals and got a 2.1. After graduation, she spent time as a lone parent being supported by the State, before working 20 hours a week on a CE scheme. Through contacts in TCD, she did “bits of research here and there”.

Eighteen years later, Murphy has been chief executive of two professional bodies, including the Irish Dental Association, and has three daughters – the second two with her husband, who she married 15 years ago. Her father is very proud of her.
Murphy’s advice: “There’s no ‘right time’ to have a baby. Just because someone is older and more experienced than you, it doesn’t mean they’re right. Keep your mindset independent, open and free.”

Niamh McAllister
HR consultant
Worst advice:
“You can do anything you want”
Age 15 was young to sit the Leaving Cert and go to college, but this is what McAllister did. She studied public relations and did a BComm and masters in marketing, with no clue where it would all lead. She fell into a career path that led her to becoming, at the age of 28, a business development manager for a large insurance company, a job in which she had no interest at all.

“It all came to a head at a sales conference where we were asked to visualise ourselves in five years’ time . . . for me it was walking on a beach with two black dogs, watching the gridlock of stressed drivers, knowing that we’d be going home to do something that made me happy and gave me a sense of purpose.”

A career guidance counsellor helped her identify her values, strengths and goals, then McAllister and her husband, Rohan, a marine consultant, both changed careers at the same time. “We began to work to live, rather than live to work, and had two daughters. And yes, the two black dogs came to us along the way too,” she says.
McAllister’s advice: “Go with your gut; try to find positive people who will help you see your strengths and how to build on them; it’s never too late to change; and try not to worry too much.”

Robert Howard
Worst advice:
“Don’t take physics for the Leaving Cert because it is really difficult – do biology and chemistry instead.”
The school head advised Howard that studying physics would be too demanding on top of doing applied maths, so he followed the advice.

He then did an applied science course in Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and “had really good lecturers in physics”. He ended up specialising in physics for his degree, and went on to do an MSc (University of Limerick) and a PhD (TCD) in physics.

Howard is now a physics lecturer at DIT, where he demonstrates principles of physics through using martial arts to smash tiles. “The advantage of not doing physics in school is that I now have empathy with first year students and can see what they find difficult about learning physics for the first time. I think this has helped to make me a good physics lecturer,” he says.
Howard’s advice: “Sometimes bad career advice can help you in the long run. Follow your passion and things usually work out.”

– In conversation with Kate Holmquist

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