Friday, February 26, 2021

How to Get My Job

When I was in college, I used to get really irritated when I or a fellow student asked a visiting professional or journalist how they got where they were in their chosen career—and they answered that we probably couldn’t get where they had gotten following the same path any more. They’d tell their career path story, sure, but that caveat always seemed to cheapen and weaken the career advice in terms of its perceived applicability, and it felt like a cop out. It used to annoy me greatly.

Now that I’ve been working for several decades and I’ve had as many jobs in as many organizations as I have—even having changed careers and industries, for gosh sake—I can tell you this: That caveat is not at all a cop out and usually is not offered as a hedge or a dodge; it is 100 percent true and reasonable.

So when people I coach and mentor ask me how I got started in my industry or career, similar to those professionals who exasperated me in college, I know how I got here… kind of… but I’m not sure you’ll be able to follow the same path. My path will not be your path. My path then would not—most likely could not even—be my path now. I’m actually not really sure how helpful or useful my career path is as a model. Regardless, here are some ideas and lessons for folks just starting their careers that might be applicable for you, too, even now.

Start with Relationships 

Every job I’ve ever gotten started with a person, not a job listing or posting. And I can name the individual people directly responsible for bringing the job to my attention, helping me get the job, or even directly hiring me. I know them—and knew them even then—on a first-name basis. Those people and those relationships matter—and continue to matter even well after you’ve left a given organization. Because people who work places go on to work other places. And people who do interesting work are likely to continue doing interesting work.

That suggests that before you even get your first job—before you even apply for your first job—you need to be in the business of meeting people. So get out there. Join student groups. Join professional organizations. Join networking groups. Go to conferences, mixers, talks, readings, and networking events. And bring something of value to offer others, even just in conversation. Keep up on industry news, recommend a book you just read, and introduce people you meet to other people you’ve met. Those connections are more likely to get you work than uploading resumes online, though you might have to do that, too.

Recommended Reading: Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone

Play the Game and Pay Your Dues

Something I’ve encountered with students in university as well as younger people I’ve worked with directly on teams, is that there’s occasionally a lack of understanding of the value and impact of following a company or team’s recruitment or hiring process, or taking on tasks and projects that don’t interest you, seem unnecessary, or are overly challenging. Sometimes you need to do what needs doing—the way you’ve been asked to do so.

You might have feedback and ideas on how to improve an internship, application, or recruitment process, but while you are in that process might not be the best time to offer that feedback. Follow the process, accomplish the required tasks, and take direction—trusting the process as offered to you. Because the alternative—challenging the process, choosing not to follow the process, or dropping out of the process—can mean not being seriously considered for a given opportunity or job. If there’s a deadline, respect the deadline. If there are application instructions, follow the instructions. And don’t just go through the motions thinking it doesn’t really matter. It all matters.

Similarly, I’ve been on teams on which younger teammates have turned down jobs or projects because they didn’t think they were important, thought they were too challenging, or otherwise had an opinion about the relative merits of the work—and whether it was right for them to take it on. While I’m a big believer in saying no when you’re able to, I have not yet reached the point in my career where it’s not worthwhile to accept projects that challenge me, approach work processes that clearly need to be redesigned, and sometimes even take on a loathsome task or irksome responsibility on behalf of the team because somebody has to. In one instance in my current role, I took on one of the projects I currently work on after a younger colleague turned it down. That project gets me more visibility, attention, and engagement than almost anything else I do. I accepted the opportunity readily.

Taking on what might be seen as shitwork—as well as the shine work—is an important aspect of honing your craft, especially early in your career. Doing so with cheer and enthusiasm—and results—gets noticed. So don’t turn down something because you think it’s “beneath” you. It might just become your next platform to launch from.

Recommended Reading: Angela Duckworth, Grit

Experience Matters

This might be why the previous item is so important. At times in this day and age, it’s challenging to see and recognize widespread, vocal acceptance of, belief in, and value of expertise, experience, and knowing how to do something well. It’s relatively easy to assert yourself as a “thought leader” in social media without much there there, and we can sometimes forget that craft, dedication, expertise, and actual working knowledge is more important—and goes farther—than mere marketing, visibility, and attention in the long run. Because once people really, truly look and see something for what it is, if it’s not solid and strong, all the marketing and click funnels in the world can’t save it.

Approach your career—and work—for the long run. Don’t cut corners on doing the work toward your degree, or putting in the work necessary to complete a project, even a crummy project. How you do anything is how you’ll do everything, and people are watching—and notice. And you’re not so good and established yet that that doesn’t matter.

Besides, you can learn as much or more from the shitwork that’s a hassle to do—and develop more skills, knowledge, and expertise—than you can from much easier work that was already teed up to succeed, and get attention and accolades. Aim for experience and expertise, not accolades.

Recommended Reading: Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak

Go Where the Action Is

For the most part, I’ve always lived and worked where the most promising work was. When I graduated from college, I took a job at a local magazine. But as soon as the situation at that periodical changed—and a promising offer arose in Massachusetts, I relocated. I then took another job at another Boston-based magazine. And when it moved to New York City, I did, too.

Be open to going to where the work is, where your industry is centered, and where the action is professionally. As you get older, you will perhaps become less flexible and able to move wherever, whenever, for whatever—so be open to doing so when you’re younger and less place-dependent in terms of other family members or children, your partner’s employment, a mortgage, etc. Geographic switching costs increase over time.

Similarly, while there’s merit in somewhat stable job histories and longevity in a given position, always be moving onward and upward. My job durations have been roughly eight months, 14 months, almost a decade, one year, and now more than a dozen years. Those two longer stints kind of freak me out a little, but if you look at the arc of my career, I started with a relatively steep burst of improvement, and then two longer settling-in phases that allowed me to deepen expertise and really dig into work. And the two longer durations were punctuated with a one-year industry change transitional role.

That wasn’t necessarily by design at the time, but a reasonable story fits what happened comfortably now. And even though I’ve been at Google more than 12 years, I’ve worked on three different teams in different roles, for different managers, so there’s been change and growth even there.

Recommended Reading: Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis, The Squiggly Career

Have Something Else Going On

I don’t even mean that you should have a side hustle. While it’s a good idea to have some sense of vocational drive, focus, and passion, it’s also important to have—and maintain—avocational drive, focus, and passion. Employers and your future bosses will be looking for this, even if they’re not open about it.

Like something else in addition to what you want to do for work. Find something you’re personally and unprofessionally passionate about spending your time doing—on weekdays, weeknights, as well as weekends. Do you love geraniums and photography? Cool beans. Do you go backpacking or hiking every chance you get? That’s cool. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, but if you have an interest that energizes and inspires you outside of work, you will be more appealing and attractive as a potential employee—and those interests might eventually end up informing and influencing your vocation, as well.

Because the best work we do draws on skill, expertise, and knowledge, and that can occur in your avocation as well as your vocation. You just need to figure out how the two connect, or whether you can support yourself by making your avocation a vocation. Regardless, have a life outside of work, and your life at work will be the richer for it.

Recommended Reading: Andy Merrifield, The Amateur

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