A few days ago, I was reading an article in ESPN Magazine (I started getting a subscription to it a while back after I signed up to play fantasy baseball at ESPN.com) by Vivian Chum that talked about what you would need to do to get a job as an NFL coach (you can read the article online if you’re a subscriber). After reading the article and letting it ruminate in my mind for a while, I began to realize that the article actually had pretty good advice for any “dream job” a person might have. In fact, I used most of the advice in the article on my own path to becoming a full-time writer (a “dream job” for me that seemed totally unrealistic five years ago).
The ESPN article had six tips, but while thinking about them and remixing them a bit, I stretched them into seven distinct steps. Here they are, along with my own application of them while moving from office work to a stay-at-home writer and dad.
1. Work for free.
Internships. Taking on projects without pay. Volunteer work. What do these all have in common? They’re great ways to gain experience in competitive fields, but you’re trading pay for a deeper level of experience than you might get otherwise. Almost every field under the sun has some avenue to build experience through internships and volunteerism, from coaching and computer programming to office work and trades. Such situations allow you to gain incredibly valuable experience, the kind of experience that will launch you into real work in that field.
Of course, you’ll need to put food on the table while doing this, so I usually suggest working at another job first and saving every possible dime so you can live off of your savings while doing the internship or volunteer job.
As a writer, “working for free” largely meant blogging, especially at first when I didn’t have many readers. I spent a lot of time writing articles for The Simple Dollar (and for earlier blogs of mine, including a parenting blog) and not earning anything from them aside for perhaps enough pocket change to buy a cup of coffee. I kept plugging away. What happened? I became a better writer. I learned what my audience wanted to read. And, gradually, readers started coming.
2. Have some unusual resume elements.
What experiences or knowledge can you bring to the table that differentiates you from the others? You’d be surprised how often something “outside of the box” can get the attention of others, even if some of the other candidates have better “ordinary” resumes. This often goes hand-in-hand with the internship/volunteer suggestion above – if you’re plying your trade in an unusual and challenging situation, you’re going to immediately win some respect from potential employers or clients.
Always seek out the unusual and challenging in your life experiences, whether directly tied to your dreams or not. Such life experiences build both character and adaptability, which are invaluable at almost any career.
What did I do that was unusual? In terms of the obvious, I think I did two things differently. First, I openly admit that I flunked (badly) the early personal finance tests in my life (and still fail some) and, second and more importantly, I was willing to admit that while also writing about personal finance. I have never, ever tried to create a sense that I am some sort of personal finance guru or expert. That’s different, and I think that’s why the most popular personal finance blogs have succeeded – they’re not afraid to admit failure in a field where everyone seems to constantly talk about the “big win” and how much money they’re making.
3. Keep those unusual elements to yourself.
You don’t need to go around bragging about your great experiences. Keep them quiet and under the vest and just let your walking do the talking. You’re almost always better off to understate what you’ve experienced and what your skills are than to brag about them or overstate them. Yes, bring them out when you’re shipping a resume, but don’t bring them up when you’re working. Keep them in your back pocket until you can bring those great elements to actual use.
It’s a lot more impressive (and demand-creating) if you can slap together a computer network quickly out of whatever equipment is lying around out of the blue than if you spend some time each week bragging about how you set up networking in an African village.
There are some elements of my own life that I don’t discuss that somewhat shape my perspective on here and make it “unique” in some ways. I occasionally mention them, but I don’t use them as a red badge of courage. I don’t need to. The end result is that when such an issue comes up and I do actaully mention some of those issues, it makes much more of an impact. Here’s an example of this, when I talked about the deep value of $4 prescriptions for me personally.
4. Ask your biggest doubter to be your mentor.
The person you should be asking for help and for mentoring is the person whose skill set is far beyond yours. Tell that person flat-out that you are woefully inexperienced, but that you want to learn from them because of the respect you have for their work. Ask them what it takes to make it.
There’s no reason not to swing for the fences here. It’s only rarely that a person gets a sincere face-to-face request to be a mentor from a person humble enough to admit their faults but ambitious enough to actually ask for help and smart enough to actually seek that help. The traits of a person willing to do this are the traits that most people recognize as ones needed for success in any field.
I’ve had three major mentors in my life. When I first met each of them, I was barely on their radar screen. Each time, I found an opportunity to talk with them, explain where I was, explain the respect I had for their work, and simply ask for help. Each time, they happily offered it, for my own benefit. What did they get in return? There are three people out there who will always have my help if they ask for it, period.
5. Learn some tricks, practice them, and keep them to yourself.
Every career path has skills and tactics that are the basis for impressive work. It can be anything from incredibly fast collation or some great programming or writing techniques to mad skills with Photoshop or playing the piano.
Even some skills that aren’t necessarily related to one’s career path can be a huge virtue, as they can often be the tie-breaker between similar candidates. Which candidate would you hire – the ordinary one or the one who is such a good piano player that they’ve made money doing it in their past?
Learning such skills teaches you discipline and patience. Even better, these skills can often burst out at incredibly fortunate times – I witnessed someone open up to a colleague due to a piano duet before.
The more skills and tricks you have – particularly well-practiced ones you can pick up at any time – the better off you are.
My “secret skills” include some strong programming experience and the ability to write very good first drafts, which minimizes the amount of time I have to spend revising (at least for blog postings). My programming experience came from a previous career, while my solid first drafts came from my high school English teacher.
6. Be a nerd.
The more you enjoy obsessing about the minutiae of your work, the better off you’ll be in the long run. Revel in learning more about your work. Dig deep into the details, even the trivial ones. Hang out with other people who similarly love the details.
Great politicians (think Bill Clinton) obsess about politics and congregate with other political nerds. Great computer programmers (think Richard Stallman) obsess about programming and congregate with other programming nerds. The list goes on and on – the top people obsess over and practice the details and love congregating with other nerds about the same topic.
I love to read and write. I participate in a lot of different writer’s forums, particularly those that focus on a lot of the “nerd” details of writing. It’s not about just throwing down words on a page, after all. I often “practice” this nerdery by trying writing experiments and digging into specific skills (like better metaphors, etc.).
7. Read. Read more. Read even more.
Whatever you want to be doing, you should be reading about. Spend at least an hour reading about your topic of focus every day. Read technical books on your area. Read books that connect your area to others. Read books that round out your learning in other areas.
Read. Reading is learning. Reading makes you grow not only in your field, but as a person.
I read three books a week, minimum. One of them is usually related to The Simple Dollar. Once a month or so, I read a book strictly related to writing.
You can do this. It takes time and passion, but almost everyone on Earth can have a job they dream about if they’re willing to invest the time and make the sacrifices needed to get there. Just throwing your resume out there will just mean rejections – you have to go beyond that.