This article was written by Fred Cook, author of Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO, on behalf of the Happy Grad Project.
This year, 3.2 million US students will graduate from college. 85% will move back home. 22% won’t be able to get a job. Of those who are lucky enough to find employment, more than half will work as waitresses and baristas.
To make matters worse, companies are more selective than ever in choosing new recruits. In this challenging economic environment, they’re looking for candidates who bring new perspectives, ideas, and skills that will help them navigate a rapidly changing global marketplace. The competition for these coveted jobs has never been more intense and the applicants have never been more unprepared.
Anyone hoping to succeed in this job market needs courage. Courage to try new things. Courage to ask questions. Courage to break the rules. And, most of all, courage to improvise.
People entering the business world today are a commodity. They’ve gone to the same schools, taken the same courses, read the same books, and watched the same movies. Meanwhile, companies like mine are desperately seeking fresh minds to help them navigate massive cultural and technological changes. Where are they going to find them?
Growing up in a small town in southern Indiana, I led the middle-class life of Beaver Cleaver, until I was kicked off the high school tennis team. Then, my real education began. I replaced Harrison High School athletics with Arc Lanes, a modern entertainment mecca featuring 15 pool tables, where a faculty of dropouts and derelicts with names like Red Dog, Baby Pod, and Fat Beckham introduced me to a new curriculum of hustling, drinking, smoking, cruising, fighting, and sex. (I mostly audited this last class.)
You need to expose yourself. Think of your life as a big magazine rack. When you’re standing in front of it deciding what to choose, resist the normal impulse to reach for People or Cosmopolitan. Instead, grab a copy of Inked, Guns and Ammo, or Bass Fisherman. Apply the same approach to movies, books and people. When you’re looking for your first job, you’ll benefit from exploring unusual ideas and engaging unconventional individuals.
Ask the Captain
Knocking on a captain’s door opened a new world for me. While my contemporaries were graduating from college, I talked my way into a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker bound for Asian destinations I’d never imagined. In your career, you will encounter “ships” that can transport you to unexpected places. You just have to figure out how to ask the captain.
Senior executives are intimidating to those just starting out. But they’re the ones who can have a real impact on your career. Stalk them in the hallways. Corner them at events. Drill them with smart questions. Ask for their help. If you want to be a captain tomorrow, you should start by asking one today.
Guide a Tour
Many job hunters worry they lack the necessary credentials. This is a legitimate fear, but it can be overcome. When you reach the top, everything you say and do will be scrutinized by the press and the public. Luckily, on the way up nobody pays much attention, which allows those of us who lack the standard business prerequisites to improvise.
Absence of experience didn’t inhibit my pursuit of a career in the travel industry. I created a resume that reshaped my exploits as a cabin boy, doorman, and chauffeur to land a job as a tour guide. Then, I packed my suitcase with a dozen guidebooks about stops on our trip that I’d never visited. I discovered, with a little preparation and a lot of creativity, I could convince people of almost anything.
Most people think improvising means making things up. I prefer a different definition—creating something special from whatever ordinary ingredients happen to be available. Improvisation is a mandatory business skill, because being a graduate is a lot like being a tour guide who doesn’t know where he’s going.
Make the Rules
Most executives rise to the top by adapting to their company’s culture, meeting quarterly financial goals, and not getting fired. They follow a well-worn path that includes stops at an Ivy League college, Brooks Brothers, the BMW dealer, and the local country club. How does someone from outside the corporate fraternity get accepted into this exclusive pledge class? It took me 15 years to figure that out.
At age 36, when I landed my first PR agency job, I volunteered for every boring assignment. Once I made myself indispensible, instead of asking for promotions, I asked for opportunities—on other accounts, in other business units, in other offices and, as a last resort, in other companies. Every offer helped me advance to the next level until I eventually became CEO.
The business world is full of rules. Some succeed by following them, others by breaking them. You have to find the right balance. If you break all the rules, you may frighten people. But if you make your own rules, they may not notice.
It takes courage to improvise. In the beginning, you may feel shy, anxious, and intimidated, like I did. But every time you try something new you gain a little more confidence. Start by reading a different magazine, watching a foreign film or eating lamb vindaloo. Next, send a thoughtful email to your boss or an outrageous resume to a company you’re dying to work for. Then, launch your own social network.
Life is a sum total of your experiences, not your promotions. Make it special.
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Graduating? Know someone who is? As a perk of the Happy Grad Project, we’re offering a FREE download of our e-book, “The Recent Grad’s Guide To Getting A Job.” This e-book is JAM-PACKED with tips from experts and recruiters, videos, and additional help. Don’t put off your job search any longer – Download our e-book today and get started!
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