Pre-career advice

By Philip Brewer on 16 September 2007 (Updated 1 October 2007) 17 comments
Photo: Steven Brewer

If you've got a living situation like most high school and many college students, where you'll continue to have a roof over your head and food to eat even if you don't have a job, I've got some advice: quit your job.

That's a bit overstated. It should be, quit your job unless you love it. If you love your job--if you're doing whatever it is that is your passion in life--then stick with it. But if you've got some stupid job just to earn a little pocket money, quit your job.

Because here's the thing: Whatever is your passion in life is what you ought to be doing, and there's almost certainly a way to do it (or do important pieces of it) right now. That experience is going to be worth far more than a little pocket money. It will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

Some people--writers, artists, photographers--can just do whatever it is they want to do. If that's your path, though, take it seriously. Research both how to do your art and how to make a business of it. In fact, give that second part a special emphasis--start trying right now to make your art a business (if that's how you want to make your living in the future). Find out how other people make a living at it, find out how people get started in that field, and follow their example. By the time you get out of school, you'll have a good idea both whether or not you can make a living that way, and whether that's really how you want to make a living.

Other fields in the arts--music, acting--often require colleagues. Here your school may provide the best chance to work in your field, but there are other possibilities--musicians can play in bars, actors can perform in community theater.

In most fields, though, you can't just do the work on your own--you need a business or institution to provide some sort of support, whether it's equipment, colleagues with complimentary expertise, clients, government licenses, etc.

Sometimes there's only one path to a particular kind of job--you can't really become a surgeon except by going to medical school--but those are exceptions. Most kinds of work offer opportunities for a clever student who approaches them the right way.

Start by finding a firm that does the sort of work you're interested in, and then arranging to interview some people there. Tell them that you're working on an independent study at school. (Talk to a teacher at school and arrange to actually do an independent study, if you can--if you can reduce your work-load at school by a class or two, you'll have that much more time to do what you love.)

Tell the people you interview that you want to find out what it's like to work in their field. That's the truth, but it's not the whole truth: there are two other things you're doing at that interview.

First, you're looking for something that they need done that you can already do. Be sure to spot the easy, boring bits that anyone could do, but ideally, try to find something requiring some skill or talent that you already have, or that you almost have.

Second, make some contacts. Get names, phone numbers, and email addresses of everyone you meet.

Once you've had your interview, seen what they do, and made some contacts, you're in a position to try to get yourself inside. Based on what you saw, you may have a sense that they might hire you in some sort of part-time or intern position. If not, though, the next best is to volunteer.

Don't just call up and say you want to volunteer. They'll just direct you into their intern program, if they have one, or else tell you that they don't have any positions for volunteers. Call up and say that after the interview you've become very excited about the work they do there, and that you noticed one phase of the work that you thought you could already do, and say that you'd be willing to do that bit of the work for free if you could also spend some time watching how they do the other bits.

If the place doesn't have a rigid structure for how they handle interns, this ploy will very likely work. Once you're in, start learning how to do all the other things they do there, and start volunteering to do each of the new things you've learned how to do. With some luck--and some hard work--you may very well be able to make yourself indispensable, in which case you're in a position to ask them pay you. (As a minor tactic here, don't ask them to start paying you to do what you're already doing, even if they'd regret losing you. Instead, figure out what the next step up would be, and suggest that they hire you to do that job. Then if they turn you down, you're not in the position of going on doing what they just refused to pay you to do.)

It may seem stupid to work for free when you could be earning money. But there's nothing stupid about jumping in and doing now whatever it is you have a passion for. By the time you graduate, you could very well already be doing what your classmates have only been learning about.

Once you're out of school you'll be supporting yourself, perhaps a family, and very possibly a student loan company as well. In that situation, it's almost impossible to come up with the time you'll need to turn your passion into your livelihood. The time to do that is when you're a student--when the livelihood part is taken care of. If all you need to trade is your pocket money, it's very a good deal indeed.

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Guest's picture

This is good advice and is much the same thing I tell my students. There's one other good reason to do this that goes beyond following your passion. When I worked low-wage jobs for pocket money (the only kind of jobs I could get at that age), I found that I was surrounded by people who were stuck in jobs like that. These people often had terrible attitudes about work and about the companies they worked for. Looking back, I can now see that this is why these people were stuck in low-wage jobs. But, as a student, I didn't understand that and I got infected with some of these bad attitudes and ideas -- and it took me years to really shake them. Of course, you do meet all kinds of people working those jobs, and I learned some valuable life lessons that way too. On the whole, however, I agree that you can learn more volunteering someplace interesting than workin' for the Man.

Guest's picture
Minimum Wage

I'm stuck in a low-wage job I hate, but what can I do about it? I'm well into middle age and can't afford to go to school - as if going to school at my age would really help.

Guest's picture
Ann

I can see where college-age kids and younger really do need to plan ahead so that they don't end up working at Wendy's for minumum wage thier entire lives. Thanks for the food for thought (no pun intended).

Guest's picture
Mike E

This was a great post. I love when people take a different, unexpected approach at tackling problems that so many of us have encountered!

Keep up the great work!

Will I Ever Be Rich.com

Philip Brewer's picture

It's not impossible to follow your passion, even starting at middle age (or later). It's hard to come up with the time and energy to do something creative when you've got a job you don't enjoy, but it's possible.

The "going to school" part is the least important part--it's just that a large fraction of the people in high school or college are in a position to be able to do some volunteer work without going hungry or becoming homeless.

Even so, I guess my advice would be about the same--find some time and energy to devote to whatever work you think you'd find engaging and find a situtation where you can do that work, even if you have to do it without pay. There's a good chance something like that could pretty quickly produce as much income as a dead-end job.

Good luck.

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Nomi

I wish someone had told me this when I was a teenager. I took a multimedia class in high school and really loved it, but no one told me it was possible to do design and make web sites for a living. I figured all you could do with that is make business cards and letterheads!

I spent some years in collage and other time "discovering" myself before I figured out that I could make a living designing web sites. I could've been working on that already instead of wasting time floating around trying to figure things out. So, it's kind of ironic that I ended up doing a 360.

But, I can't complain too much because I have the opportunity to do what I feel passionate about and that's what I feel grateful for. It's never too late to start. If you really want to do something bad enough, you'll make the energy and time for it.

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Teddy

That is a great advice to quit a job you really hate but it is also a difficult decision and action to do so. Unless, I have enough passive income or saving.

Guest's picture
Guest

Super advice and a great post which every student/kid incl. their parents need to read and contemplate. I too wish someone had told me these things when I was young instead of having now to struggle to find all these things out at middle age.... Thanks again for a wonderful post.

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Guest

This is very good advice, and being a recent graduate something I heard a bit before. When I was an undergraduate, I worked random jobs in order to pay my living expenses, when I started my MA I was luck enough to start working in the history department at my university, but did not get to lead an discussions. What do you do when you are working in the field you are passionate about, but not necessarily what you want to do? Once I graduated, I had to take a job in a historical museum, which would be fine except I dislike the environment I am in. I deal with the museum's collections, and not education. Next year I will start my PhD and get teaching experience through the university, but till what can I possible do when I cannot get on at a community college?

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Lochlin

I do believe this is good advice. I am a university student and have a roof over my head. However, I also believe university/college is a time of life to have a great time. Having a great time costs money and this money has to come from somewhere (no allowances here).

So although I believe in the passion thing I also believe that it is only made for ceratin people. If you are giving up all the experiences that this time in life brings because you can't afford it then you may end up resenting your passion. I believe a balance is the best solution.

Guest's picture

This is really great advice! I wrote a similar blog on it recently, which you can check out at thisisby.us under my userid 2litwit, or by going to my homepage http://litwitreviews.blogspot.com .

Guest's picture
Guest

This is great advice...the only problem is most high school and college kids dont really know what their passion is yet. Sometimes it takes time to discover these things. I also feel my early experiences working in restaurants to save money truly were beneficial in they instilled a strong work ethic in me and gave me the communication skills I probably could not get in school.

However, if I knew then that I would love art now and want to be an artist, I would definately have spent more time in this area. But again, who knew?

Philip Brewer's picture

If you don't know what your passion in life will be, but have in inkling, this is a great time to find out: Make a serious go at doing whatever it is that you think you might be interested, and see how you like it.

I knew a woman in college who thought she wanted to be a clinical psychologist until she volunteered at the crisis hotline and spent a summer working at a summer camp for kids with problems. If she'd gone ahead and gotten an advanced degree in the field before she realized that she didn't enjoy the work, she'd have been even further behind.

As for making sure that you spend some time enjoying yourself in college, my experience is that the amount of money you have has only a little to do with how much fun you have. The person I remember from college as having the most fun of anybody had a discretionary budget of just $10 per term. Mind you, this was back in the 1970s when $10 was real money--you could get a small pizza and two sodas for $3, so she had enough to take someone out for pizza three times over the ten-week term, and still have $1 for some extravagance. I had perhaps ten times the available cash, but I don't think I was any happier.

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Jessica

You assume that all young people are going to have unrewarding, crappy jobs in food service, retail, or other typical college worker industries, but that's just not true. It's entirely possible for students to get a job that teaches them about the real world and pays the bills at the same time, without having to do loads of grunt work or give away free labor.

I worked all through college in challenging, well paying jobs while still enjoying the security net that my parents gave me. I learned about real estate, contracts, human resources administration, how to build a web site from scratch, designing in AutoCAD, and perhaps most importantly, the idiosyncrasies of both small business and the corporate world. My work opened my eyes to industries that I had no idea even existed, and probably never would have understood without doing what I did. When I graduated, I had loads of useful, marketable experience under my belt, a nice chunk of savings, and a major leg up on everyone else in my graduating class.

It's irresponsible to recommend that anyone give away labor for free. Being a young person or a student does not mean that you don't have valuable skills that are worth cold hard cash. Presenting yourself in this manner sets you up as a second-class worker who is likely to get grunt work and learn very little from the experience. It is far better to be a "real" employee, excel at your job, and get your hands into everything you possibly can.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's true that there's a wide spectrum between crappy jobs and jobs that engage your passion. My suggestion is to aim way down at the far passionate end of that spectrum. But anything down towards that end will be better than anything up at the other end, and may well pay more.

I disagree, though, on giving labor away for free. First, it isn't free--it's in exchange for contacts, experience, and the chance to live your dream. Second, it's an incredibly powerful technique that a lot of people don't know about (and that a lot of other people can't take advantage of because they've got bills to pay), and that gives you a huge leg up on the competition, giving you a chance to get into awesome situations that would otherwise be closed because you lack experience.

Arranging things so that your passion--your true work in life--is also your day job, is probably the best single step you can take toward making your life a happy one. Compared to that, a bit of pocket money is of insignificant value. Of course, if you can get both, so much the better.

I recommend this test: In the first few weeks at a new job you ought to be saying to yourself, "I can't believe they're paying me for this. I hope they don't find out that I'd do this for free, just because it's so cool." If you're not, then I don't think you've found your passion. I was, the first few weeks at my first job.

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5691gerg

As a young person I was fortunate enough to work at my passion, travel and race my bike professionally while going to college part-time. If at all possible I highly recommend this...or a variation on the theme. I got the chance to follow my dream and then transform it into a career. I hope I can help my kid in this way...

Guest's picture
Guest

Too bad SOME of us need that crappy ass job to pay for tuition. But, thanks for letting us know that the students who get their parents to pay for everything not only get to have more fun, but apparently are more likely to get their dream job due to having more free time.