So, you have in hand the diploma and the student debt to prove that you spent four years in college. You have typed your resume, and you have a bit of work experience. You have a plan and plenty of excitement and optimism about getting your new career off the ground.
Not so fast …
The game has changed significantly in the time since our parents and guidance counselors graduated college and found their first jobs. The narrative of college, graduation, and career we were promised will unfortunately not unfold before us, as if by magic. Statistics bear this out. Significant numbers of college graduates remain unemployed. Most graduates move back home, sometimes indefinitely.
The greatest test of a college student will probably not be their final exams. It will be putting their freshly printed diploma to good use. I graduated college and then grad school with all the optimism in the world that my talent, education, and experience would lead me straight to the job of my dreams. What I found was fantastically different from my expectations.
It’s not a question of if your career search doesn’t go according to plan. So what is a twenty-something to do when his post-graduate career plans do not come to fruition?
Being In Limbo
Our culture is certainly obsessed with planning. We plan our futures in five-year chunks and expect it will come to pass. What we don’t plan on is being stuck in limbo.
After graduation, I spent five unexpected years in limbo. During those years, I began to fear more and more that I had made some series of irrevocable mistakes that would doom my career forever. The jobs I had taken didn’t utilize my skills and paid insultingly low salaries.
College graduates should include this step in career planning — the limbo phase. This is the time when you’re working a real-world “internship.” Your dream job won’t be offered to you right away. You’ll have to take a job that makes you groan, that barely pays the rent.
Take the job anyway. Plan on being there for a year. Whatever you do, don’t quit after three weeks. Take a job on which you can survive. Then resolve to be the best that anyone who has ever held that job has ever been. Be the best at your job, even if your job is the worst. When you finish your year in limbo, you at least want a gleaming reference from your employer.
Yes, And …
One of the cardinal rules of improv comedy actors is “Yes, and … .” This means that whatever is suggested on-stage by one actor will always be agreed upon and added to by the other actors. If one actor says he has a giant rubber swordfish, the other actors do not say “No” or contradict him. They only add to what the first actor has started to build in the scene. “No” brings a scene to a grinding halt. “Yes, and … ” keeps the scene flowing smoothly.
Deciding to take a “Yes, and … ” approach was critical to my career. When you get out of school, forget the word “No.” If an opportunity comes to you, take it. If it’s for a day job or freelance work or anything at all, do it. Do not turn down opportunities, no matter how small. Stop waiting for a big break and start taking all the little breaks that come your way.
Through “Yes, and … ,” I made connections that moved me through two mediocre jobs to my desired job. “Yes, and … ” led me to freelance work, publishing a book, and traveling to Africa. It certainly beats sitting in your parents’ den, waiting for the “dream job” to be dropped in your lap.
Don’t Find Your Dream Job; Create It
Even when I had reached the end of career limbo, I didn’t know it. After three years, I had worked as a substitute teacher, teacher’s aide, and part-time teacher. I finally had a promising job as an art teacher. I was excited. It really was a great fit.
The only problem was that it was still part-time. And the job came with a lot of baggage that I didn’t want to carry, a lot of extra tasks that bogged me down. It wasn’t exactly a dream job. But I made it into a dream job.
For two years, I toiled as a part-time art teacher. But the key was that I never treated the job as a part-time gig. I pretended I was a full-time teacher. I showed up at seven and left at four. I attended staff meetings and professional development which I was not required to do.
More importantly, I added value to my job. I didn’t just perform my job description. I did the job as I saw fit. After two years, I had a list of over a dozen accomplishments I had voluntarily added to my job. Then I had a serious conference with my boss. I told him that that for two years, I had been a huge bargain for him, but the sale was over. I set the standard so high that for anyone else to perform the job at the previous level would’ve been a major setback for the organization.
The boss gave me what I wanted.
My dream job, like most dream jobs, did not just show up readymade.
They have to be created. Fulfill your job description, and then double it. Make yourself so valuable that the company can’t imagine life without you. Make yourself indispensable.
That really is the only way to play and win the game.
Matt Appling is a teacher, pastor, and writer in Kansas City, Missouri. He has taught, pastored, and mentored in a variety of church and school settings. Check out Matt’s book, Life After Art, at moodycollective.com.