Talent Is Not Enough!

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I have a book that someone gave me, by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, with the fateful and inaccurate (if deeply optimistic) inscription: “All it takes is talent.”

I wish!

A recent op-ed by New York Times writer Tom Friedman makes the point even more strongly:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Scared yet?

Unless you have amazing skills or a white-hot degree (engineering or computer science, to name two), you might be.

I work in a field — journalism/publishing/online media — changing at warp speed. In one year, 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs. That’s a lot of people shoved hard out of work they had done well and enjoyed for decades into….who the hell knows.

I took a retail job in 2007, seeing how crummy things were getting, and it brought in gas-and-grocery money, for which I was damn grateful, for 27 months. I’d never had a low-wage job and it was often hard and exhausting, physically and emotionally.

Fortunately, it led to a book that’s been well-reviewed, television rights option (additional income) and paid speaking engagements — none of which were a guarantee and all of which might never have happened. It’s a life, like that of a polar bear in the melting ice cap, of leaping from one moving slab of income to another.

Talent, i.e. being really good at what you do, is the least of it!

You need:

A way with words. Can you write a compelling and persuasive pitch letter or email? Can you describe what you do best in two or three sentences, tops?

Charm. No kidding. You can call it “people skills” but if you’re witty, fun, funny and simply an interesting person to engage with, your odds quickly improve of finding paid work. People hire those they find companionable and sympathetic, not just grunts with a resume. I got my retail job with zero experience because I was able, easily, to engage the two men doing the hiring in lively conversation focused on their needs. That’s what salespeople do.

Stamina. I’ve been an athlete since childhood, and competed in sailing, swimming and even fencing at the national level. If you’re going to work for yourself, or compete for a good job, you need stamina — physically and emotionally. There is a tremendous amount of rejection in many endeavors and those able to best withstand pain will move past those who easily crumple, then whine in the corner.

Learn something new all the time. If your technical skills are weak, you’re falling behind. If you can pick up a new skill every few months, or yearly at least, you’ve got something added to offer beyond the basics. I speak fluent French, decent Spanish and can take excellent photos that have been nationally published. On a few occasions, that combination has been more than my nearest competitor…

Hustle! I grew up in Toronto and was out on my own at 19. I learned to hustle hard, often and relentlessly to earn a living freelance. I wasn’t scared, even then, to offer my skills and services to top editors and my confidence grew with my portfolio. One of my photos was published in Time when I was an undergrad. I never ever take a contact, job or assignment for granted. Too many people are chasing the same dreams.

Know your industry and what matters within it right now. Read trade magazines and websites and blogs and know who’s who and what they need. Go to conferences and attend meetings and read the smart thought leaders in your field so you know what they’re saying. Join as many professional groups as you can and be as generous with your time, talent and skills as possible. People refer people they know, like and trust to their colleagues — not some random needy person on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Go to the places you can meet some of the players face to face. Not a job fair! Think like a reporter and find out where you might run into a few of the decision-makers you need to meet: conferences, public events, a political rally, a school sports match.

Travel. Even if it’s an hour or two outside your usual routines. Fresh ideas and insights are harder to acquire if you keep treading familiar ground.

Meta matters. If you’re blogging or maintaining a social media presence, make sure every post, tweet, message, photo and idea you leave permanently out there conveys the underlying meta message you intend.

Apple products are cool not just because they’re Apple, per se…they’re very deliberately hyper-designed to feel good, sound good, look good. And we like to show them off as metaphors for how cool and put-together we are.

What meta messages are your clients and audience picking up about you? Are they consistent, memorable and compelling? Every single aspect of your presentation, from your handshake to your tone of voice to the shoes you choose to the colors on your website is sending (unspoken, immediate and indelible) messages about you!

Consume a wide array of media and information. If you’re politically liberal, read what the right-wingers have to say, and vice versa. Read media in your language from far beyond your region — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Scotland (and South Africa) will offer ideas and points of view that your local, regional or national press may well be ignoring. Trends bubble up worldwide in a global economy.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Once you find some clients who value you, treasure them and give them your very best. I frequently turn in material ahead of my deadlines. In 30 years I think I’ve missed two.

Read smart business publications/websites/blogs consistently. If you really want to understand where jobs are going (or coming from) and why you’ve got to understand the movement of capital, investment trends and global markets. It’s not terribly complicated and might help you see what’s happening before it hits you personally. ( If you’re got a secure government or academic job, lucky you!)

What advice would you offer?

24 thoughts on “Talent Is Not Enough!

    1. I totally agree with jumping in and stitching your parachute on the fly. I think a lot of people miss out on terrific possibilities while waiting to be “perfect” while the rest of us have already started out ahead of them.

      I suspect that men are much more at ease doing this than women.

  1. I think even the most talented and successful of writers – any type of artist – have also been strategic with how they’ve presented themselves, how they’ve networked, what messages they’ve sent out into the community. They might not have done it consciously, but they’ve never tried to rely on their talent alone. Having said that, no creative person can get anywhere with only a smart marketing strategy up their sleeves!

      1. This post is very clearly NOT aimed at anyone in that industry….any one of whom, if successful, has an agent and manager to help them figure this out and strategize. For the rest of us civilians, it’s not always that clear.

  2. Excellent! I agree with all you have said. And I must highlight one thing: you must have people, places and/or things that bring you job besides your writing. You must have a place to turn to when so many people are telling you by rejection that you are not worthy. Establish a firm foundation and the naysayers won’t be able to crush you. Again, excellent! Thank you. HF

  3. Thanks….SO true and so important. On my worst days (or weeks or months) I always knew/know that I am a valued friend, wife, daughter. I’m a good cook. I’m cute and funny. I can make people laugh.

    “Rejection to the writer as blood to the surgeon — a normal, necessary part of every working day.” Paste that to your computer!!

    I was away last week giving a speech and, right before I was to go up, I got an email rejecting my first pitch to Wired magazine. I hit reply and asked if I could pitch again (yes, of course.) One rejection (and I have had many) is annoying….when I get a LOT of them from the same editor, I just move on to a better market. If you can’t ever find ANY better market, then it’s time to seriously examine why.

  4. I just traced you here from Kristen Lamb’s blog. You’ve scared the beejesus out of me, since I’m thinking about switching careers to become a science writer. As an introvert who lives far from any big city AND has low-to- empty pockets, the idea of attending conferences to meet people face-to-face feels nearly impossible! Is there any hope for me? (and, no, I am not usually funny and entertaining. I am, however, a good listener. Does that count for anything?)

    1. Lots of hope…Thanks for coming by!

      You’ve chosen a terrific specialty — few of us can write well, lucidly and engagingly about science! Smart move.
      Introvert….most writers are. No biggie. The schmoozers will have an advantage, though as editor and clients, like all of us, want to know something about us as people, so this may take a little effort, even brief chats by email or over the phone. (They’re busy anyway.)
      Low to empty pockets…take a part-time job, teach, get a room-mate and/or reduce your overhead to as little as possible. Not knowing where you live, you may already have a great advantage in this respect…I was just in New Orleans where I heard of a rent at $700, which I paid on 1987 in Montreal! Here in NY I pay more than that just for the maintenance fees on our co-op and my husband pays the mortgage which is even more…So the challenge is not just income but expenses and how you will pay your bills on time! I have a line of credit (at a usurious 19% APR and $12 every time I use it) but it allows me to pay all my bills promptly when payments are slow, late or missing — as they will be sometimes.

      Being a good listener is a great skill. It will help to make you an excellent interviewer.

      The fact you’re being so analytical about it all means you’re not just jumping in blindly and hoping.
      Be sure to join as many writers’ groups as possible right away. Start with Freelance Success ($99/yr) and then join others as you get enough clips, like http://www.nasw.org/, the science writers’ group. You will find tremendous moral and practical support, esp. if you can’t afford to travel and meet people. I rely on the advice and wisdom of people all over the place through my on-line communities of peers

      Good luck!!!

  5. belongum

    Really enjoyed that Caitlin – thanks very much! I’ve had the pleasure of re-inventing myself many times over the years. Sure – it has some down-sides, but what it has done is increased my confidence in myself – I see something worth having a shot at and I’m not scared to go for it. I don’t always see obstacles necessarily – I see opportunities. I’m lucky to have that outlook on life and the military certainly helped me learn a few more lessons on how to build and capitalise on things as they shift and move about you. It’s been an interesting life so far and I’m very lucky for that.

    If there is anything I would add at this point it’d be this: don’t dismiss the skills you bring to the table, too quickly. People always undersell themselves and their abilities and this really unravels a persons confidence and then ability.

    Cheers… 😉

    1. So good to hear from you!

      I love your positive attitude, which is half the battle, certainly. And, I think you’re right…it’s easy to assume our skills won’t translate to another field. Being willing and able to jump into something new takes guts, but it sure does build confidence.

      I took my retail job with zero experience — did really well at it — wrote a book about it which has led to paid speaking engagements and seem to be doing well at that as well. Whew!

  6. Hi! I’d add: Get to know something about Group Process. Lots of decisions are made in group settings, and it helps to understand how groups work, how to listen, how to add your input, and how to reach consensus. You might not be the leader of the group (or you might) but participants have to be savy too. Jane

  7. Ohmygoodness

    hi i’m a fourth year student in korea. i’m not good at english but i read your posting with the dictionary. it was good for me to read your posting cause after im graduated my school, next year, i will have to find a jod. than u and have a good day 🙂

  8. mintlover

    Your posting is very impressive. You said about many things what people already knew but it is hard to “Do” what we know. Through your posting, I realize how I was lazy and I just made desk theory. It’s time to “Do” real action.

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