The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.
You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.
But here’s the thing.
I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.
The economy has changed.
Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.
Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.
So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.
A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!
Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.
I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.
Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.
Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.
Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.
They might not even have a “job” anymore!
Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!)— pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.
Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.
Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.
We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.
Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.
No one owes you this!
And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.
Maybe you’re one of those whose cap read Game of Loans.
Maybe you had a full ride and are graduating debt-free.
Maybe you’ve already found your first job.
A few thoughts as you head into off-campus life:
Stay in touch with any professors with whom you had a great relationship
Many students leave college without ever having spoken to a professor outside of class. They might have stuck to email or texts or simply focused only on their grade. Mistake! Every bright, ambitious student who has forged a more personal relationship with a professor, or several, has already significantly smoothed their path to internships, jobs, freelance work, fellowships and graduate school recommendations.
Time to up your wardrobe!
Even if you’re only working part-time or job-hunting, know that almost every opportunity to connect with an adult in your life can open useful doors. But only if you leave a favorable impression. While baggy jeans, sloppy PJs, purple hair and 12-hole Doc Martens might have been your school’s unofficial uniform, you now need to impress a different set of people. Employers!
Same with grooming
Details matter, even if not to you or your friends: raggedy cuticles, chipped nail polish, hair that’s weeks past needing a trim or cut, shoes that need new heels or a coat of polish. You only get one chance to make a first impression.
Look people in the eye, smile and offer a firm handshake
Many of the people you’ll now be interacting with — whether work colleagues or supervisors — are people of a different generation, and they expect you to arrive with polished social skills. No matter how shy or scared you really might feel, people respond best to someone who looks them in the eye when they speak and who is clearly paying careful attention to what they say.
Scrub your existing social media and keep it clean
No one, I assure you, wants to see photos or videos of your drunken or stoned exploits. Nor angry/obsessive comments about your love life or lack of same. Make sure you have a LinkedIn profile with a terrific recent head-shot and fill it out completely; it’s many employers’ first stop when deciding who to interview for a position.
A blog can be a great sales tool
If you don’t have one — and you have an area of expertise, especially — get started! WordPress themes are free and dead easy to set up. Think of your blog as a 24/7 marketing tool. If it is well-written, free of spelling and grammatical errors and well-illustrated, it can show off a wide range of your skills and some of your personality in a way that no resume can match.
Get a great-looking business card and hand them out wherever possible
Attend every conference, event and panel in your desired field or industry that you can afford
Now that you’ve finished with classes and grades as your measures of success and learning, it’s time to start connecting with some of the people you might like to work for. Seek out a few Twitterchats in your field or desired industry. Lurk long enough to see who’s who, but adding smart, insightful comments will make people curious about you and what you have to offer.
Almost every conference offers some opportunity to save costs by volunteering there. And be sure to introduce yourself politely, (see: business cards.) A bright, well-mannered, friendly fresh grad — with a business card and some wit and charm — can make powerful impressions in only one day. (Follow up quickly with the people you’ve met and want to stay in touch with before they forget who you are.)
Informational interviews are a terrific way to gather intel on where to go next
I’m surprised how little-known this technique is as an excellent way to learn a lot about possible careers or graduate programs.
When I considered leaving journalism for interior design — quite a leap! — I interviewed three women working in the field and asked them some basic questions: What do you like best about this work? What do you like least? What are the three most essential skills needed to succeed in this industry?
You can learn a great deal from conducting a focused 20-minute informational interview, including that you really don’t want to do that dream job after all. Arrive at each face-to-face or Skype meeting with a prepared list of 8-10 focused questions, take careful notes, do not ask them to hire you — and send a hand-written thank-you note on good plain stationery, (yes, with a stamp), within two days.
You’ve worked really hard for four or more years. You’ve made great friends, enjoyed a wide range of new experiences (see: scrub social media!), gained intellectual confidence and skills. While “everyone else” might have a job or a plan for grad school or a sexy internship already, take your time to decompress a bit.
I think the very best choice any fresh grad can make — if you can afford it financially — is to travel as far and for as long as possible; post-graduation I spent four months alone in Europe, traveling Portugal, Italy, France and Spain and it taught me a lot more about how to be independent. It also helped me win the best experience of my life, an eight-month journalism fellowship based in Paris, whose criteria included language skills and a demonstrated interest in European affairs.
When am I gonna make a living?. It’s gonna take a while before I give in. Yes it is. I’m sick and tired of scratching a living. I am hungry but I’m not gonna give in, no
—- Sade, “When Am I Going to Make a Living?”
The job market is still lousy here in the United States, for thousands of smart people — even many with Really Fancy College degrees.
In a tough economy with too many people chasing too few jobs, you need to get your foot on the rung, even the bottom one, of a ladder that might actually lead you to a job you want. That might mean becoming someone’s assistant.
No eye-rolling. No “I didn’t go to college for that!”
I got the idea while teaching a journalism class at a local university with only 13 students. I knew exactly who I hoped would intern for me — a lively, funny, down-to-earth young woman named Jessica. It was like asking her for a date! Luckily, she said yes and stayed on to work for me after her unpaid internship ended; I paid her, more than a decade ago, $12 an hour. She was worth every penny.
In return, with one phone call to someone I knew who needed help, I found her a job straight out of school in a field she wanted. Score!
One of my favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada, from 2006. I used to sympathize with the beleaguered and overworked assistant, Andie, but after the first few viewings, my sympathies switched to Miranda Priestley, her super-demanding boss at Runway magazine.
It’s a fun film — and offers much workplace wisdom.
If you’re looking for work, certainly a first post-grad job, think on these things…
In an age of CPA — continuous partial attention — it’s rare to find young staffers able to offer you their full, undivided attention and look you in the eye for more than a few minutes. This is essential for creating and maintaining a working relationship with your boss and his or her clients or colleagues. Feels weird? Tough!
Your boss hired you to help them perform better. Listening very carefully to their instructions — and the tone of of voice they’re delivered in — is key. This is tougher by text or email, so try to get some face or phone time with them as well.
Can you possibly remember everything they asked you to do? And every deadline? I doubt it. No matter how trivial the conversation appears to be — your boss is running between meetings or it sounds like an afterthought — it’s important to them. Which means it’s important to you!
Do not guess. Do not make assumptions! It’s better to feel stupid and ask a question than screw it up by thinking because you graduated college you know what your boss really wants. You might.
But what if you’re wrong?
Email, call or text when necessary for clarification
I prefer assistants comfortable working independently because I have little time to manage or train them; if you see the word “self-starter” in an ad, that’s what they mean. But you will always have something you’re not quite sure of. Check!
How’s it going? Really.
If something is heading south, for whatever reason, your boss needs to know about it sooner rather than later so it can get fixed. If you’re used to parents who check in with you, or you with them, this is not that. This is not you looking for approval or a thumbs-up or a “Great job!” from your boss.
Take nothing personally
It’s work, kids. It’s a job. It’s not the rest of your life. It’s not the only thing you do or care about. So if someone snaps at you or yells at you or hands you a task you think is stupid, it’s actually not about you. It’s been deemed important by the people paying for your skills and labor.
When people are nasty or rude or just even unfriendly in a work setting, it often has very little to do with you as a person — (unless you’re rude, obnoxious, unethical, lazy or entitled. But you’re not, right?) They’re likely carrying a shitload of stress, work or personal and likely both, with few places to express it.
Yes, this task (or job) is boring/tedious/repetitive — do it really well anyway!
We picked you because you seemed like a smart, lively, high-energy person. We hired you to do everything we do not have time, energy, manpower or patience to deal with. We hired you because, in the coldest language possible, our time is now valued more highly in the marketplace than yours, and we have bills to pay. So if your boss can bill $200-1,000 an hour for their skills, that’s where their focus needs to stay.
We’ve all done this shit! And your willingness to tackle tedious stuff well and efficiently sends a powerful and important meta-message to your boss: I get it.
Be cheerful, warm and fun to work with
Huge. This is a deal-maker. I’ve had a few assistants who didn’t always do exactly what I hoped for, but their genuine enthusiasm and sense of humor made it feel like we were a team. Your boss is stressed to the max. S/he really appreciates someone whose mood and attitude can lighten their load — so no whining/pouting/crying/negativity. Learn the names of your boss’s kids/spouse/pets, (and ask how they’re doing from time to time), and his/her birthday, even if all you do is wish them a cheery “Happy birthday!” Bosses are people too. (Some of them.)
Ask if suggestions and ideas are welcome — then show us what you’ve got
It’s great that you have lots of ideas. It shows initiative and gumption. But wait a while. Wait a few weeks, even months, before you start making suggestions. Unless your boss asks you for them.
Be 10000000% reliable
This is obvious. Flaking and bailing are simply not an option. Remember the letters ID — illness or death. In my book, they’re the only reason you can bail or be late. I once hired someone, who came highly recommended, who had lots of great ideas. I was psyched! Then she quit within a week because she had another income source and she suddenly remembered it was more important.
Discretion is paramount. Never share anything your boss shares with you on any form of social media. Don’t tell your friends or your room-mates or anyone. Don’t forward it or keep it or re-purpose it for your own ends, like the assistant who casually mentioned she’d used some of my first book’s research material for a class paper. Um, no.
You have no idea who they know — the person your boss is about to hire, fire, promote or give a grant to. I sometimes have my assistants sign an NDA, non disclosure agreement, to make sure they get it. Just because you grew up sharing everything on social media doesn’t mean your boss wants his or her stuff used as if it were yours. It’s not!
I think about this, although many decades out of university, perhaps because college classes in the U.S., where I live, are so expensive for many students, with no — of course! — jobs guaranteed at the end of it all. I never continued on to any form of graduate study for a variety of reasons:
I loathe debt and could not imagine how I would pay for it
I saw no need for it in journalism
I attended a school with 53,000 students and, while I am very happy with its high standards, did not enjoy feeling largely ignored and anonymous. That put me right off any more formal education
I attended the University of Toronto, for years deemed Canada’s most competitive and demanding school. I loved having super-smart, terrifyingly erudite world-class experts in their fields as my professors. I still remember their names and their tremendous passion for Victorian poetry or Chaucer or history and the excitement they were able to convey to us about it all.
I enjoyed having super-smart fellow students, knowing some of them — as they have — would go on to lead some of my country’s financial, intellectual and cultural institutions.
In the 1990s, determined to leave journalism (and then having an MD husband’s income, certain this was possible), I studied interior design at The New York School of Interior Design. Loved it!
What a totally different educational experience:
Small classes. Nurturing teachers fully engaged in making sure we were succeeding. The inspiration of talented classmates but no cut-throat sharks.
It also showed me something really important about my learning style. I need it to be hands-on: drawing, painting, drafting….all were challenging but also engaged my brain in wholly new ways. I liked learning!
Like many people, I’m more of a visual and tactile learner and sitting in a lecture hall for hours — what most college classes still consist of — was deadening.(Which is also why journalism has always felt like such a terrific fit. It’s life-as-classroom.)
I have very mixed feelings about learning away from a school and classroom and campus. Yes, online learning is democratic.
But I think we also need to learn how to defend your ideas in public, that little knot of fear in your belly before you speak out in front of a room full of smart fellow students. You need to work face to face. You need to see how ideas play out in person.
And I loved the campus and its beauty and history and the clubs and activities I took part in at U of T, and my equally demanding and passionate profs at NYSID at their charming Upper East Side building. I was terrified there when, as we all had to in our Color class, I presented my designs to a room full of fellow students (just as we would have to with clients in the real world.)
But I managed to score an “A” (yay!) from the very tough professor. It still remains one of my proudest moments.
Yesterday’s New York Times ran this piece arguing in favor of getting a college degree, although I completely disagree — with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back me — that cashiers and clerks with a college degree earn more. In my time at The North Face, (the subject of my new memoir of working retail, “Malled“), I didn’t see this among our college-educated staff, nor have the many emails I’ve received since then from fellow associates, current and former, suggested higher earnings elsewhere.
Theoretically, tertiary study could become an opportunity to choose your own adventure. Innovative universities might form select international consortiums that would allow students to tailor degrees; with on-campus stints in Sydney, London and Beijing, for example, and a huge array of subjects offered on-campus or online from the entire list of combined course resources.
Yet universities jealously guard their individual reputations and their place on the competitive, global-rankings ladder. Everyone knows all degrees are not equal; their value depends on the reputation, history and standing of the university that confers them.
For individual institutions, with their campuses physically anchored in one place and their budgets built around the face-to-face delivery of core programs, its likely to be a very complex way forward.
At the same time, the internet is facilitating the entry of private players into the local and international education market, some of which will compete with universities for paying students.
Postgraduates, in particular, want access to experts from the professions and industries they aspire to join.
So when a group of globally renowned, private-sector achievers offers user-pay courses online, for example, which way will future students go?
You already knew that, but this essay in The Financial Post, a Canadian newspaper, by Rick Spence, has some words of wisdom:
If I were asked to deliver a convocation speech, here’s what I would say based on my experience chronicling 25 years of entrepreneurship:
Your diploma is a passport to nothing
From now on get by on what you can do, not what they say you know. While you’ve been cutting classes or cribbing for exams, other people were in the trenches getting kicked in the teeth. They’ve learned all about getting their foot in the door, pitching ideas, asking for the sale and rebounding from setbacks. You have a lot of catching up to do.
You are a free agent
You are a small cog emerging from a big bureaucratic machine. Most of you will soon exchange your student number for an employee ID badge. But you don’t have to be a cog. Think of yourself as a free agent, choosing where and how you work. A job is not your life, just a contract. Many new opportunities will present themselves. Some will be dressed as job offers; others disguise themselves as business opportunities, bad bosses, new technologies or career roadblocks. To stick with one job or one employer is to settle for a limited experience when other people are moving from challenge to challenge, building their skills and networks.
The biggest challenge — especially if you carry crippling student debt — is not frantically looking for a job, any job, but trying to figure out who you are, what you’re best at, and finding a fit between your IQ, education and EQ, your emotional intelligence.
And, at some point, ideally finding a place where you can thrive, not just sit in a cube and wait ’til Friday.
I got my first full-time job only two years after I graduated (University of Toronto, English major.)
I didn’t need one, because my freelance business was so strong (Lesson One: You have skills you can sell, on your own, into the marketplace. Once you realize this, you will never feel the same fear of unemployment again. If your skills are too weak to be of value to others in this fashion, strengthen them as quickly as you can. If you’re too scared to approach [possibly critical or rejecting] strangers, get over it. It’s one of the most crucial survival skills.)
But I thought I’d better get serious, aim higher (i.e work in an office for someone else; Lesson Two, not the best choice for some of us.) I was hired by The Canadian Press, the national wire service that’s the equivalent of the Associated Press.
Misery! (Instructive, though.) I worked the late shift so would pass my live-in boyfriend on the stairs to our apartment as he arrived home from work and I left. (Not a good sign.) Then I’d collect news from across the country and re-distribute it.
Sundays nights got so bad I would cry before I went in because that was the night every week I had to write a round-up story called Fatalities — Fats for short — about everyone who had died or been killed in newsworthy fashion over the weekend. The gorier and grislier the death, the better!
I worked with a robot named Judy (as will you, at some point. Maybe not named Judy, but someone whose values, or lack of same, horrify you. Lesson Three; they’re everywhere.) One night I asked if this parade of death bothered her. “No, it’s just numbers,” she chirped.
I passed probation, but my bosses and I gratefully agreed that this sort of work really wasn’t a great fit for me. (Lesson Four: Just because you are competent at something does not mean you enjoy it or will thrive in this niche. Pay bills as long as you must, but get out before you die.)
Thank God I won a fellowship that month and went to France instead. A few years after that I managed to get a Big TV Job writing national nightly news and did that for a summer. At the end, I asked the boss if he’d give me a reference.
“No,” he said. “You were terrible.”(And you thought Canadians were nice and polite.)
Lesson Five: Just because you were all-American or had a stellar GPA or perfect SAT, a star on campus or in grad school or some other job(s) doesn’t mean squat in the “real world.” Whatever your current boss thinks is really important is really important.
I wasn’t past 25 then, but better to learn young when you are dreadfully ill-suited to jobs that, on paper, look really great and may even pay a lot. How can you not want any job? How can you not cling to it, as if it were (even if it is) a life raft?
Lesson Six: You must find faith in yourself. The market isn’t your BFF.
Today’s grads will have to take every ounce of “self-esteem” and shove them somewhere dark and private. Employers, especially in this economy, could not care less if you are happy or want a better title or more responsibilities.
They’re too busy being hounded by people like me, with decades of experience ahead of you.
Ten months after graduating from Ohio State University with a civil-engineering degree and three internships, Matt Grant finally has a job — as a banquet waiter at a Clarion Inn near Akron, Ohio.
“It’s discouraging right now,” said the 24-year-old, who sent out more than 100 applications for engineering positions. “It’s getting closer to the Class of 2010, their graduation date. I’m starting to worry more.”
Schools from Grant’s alma mater to Harvard University will soon begin sending a wave of more than 1.6 million men and women with bachelor’s degrees into a labor market with a 9.9 percent jobless rate, according to the Education and Labor departments. While the economy is improving, unemployment is near a 26-year high, rising last month from 9.7 percent in January-March as more Americans entered the workforce.
Lesson Seven: Be savvy, strategic, kind, ethical, flexible, professional — and willing to do anything legal.
Lesson Eight: Never, ever expect the words you may well have grown up hearing as a constant, comforting refrain: “Good job!” Your boss didn’t.
Here’s a story from the New York Observer, for all you fresh grads — a journalism student, who three days after graduation from Columbia J-school, scored one of the most coveted interviews in New York City. Only two outlets got a private chat with Prokhorov:
He is not exactly a bold-faced name.
Two years years ago, Mr. Rotondaro was working in a pizza kitchen. He began writing more and more, and published a few items for The Huffington Post, worked briefly as a crime reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle and then enrolled in j-school.
By his own admission, he wasn’t an obvious choice for the sit-down. He spent the last few months occasionally filing for a blog run by Columbia called Brooklyn Ink. He had five bylines.
Mr. Rotondaro said that he received an email about three weeks ago. It was light on details. In the note, he was asked if he would be interested in an exclusive interview with someone really important. It didn’t say who. If he was interested in pursuing this further, he should call this number…
Mr. Rotondaro wisely decided to call.
“I was kind of weirded out,” he said. “But they left a number and you might as well call back, right?”
When he called, a handler said that Mr. Prokhorov wanted a Brooklyn blogger to interview him. The handler had read some of his stuff on The Huffington Post and thought Mr. Rotondaro would be perfect. He said Mr. Prokhorov wanted “to meet up with you. Pick your favorite bar or café in Brooklyn.”
I love that a blogger got the nod.
These sorts of chances are becoming increasingly rare in a world where, in addition to the traditional media outlets of radio, television and print, those seeking PR — and journos seeking an exclusive or a scoop — are playing needle in a haystack. Who to choose and why? Ambitious journalists always need Really Big Stories to beef up their portfolios, especially when they’re just starting out, to prove they’ve really got the skills to snag something great and to handle it well when they do.
People like Prokhorov are surrounded by the razor wire of multiple handlers and minions and flacks. If Vinnie had tried to reach out to him — would he even have dared? — the odds of success would, normally, have been risible.
The visibility of blogs and their writers has changed the game, and this can only be a good thing. The challenge will be for those bloggers, certainly those with no background or training in journalism ethics and practice, to know what to do with the material and avoid manipulation — we work alone and have no backstopping, eyebrow-raised editors saying “Really?”
It’s fun to hit “publish” without interference, but it brings its own specific dangers as well. (Lawsuits, for one.)
The only downside here — HuffPo still doesn’t pay its writers. True/Slant does.
Great interview in The New York Times with the CEO of The Onion, Steve Hannah, who thinks having a Plan B is only the beginning:
They made a movie out of the book, and Mel Gibson played Hal. The movie was called “We Were Soldiers.”
We met through a friend, and Hal said, “I want to write a book about leadership.” So we began this book project. Over the next year, I interviewed Hal with a tape recorder for hours and hours. Midway through the project, Hal got an offer to write a sequel to his book and I was offered The Onion job. But during our time together, he taught me a lot about how you manage people and what you owe the people you manage.
Q. What are the top three or five lessons?
A. In no particular order? He taught me that you never, ever do anything to deprive a human being of their dignity in work, in life. Always praise in public and criticize in private. You might be tempted, for example, when you’re letting someone go, to say something that would diminish the value of their work. Don’t ever do that.
And he taught me that when you’re faced with something that’s really difficult and you think you’re at the end of your tether, there’s always one more thing you can do to influence the outcome of this situation. And then after that there’s one more thing. The number or possible options is only limited by your imagination. Hal often said, “Imagination is enormously important, enormously important.”
I once had a student in an undergrad journalism class who disrupted every class, with only 13 students, with his immaturity and inanities. I asked the dean what was going on and was told the kid was just generally disliked for this behavior.
I finally grabbed him after class and demanded he explain his habit. We talked for an hour and it turned out the kid had no plan B, which explained, in his case, his weirdly frenzied behavior: he was terrified of failing — funny thing how he was thereby engineering it — and simply had no idea what he would do if he did not get The Job He Wanted So Badly.
Journalism is a sad little game of musical chairs. There are never enough. I’ve watched fantastic jobs, jobs I’m well qualified for and have salivated over for years, go to other people time and time and time again. You can marinate in the stew of your bitterness — or suck it up and move on.
I told Disruptive Boy this and urged him to come up with a Plan B, preferably through the letter K or S.
In this terrible recession, millions of us have been sliced away from jobs and careers we loved and skills we thought we’d use forever.
I have a grab bag of skills, some formally learned, some self-taught, from excellent photography to fluent French, decent Spanish to the ability to design a physical space. I’m still writing for now, but the money, certainly within journalism and much of book publishing, is low and getting worse every year. Will I ever even get another “real” job? Who knows. But it doesn’t scare me that badly because I’ve always had Plans B-Z.
I saw an ad in today’s New York Post that intrigued me, seeking salespeople to sell Harley Davidson, Chrysler and Ford vehicles to American military personnel overseas — in Japan, Korea and Guam. They’ll train. What an adventure. Even it turned out to be horrible, seems like a lot more fun than the ad in the same paper for a “casting call” to work for Burger King.
Here’s our local curmudgeon — who sits in the booth behind me at our local diner every morning — Joe Queenan, in The Wall Street Journalon today’s grads and their horrible job prospects:
Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Millennials will graduate from institutions of higher learning. They will celebrate for several days, perhaps several weeks. Then they will enter a labor force that neither wants nor needs them. They will enter an economy where roughly 17% of people aged 20 through 24 do not have a job, and where two million college graduates are unemployed. They will enter a world where they will compete tooth and nail for jobs as waitresses, pizza delivery men, file clerks, bouncers, trainee busboys, assistant baristas, interns at bodegas.
They will console themselves with the thought that all this is but a speed bump on the road to success, that their inability to find work in a field that is even vaguely related to the discipline they trained in is only a fleeting setback.
What about you?
What’s your Plan B (or beyond)? Have you had to pull the parachute?
I never studied journalism, but have taught it many times since; I was an English major at the University of Toronto. But I knew from the age of 12 this was what I wanted to do — and the only thing I wanted to do.
I also knew it would be, as it is and continues to be, damn hard. This industry is filled with rich, connected kids — of all ages — bringing social capital, huge confidence and parental financing that allows them to work for nothing. They, and thousands of others, are your competition.
Today’s fresh grads — good luck! — are clambering into the leaky, sinking lifeboats of our profession. It’s tempting to beat them off with our shredded oars, so few and so precious are the remaining seats.
Indeed, Justin Lewis, head of the school of journalism at Cardiff University, says that part of his role is to temper the high expectations of students.
“Some of them do come here with very idealistic notions of what being a journalist is all about,” says Lewis. “We don’t want to hammer that out of them, but we need to be realistic about what those opportunities are. Research we’ve done within the school has shown that each journalist produces three times as much copy today as they did 20 years ago. So it’s tougher. It’s tougher to get a job, and it’s tougher when they’re in a job, and we need to be clear about that.” Lewis, one expects, also tells his students that journalism is often wonderful. Return to the class of 2008, and you see young reporters enjoying extraordinary experiences. Kate Mansey, for example, was sent to Afghanistan in 2007 for a month, where she wrote a memorable story about a family of heroin addicts on the outskirts of Kabul. The youngest addict was a nine-year-old girl.
Jerome Taylor, meanwhile, has talked through the night with asylum seekers in Calais. Claire Newell went undercover to tease prominent MPs into admitting their role in the cash-for-honours scandal and the cash-for-influence scandal which sank Stephen Byers. Helen Pidd spent a day being rude to people in Perth, after it was voted Britain’s most polite town. The list goes on.
There will be those who could think of nothing worse than meeting poor Afghanis, or hoodwinking politicians, or testing the patience of Scotsmen. Fair enough — sell cars. But there will also be those for whom the idea of such encounters is intoxicating, and the prospect of reporting such experiences more thrilling still. These people, if they are lucky and tenacious enough, become journalists.
Yet several of my favorite young journos are doing just fine: one at a website; one at a small newspaper, one as a business writer at the Los Angeles Times and one as a staff shooter for the Denver Post, his first job. Woohoo! So there are jobs and these bright, talented young ‘uns are getting them.
What gifts might I offer a fresh ambitious grad hoping to enter our insane, lovely, terrifying, brutal industry?
1) A really good, comfortable chair you’ll be happy sitting in for hours and hours and hours. At home, alone, in silence. Not sitting in a cafe with with your laptop being groovy and listening to tunes or chatting with your peeps via webcam. Working. Writing is not easily or well done with a ton of noisy people all around you. It is not meant to be something people watch you do and admire you doing. It’s not the Olympics.
2) A bicycle or a good pair of walking shoes. You need to get outdoors often. Fresh air, exercise and sunshine on your face will remind you there is a world outside your apartment or car. Pay attention. Take notes, always.
3) A fountain pen. Writing is still a sensual activity. And being able to inscribe your beautiful signature will be so useful when you’re signing autographs and books.
4) Thick, lovely stationery, or a gift certificate for personalized cards and envelopes; try Papersource.com. When it’s time — and it often is — to write a thank-you note, or an attaboy, using good stationery offers an elegant, immediate point of difference from your many competitors when your recipient gets a lovely real letter, sent within a day or two of your meeting. Email, schme-mail.
5) Great business cards. Thick stock, letterpress, with your name, website(s) and phone numbers. Not: cheap, shiny, cheesy. You don’t need a job to have a card. You don’t need someone else to decide you’re a writer. Networking will open many, many doors and part of your lasting first impression is having a card and having a memorably stylish one. Just don’t call yourself a “wordsmith.” Ever.
6) A gym membership. You need to stretch, run, sweat and tap into some endorphins un-related to staring into a computer. Some of your best ideas will come when you are least focused on your work.
8) The offer, when it seems right, to send your young writer to the conference of his/her choice. That’s where they’ll meet agents, editors, fellow writers of all levels. It might cost $1,000 if they have to fly/stay in a hotel and pay conference fees. Yes, a string of pearls or a handsome watch are more traditional choices, but this is one (costly) thing s/he really needs.
9) A passport and plane ticket to somewhere more than a six-hour flight off the continental United States: Mexico, Central or Latin America, Asia, the midEast, India. Anywhere but Paris/London/Prague/Berlin. They’ll get there on their own. When you’re young and (somewhat) fearless is the best time to try something new and scary. No mortgage, no kids, no spouse. Go!
10) A really good atlas. My favorite reading. Helps to know where you’re going and gives you places to dream of visiting or living in or working in. Reminds you the world is a large, complicated place.
Plus: a Teflon soul, the utter determination to get it right, compassion, a sturdy and unshakable sense of humor, a good set of fall-back skills (carpentry, languages, a teaching certificate, anything!), some money in the bank, the ability to discern a story from corporate BS. Here’s my list of “what it takes”.
What would you give? What, writers, have you gotten that you loved?
You’re an ambitious young photographer, but still in university or a fresh grad. You read — (you do, of course) — every agate/photo credit for every major photo moved by the wires and the agencies and the major papers — wondering when it’s your turn.
Winners get paid to spend two weeks working closely with top editors from the Times and other regional papers, so when a shooter is needed and there’s a talented student in that town, they’ve got a good shot at the assignment.
The editor who assigned to both women — my sweetie. I’m proud of his commitment to finding and nurturing the next generation of talent, regardless of age or gender. Talent — and making the right contacts — can be enough.