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So I’ve noticed recently that I’ve been enjoying a lot of success in my career—I was sent to Paris last summer as a finalist in a green energy competition, I’ve spent a year living in Europe as an exchange student, I’ve been mentioned in the world’s first children’s book about 3D printing, I’m working on launching a startup design studio, and my senior thesis has been eagerly received by the local food community & may (!) be entering manufacture sooner than I imagined. All this with graduation still three months away.
I’m no Internet celebrity, mind, but I thought that there might be some usefulness—especially for design students a little less far along in the process—in identifying what I feel has been most key to my success. I know that what makes me successful at 22 may change by next year, but hey, that’s why I’m writing this post now, right? So without further ado:
1) Be earnestly interested in other people’s business.
There is nothing that makes people happier to talk to you than feeling like you are truly interested in what they have to offer. I’ve had people ask me how I manage to talk my way into getting business cards and contacts (I’ve snagged emails from CEOs, real estate moguls, and a policy advisor for the Vermont Department of Ag), and I have to say, there is no trick—you just have to make it clear that you value their time and what they do.
2) Have the guts to approach strangers.
Whether it’s networking, conducting interviews, or sending off a job application, a lot of people struggle with that first “hello”, myself included. It’s tough to break that ice, but nothing comes off better than coupling that earnestness in #1 with an eagerness to get to know someone. I have two tricks for this, as a closet introvert: one is to rehearse questions ahead of time, if I know approximately who I’m going to encounter at the job interview/party/lecture series/whatever, and not be afraid to write them down as I come up with them. It saves you a lot of “um” time—and most busy people don’t have 90 seconds of attention to spend waiting for you to get a hold on your thoughts. The other is not to think in terms of success or failure (“oh no, they didn’t write me back, I must have sounded like such a loser”) but in terms of learning. Sometimes people don’t really have what you’re looking for, or things don’t click. It’s fine. You don’t suck. (I promise.) But every time you take a risk and reach out, you add to your repertoire of learning experiences—and it gets easier.
3) Learn eclectically.
I recently met with my guidance counselor for a quick check-in before term started, and while I was meeting with her, she looked at my schedule and laughed. “You always take the strangest electives,” she said. I may be in design, but I’ve taken two languages, a culinary class, property management courses, and taught myself html in my spare time. ESPECIALLY while you’re still in school, learning outside of your field will only make you stronger. It will help you empathize with more diverse clients and coworkers, make you more confident in broadening your career focus, and help you realize your strengths and weaknesses outside of your field.
4) Crash other people’s parties.
No, I don’t mean the loud soiree at the frathouse down the street (though I suppose you could, if you really wanted to). As a young person, you usually aren’t an expert in much of anything. This is not a bad thing! In fact, it’s incredibly useful. In pretty much any given city in the US, there are a number of meetups and events going on at any given time, whether it’s the local Real Estate Investors’ Club or your environmental activists’ circle or public government meetings on the school budget. You are entirely unqualified to go to these things. Go to them. Firstly, they count as learning experiences (ever wondered how those awful municipal decisions are made? Now you’ll know!), and secondly, you’re almost guaranteed to meet a bunch of people who are interested in why you’re there and what you’re hoping to learn. My senior thesis arose from contacts I made in an urban agriculture listserv I was entirely unqualified to sign up for at the time—and gave me six months of volunteer experience, a number of new friends, and a permanent invite to a gourmet dinner club in East Philly. Pretty sweet.
5) Start. Anything. Today.
These words are actually not mine—I stole them from activist farmer Joel Salatin, who was so kind as to engage in an interview with me for the aforementioned thesis. But even though he wrote them in reference to sustainable eating, really, they apply to just about any goal you have. I’m still kicking myself for not pursuing a startup venture sooner. If you’re anything like me, you have a list of dreams and things you really wish you were doing, and running my own business has always been one of them. THERE ARE FEWER BARRIERS TO ENTRY THAN YOU COULD EVER IMAGINE, and I mean that whether you’re looking to launch a product or get fit or become a mogul or freelance or just become someone that other people think is really interesting. Even the act of starting in on your dream brings you miles closer to accomplishing it, and as someone who has accomplished a lot for their age, consider that a no-bullshit platitude.
6) “Have you considered becoming a mogul?”
Someone playing a guitar on the streetcorner once asked me this and I came away bearing a demo CD and feeling very bemused. But since I am writing this article today, I think it just goes to show that no question, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, is worth discarding from consideration. I’ve taken a lot of unusual advice and given quite a bit of it, too, and it may not be utterly conventional, but it’s served me well thus far.
If you’ve made it through this post (whew! what a trooper!), I have tons more insight (and a few more interesting stories) at my disposal, and if you have any, I’d love to hear it! Don’t be afraid to pop me a message or shoot me an email. Best of luck on your own journey to success—I hope to see your own retrospective soon!
Sorry for not posting, guys, I’ve been busy fighting food insecurity through self-sufficiency and micro food kits
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