A margin of skill at the right time can be all you need

Listening to a recent chat between Russ Roberts – host of Econtalk – and Ryan Holiday – bestselling author and stoic expert – I noticed a great career message for young people, echoing messages in my new book Winners Don’t Cheat.

While the discussion focuses on Holiday’s new book Conspiracy, documenting the billionaire Peter Thiel’s long-run campaign to take down the sensationalist publication Gawker, there’s a brief exchange on the anonymous 26-year old who first approached Thiel about the idea.

The youngster’s daring approach – basically pitching to a billionaire co-backer of Facebook – opens up a wider discussion on how young people should approach prospective employers, especially when you’re low on skills and experience.

As a young professional, I know myself and many others have certainly been here before:

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, of course, when you are young you don’t have much to offer. I get–a lot of people ask me for advice sometimes about how to get a job in x, y, or z. Maybe not as many as you, I’d guess. But, I always say to them, ‘You have to be aware of the fact that you don’t have much to contribute. And that your desire to work there is not one of those things.’

Ryan Holiday: Totally.

Russ Roberts: And so, you’ve got to figure out a way that you are a value. One way to do that, of course, is to do that research to show that when you come to a task, you give it your all. And, it’s not so much, necessarily, what comes out of the research, but that you signal in advance that you are a hard worker. And that you will persevere. And that means you may be of value, just for that skill. It’s not a trivial skill, by the way. It’s an incredibly rare and important skill. Simply–and we know that because many of listening out there are, say, under the age of 30, of which we have many listeners who are, are going to hear this and maybe not always implement it. It’s unpleasant, to do a lot of research before an interview. You say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll just answer the questions and I’ll sound smart.’

Roberts goes on to cite Peyton Manning – the NFL superstar – who was actually one of the rare figures that researched their prospective employer and not the other way around. NFL recruiters, understandably, were stunned and unfamiliar with encountering such initiative.

Yet, for the majority of us who aren’t NFL superstars, Roberts gives some great advice:

When you go into an interview, as a young person, you want to have some questions. Not just to answer the questions that the interviewer asks. You want to have some questions that you want them to answer for you, about the nature of the job, and what it involves, and whether you’ll learn anything; and what are the opportunities for personal growth. And to show that you’ve done some research on the company in advance. That’s really, really important.

Holiday then relates the story of George Clooney who, before he was famous, mistakenly approached auditions for the person that ‘he thought they needed for the role’ – not the other way around. Clooney turned his fortunes around by realising:

… they want to find an actor for the role. It’s not as if they are not going to cast the role. And, so, going into it, realizing, ‘Oh! If I present myself as the solution to your problem, rather than the person who is, you know, dying for your approval, that’s going to come off very differently, and in fact increase my chances of success.’…

… They don’t want to have to interview 97 candidates, and waste a bunch of time. They want someone who can show they have what it takes. And, as you said, it’s not how badly you want the job that they are looking for.

As a mentor to university students this is one of the key lessons I pass on – even though you’re ambitious, and you really want to work somewhere, you won’t possess the skills and experience an employer needs right now versus where you want to go.

So you want to be a solution that not only works hard but is there to come in on the ground floor and learn, assist and be a solid team player. Sure, this means being humble. But in time it also means building that essential ‘grab bag’ of professional experiences for advancement.

As my own professional lesson attests, it will help get your foot in the door and lead to wider opportunities.

For other lessons, please grab a copy of my short book Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian here.

Picture: Biography.com

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