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Get a Job. Or Don’t.

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Rethinking My Standard Line on Employment

What to say to folks starting in this job market?

I’m gearing up to teach a couple professional writing classes at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. I’ll be updating my syllabi, looking at a new text or two. I’ve got some new ideas about how the courses should unfold and about how I can get more discussion and less of that nasty blathery/lecture stuff from me. I’ll be thinking about writing projects that move closer to what copywriters and content strategists do day in and day out.

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Yeah: don’t bind your legs when you really need to take action.

One thing I’m also doing is reconsidering the standard advice for people on the cusp of a working life. I usually tell the brightest students—the ones who want to write for a living and show every indication of being capable of carrying that out—to start with a company. Starting with a company helps pay down debt, provides health insurance (often) and best of all, you learn the ropes and cycles of the business and industry. I’ve often thought of those first jobs out of college as a sort of finishing school or mini-graduate school where you get paid to learn the details of an industry (or industries). Those first jobs can set a course the later jobs. And those first friendships bloom in all sorts of unlikely ways as peers also make their way through work and life. You connect and reconnect for years and years.

But I’m no longer so certain of that advice. While it’s true that companies and agencies and marketing firms provide terrific entry ramps to the work world, they also open the door to some work habits that are not so great. Every business has its own culture, of course. Sometimes that culture looks like back-biting and demeaning and discouraging. Sometimes the work culture can be optimistic and recognize accomplishment and encouraging and fun. Mostly it’s a mix of both.

But one thing I don’t want these bright students to learn at some corporate finishing school is the habit of just doing their job. By that I mean the habit of waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Every year I watch talented friends get laid off from high-powered jobs in stable industries where they worked hard at exactly what they were asked to do. And most everyone at some point says something like:

Wait—I should have been thinking all along about what I want to do. [or]

How can I be more entrepreneurial with my skill set? [or]

What exactly is my vision for my work life?

Some of these bright writing students are meant to be entrepreneurial from the very beginning. Though a rocky and difficult path in getting established with clients and earning consistently, it may be a more stable way to live down the road. Maybe “stable” is not quite the right word for the entrepreneurial bent—“sustainable” might be more appropriate. The quintessential habit to learn is to depend on yourself (while also asking God for help, you understand) rather than waiting for someone to come tell you what to do.

I’m eager for these bright, accomplished people to think beyond the narrow vision of just getting a job. The vision they develop will power all sorts of industries over time.

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Image credit: arcaneimages, via rrrick/2headedsnake

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  1. […] the debate I am talking about.  A few weeks ago I was talking with Kirk author of the aptly named, Conversation is an Engine, blog about the raw vs. jpeg question.  I gave him the short version answer, which is that I shoot […]

  2. […] teaching college students about professional writing, I try to help them understand that the best jobs are the ones not advertised. The best jobs open […]


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