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Career Advice to my Former Self

I’ve decided to write this blog post in response to the messages about career advice that I’ve been getting from students in their final year in the university program that I graduated from. Specifically, from one girl who encouraged me to pursue my startup upon graduation (I should have listened) and did a totally badass international internship in the startup world but is now somehow considering partaking in on-campus recruiting with corporations. This blog post is dedicated to you.

Now I don’t profess to be any sort of expert or big success (though hopefully that will come soon). However, I hope to provide a few tips to graduating students who have interests beyond the corporate world, so that they do not end up absolutely miserable like I did. If I’d have followed this advice, I would have skipped months of unhappiness to the point of desperation and gone straight for the position I’m happily in now – accepting funding for my startup and working away at it.

First let’s start with what not to do:

1. Don’t listen to your parents.
Seriously, don’t. Now I love my parents very much, but let’s face it: parents have a different objective for your career than you do – security. Your parents want you to be safe and have enough money to live off of, so obviously most will (either consciously or unconsciously) point you in the direction of the most well-paying, secure option. Do you really think that they are going to be excited about the fact that you want to jaunt off to Africa to take a barely-paying job helping local entrepreneurs? No! But that sounds pretty badass to me! I can’t even believe the number of people I know that, when I ask them why they picked the job or career that they are doing, answer that it’s because their parents told them to. For the love of God, do not become one of those people. If your parents really love you, they will get over it and support you in whatever you do. I know mine did. At this point in your life, pay does not matter – unless you have massive amounts of debt, or a significant other and kids that you are supporting. Choose a great experience over high pay, because it’s better to enjoy every day than to hate work and end up blowing the extra cash anyway on partying and vacations to try and make it palatable.

2. Don’t believe the hype that you need experience before doing what you love.
This is simply not true. Don’t get convinced that marketing laundry detergent or pushing boxes around on slides will help you be a successful entrepreneur, fashion designer, or whatever your dream is. Know that some of the most successful founders (e.g. Google, Apple, etc) had little or no experience at all. As a recent HBR article put it, “To paraphrase Warren Buffett, a career strategy based on doing what you dislike today so that you can do what you like tomorrow is as wise as deferring sex while young so that it can be enjoyed in old age.” Happiness is wanting what you have – so aim for that instead of having a deferred life enjoyment plan.

3. Don’t listen to anyone except yourself.
At the end of the day all that really matters is you and what you want. Everyone looks at things through different lenses based on their experiences, so no one can have the right answer for you – except you! Try to stay away from the gossip about who got what interview, what offer, etc. Knowing that stuff is not going to help you in any way – it will only clutter your mind with useless stuff that will distract you from your pursuit of awesomeness. Also, mentors and role models are great, but again don’t take their word as gospel. They may have tried something and failed, or not been brave enough to try something. But since it was their life path and choices, in most cases they will defend it and perhaps advise you along the same path. Remember, you are different! (in a good way)

Now here’s what you SHOULD do.

1. Make your friends jealous.
My best career advice is think of the most badass thing you could do after graduation, and then do it. Don’t do something unless it’s going to make all your friends jealous. And not just your friends in your program – a number of people in my program were jealous that I was going to be doing marketing for laundry detergent…but no one outside of the program seemed to share the same excitement…including me, once I got out of it! Have confidence in yourself – you are graduating from one of the top programs in the country, and in the world! It’s not just bean-counting firms and laundry packaging companies that want to hire you! Make a list of the coolest companies you like and reach out to them (e.g. for me that would be hot startups with awesome investors involved, Google, IDEO, etc). Or dream up the most amazing business you could start, and apply for university business plan competitions and grant programs for student entrepreneurs (e.g. QCBV at Queen’s gives out $15K to a graduating student that is starting their own business!). Think of the most interesting countries you’d like to live in. Write all these things down and draw them out – as soon as I started doing this, I started rapidly achieving goals I thought it would take me years to accomplish. Reach as high as you possibly can, because this is the time to do it. If you set incredibly high goals, the worst that can happen is you fall slightly short of them and still end up with an awesome outcome.

2. Get out of the bubble.
Even if you try your hardest not to listen to the job gossip going on around you, it’s hard not to let it creep up on you in project meetings, etc. My solution for this is to get out of the bubble. If you can scrape together the money to do it (or if you can find a company that will fly you somewhere for an interview ), I would strongly suggest booking a trip of at least a weekend (more ideally a week) to somewhere that is relevant to what you want to do – either a country you badly want to work in, or the ‘hub’ location for the field you are interested in (e.g. if you are interested in technology/entrepreneurship, go to Silicon Valley. Advertising/finance: New York. Music/movies: LA. etc.). Trust me, you can handle the time off from school. This is more important. In advance of your trip, do some research to figure out who you think is doing the coolest stuff there, then email them to set up meetings with them for when you are there. Learn from them about the scene, their company, and what advice they have. Bonus points if you find someone who’s doing what you’d like to be doing a few years from now. I did this when I first visited Silicon Valley – I found and reached out to everyone from angel investors to the founders of Square and AirBnB. People are surprisingly accessible and willing to meet with you (especially when you are a student!!!). If you’d like, let me know and I can send you my email template that I’ve perfected to the point that I can use it to secure meetings with pretty much anyone.

3. Leverage this time.
This time is precious. You are still a student. But not for much longer. Leverage your student status in as many ways as you can. Since you are in your final year (and even for those in younger years), career should be an absolute priority above marks (unless you are planning on doing something where marks matter, such as management consulting, i-banking, accounting, or grad school. Hint: in most other cases, marks do not matter!). In addition, you are shielded from the big, bad, scary ‘real world’ – you can spend all day researching career stuff without an employer peering over your shoulder and having to step out for multiple ‘dentist appointments’ (AKA interviews) in a week, and without creating an empty hole on your resume between jobs. Most importantly, as a student, pretty much anyone is willing to talk to you. Why wouldn’t you use that to email the CEOs of the coolest companies you can think of and ask them for a phone call meeting? Get advice on your business idea from the professors you most admire? Scrub the alumni directory for the people with the most interesting careers you can find and then have coffee with them? Get free or discounted industry memberships and conference passes? Leverage this time as much as you can.

So there you go. Those are my tips. If none of it works out (though I can pretty much guarantee it will because you are such a rockstar), then you can resort to taking one of the boring jobs being spoonfed to you. (oops, did I say that?)

Also check out this article on the same topic: http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/sep/30/even-artichokes-have-doubts/

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