9 Ideas for Landing your First “Proper” Job

Got an email from my sister-in-law this morning:

“So Andrew graduated from university this spring, a B.Sc. in chemistry.  He has a summer job for now. Do you have any advice or suggestions for Andrew on how he should go about the process of job hunting for a chemistry job?”


(1) Don’t be desperate. For a job in chemistry. For a job. For anything. Desperate people make bad decisions. Desperate people aren’t thinking, they’re just reacting. Desperate people are trying to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Desperate people only think as far as scoring the next goal, then find they’ve scored on their own goalie.

(2) Don’t be desperate, but do be eager. To make a positive difference in the lives of the people right around you. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation (Thoreau). If you can provide a comforting hand on the shoulder of those desperates around you, if you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs (Kipling) . . . your career will take off. Hang on for the ride.

(3) Don’t fixate on chemistry. Yes, I know you’re just sweated chemistry for four years, you want to make that pay off, and therefore anything less than a job in chemistry will be failure.

No it won’t.

Look at chemistry as a hobby. The next person you talk to probably isn’t going to be looking for a chemist. He does, however, have a problem. He’s looking for anyone who can solve it. What’s the problem? Do enough other people have the same problem? Can you (and do you want to) solve it? Yeah? Bingo. Career started. The chemistry will work its way in all in good time.

(4) Do fixate on finding people you like, who are good are what they do, and with whom you’d be happy working for the rest of your life. It probably won’t be for the rest of your life, but if you really like them, the party could last a while. Rush just finished their last tour, age has caught up with them, but their party lasted over 40 years because the same three guys just enjoyed each other’s company and making great music together.

(5) The same works for you. You’re a likeable guy. That’s good, because the next person to hire you will do so because they like you, and you can solve their problem. Not because you’re a chemist. That’s just a bonus. People hire people whom they like, who will make them feel glad to come to work, and who won’t embarass them. Be that kind of guy.

(6) When you do need to find work, don’t fixate on permanent jobs. They haven’t been permanent for a generation. We still call them permanent, because human beings are good at deluding themselves, and others. Companies call them permanent, because they like to hire people who are self-deluded, terrified of change, desperate for money, and compliant. Such people come cheaply. And most companies love cheap. Eventually however, cheap become expensive dead weight, and they get sent packing. Nothing is permanent.

The corporation needs the knowledge worker more than the knowledge worker needs the corporation (Peter Drucker). Ooohhh, the quotes are coming fast and furious now. Last one, I promise. He actually said that in 1962. It’s truer today.

Instead of fixating on a permanent job, fixate on adding value, making a positive difference, solving real problems, and leading. Regardless how long the job lasts. Then, ironically, you’ll find that the company is terrified you’ll leave, because you’re so damn good, and they’ll never be able to replace you. They’ll try to lock you down. That’s when you choke on your coffee, laugh, and say, “My price just went up because you dared make that suggestion.”

The world has changed from my generation, big-time. For the next generation or so, the winners will be the freelancers, entrepreneurs, small companies that think and innovate fast, the do-ing thinkers and thinking do-ers, the nimble, the flexible, the mobile. Those who refuse to think, who refuse to move and change, will lose.

Security, funnily enough, is achieved by embracing insecurity.

(7) Richard Koch’s 80/20 Principle (this isn’t a quote, I didn’t lie – well, not much) would suggest that 20% of the companies out there are producing 80% of the value.

That means 20% of companies out there, and 20% of industries, are worth working for. The rest (in other words, most) are crap. That’s better than needle-in-haystack odds, but not much.

Which means that the route to career success is highly unlikely to be direct. Your first “proper job” will probably prove to be a dud, and so will the second, third, etc.

So experiment. Jump around. Go down the rabbit holes of life. Ditch what doesn’t work. You’re much likely to find something that scratches your itch that way.

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own (Bruce Lee – Yep, I lied.)

(8) Word of mouth is the best advertising there is, and the best way of finding a job, or contract, or deal, etc. People are much more likely to give you an interview, and a job, if you’ve been referred by somebody they know. They trust that much more than they do a cold call, a cold email or resume.

So what group of people, what company do you really, really want to work for/with? Who do you know who knows somebody, who knows somebody who works there? See if you can wangle a coffee with them, or post some stuff online that they’ll find useful and send them a link. Don’t mention job. Just connect and look for opportunities to add value to them. The job will happen in good time.

As soon as you spend a lot of time answering job ads, you’re desperate. Become un-desperate.

(9) Don’t stop having fun. On a plane recently, I watched The Search for Freedom. All stories of youngsters who had exited the school system without any significant credentials, and no job prospects. So what did they do? Went surfing. Skateboarding. Biking. Snowboarding. Hang-gliding. Mountain-climbing.

Every day.

For years.

No money, no house, no car. But a hell of a lot of fun.

And then they found, to their utter astonishment, that there were loads of people prepared to pay to watch them do it, or teach them how to do it, etc.

Career successfully launched. Without even realizing it. Without sacrificing any fun.

It’s a message I wish I’d understood 30 years ago. I’d have done a few things differently.

You learn it now.

Good luck, pal. My money’s on you.

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