Eric Karjaluoto

A Simple Way to Kickstart Your Career

Are you a student, early in your career, or looking to change paths? If so, you might be asking the question, “how do I get from here to there?” Maybe you spend your days polishing your résumé, sending out applications, and wondering why no one’s calling back. Or, you might look at job postings, realize you lack the required skills, and feel stuck. (I.e. “How do I get the skills, if no one hires me to learn them?”) Alternately, you might just not know what to do, next.

You’re not alone. Believe me, I’ve had sessions with many folks on Officehours, to discuss this challenge. Most experience these feelings when starting out, or deciding they’re tired of their job and want to change course. The problem that holds most back, is that they keep doing what everyone else is doing: sending résumés. This is a very hard road.

The truth about résumés is that most of them aren’t read—and a lot of them look the same. Anyone who needs to fill a position knows this. One of the crummiest tasks in the world (just a step up from cleaning the portable toilets at Phish shows) is sifting through applications. Who wants to read that many boring cover letters, and evaluate the difference between folks who’re often quite similar? If you want to separate yourself from the pack, you need to do something different. (I don’t mean making a creative looking résumé—because those don’t work.)

Let me share a hack for opening up new opportunities: start a side-project. This could be a grassroots campaign to raise money for a local homeless shelter. Perhaps it’s a smartphone app that kids can learn from. Could even be a widget that keeps headphones from becoming tangled. I just mean something you can take from start to finish and call your own.

Now, there are many reasons for taking on side-projects. I’m going to outline a few. I hope that in doing so, I’ll motivate you to create something of your own.

Action creates action

When you’re stuck, the worst thing you can do is remain idle. I say this because I’ve been there. The empty inbox, the absence of telephone rings, and the lack of opportunities—that silence is a killer. It’ll lead you to poisonous thinking, in which you dwell on your perceived inadequacies and the obstacles you face. Instead, you need to do. The moment you start making something, you’ve taken control of your destiny. You’ll see action in front of you. You’ll feel invigorated. You’ll feed off the energy of creating—and new ideas will start to form. I know of no better means of becoming more creative, than to do a greater number of creative things.

Indulge your passions

Most wait for others to give them opportunities. Such folks typically wait a long time. Few want to hand you great opportunities—because they want those for themselves. So, you need to make your own opportunities, and start doing what you wish someone would ask you to do. Do you enjoy playing games? Make one that you want to play! Is someone you love affected by some kind of illness or societal barrier? Start a campaign to raise awareness/understanding. Are you always helping friends with their design problems? Write a book about it. (BTW: Nikki can help you get a book deal.) My point is that if no one’s letting you do what you want, you should do it anyway.

Gain applied experience

An employer has bigger things to think about than helping you gain experience. Your knowledge is your responsibility. With a side-project, you take ownership of this (in a way no mock project for school can match). You plan all the parts. You write all the copy. You create all the interactions. You deal with all the suppliers. You build the prototype and all the iterations. You create all the marketing. You… well you get the picture. In building a side-project, you learn new things and build your personal toolkit. The challenges you work through grow your knowledge. You’ll later take this experience to every subsequent project/job you take on.

Build evidence

I hate the word passion. Everyone seems to be “passionate” these days, but little of this passion seeps out. That’s because saying the word passion doesn’t cost anything (it doesn’t buy you much either). So, when you tell a prospective employer that you’re, “passionate about x,” what he/she is thinking is, “OK—prove it.” Most people can’t. This is because they aren’t actually passionate—they just think that’s what they’re supposed to say. We don’t want to hear about your passion, we just want to see what you’ve done. Once you’ve launched a side-project, no matter how small, you have evidence of what you’re about. And once you do, you don’t necessarily need to talk about it. Others will see what you’ve done and possibly reach out, asking you to help them do the same.

Establish real connections

Networking is broken, because folks think they can do it en masse. You know this is nonsense, just like I do. Fact is, you can’t maintain thousands of meaningful connections. Thus, your LinkedIn connections amount to almost nothing. Real networking happens when you actually collaborate with people and get to know one another. You don’t need many such connections to propel your career. In fact, even one or two good connections will make all the difference in your life. So, find some people you want to work with, and build a side-project together. Maybe limit the time commitment, so it doesn’t become a burden. Just build something together—and finish it. Once you have, you can always come back together to add to it, or build another one.

Become a magnet

When you create interesting things—even small ones—people tend to notice. This is because you’ve leveraged the power of attraction. You’ve given them something to talk about—and we all are drawn to that. Maybe you create an educational initiative that helps prison inmates express their creativity. Maybe you collect forgotten technologies and write about them on a blog. Maybe you create a podcast in which you interview octogenarians about their lives. Any of these will get you more media attention than the average social media marketer can muster. Forget shortcuts and gimmicks. Do something interesting and people will take notice.

Have fun

Once you create a side-project, and finish it—you absolutely must finish it—you realize that these things aren’t that hard. Most importantly, these projects are incredibly fun. That’s why I don’t work at a big company. I want the time to do my own stuff—even if it isn’t necessarily that profitable. Side-projects are intoxicating beyond compare. No other act can fill you with as much energy and joy, as making your own things will.

So, don’t wait. A mediocre side-project today is better than an amazing one that you never get to. Go to your kitchen table—right now—clear off the mess, and plan it out. Need advice on what to do next, help removing an obstacle, or a pep-talk to keep you motivated? Get a hand from one of these amazing people.

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