Without This Step, You’ll End Up in a Long-Term Job You Hate

The ⅙-Life Crisis

Remember junior year of high school when you had to start looking into college applications? Remember (well, most of us) how ridiculous it seemed to have to choose a major at 17? How is it possible to know yet when all you’ve experienced is MAYBE an intro class in high school? Or, maybe you were like me, where you thought you knew exactly what you wanted to do, and only upon starting college were you exposed to all kinds of majors and career paths that you never knew existed.

Somehow, we all got past this phase. By switching majors or not, or going straight from high school into the workforce, we all made it through. Either way, we got past this mini ⅙-life crisis and figured it out from there.

Round Two, & You’re Not Even 25 Yet

What you may not have realized, however, is that this exact same crisis comes again when graduating college with a degree.

No major has a perfectly carved career path to follow post-graduation. Some more than others, sure, like an aerospace engineer interning at JPL and working his or her way up the ladder. But I think more people can relate to this: not even everyone in your major knows all the pathways and possibilities.

As part of a graduating journalism class, I was going into multimedia publishing. Some were going into news broadcasting. Some into public relations, some into publicity, marketing, tech writing, videography, the list goes on and on and on. (This is also a reason why STEM students tend to rag on liberal arts students — they don’t know the career path and so they think there isn’t one. But that’s a topic for another time.)

This exact same crisis, but 4+ years later, is thinking you know what your career should look like when applying to jobs with corporations meant to help you further a lifelong career. But you still don’t know shit.

You got your degree, but you don’t know which parts of a job you love and hate, how big of a group starts to make collaboration counterproductive, what stresses you out that shouldn’t, and more.

Discovering Who You Are as an Employee Before It’s Too Late

Here are some examples to better put this in perspective. Aside from a short-lived group project and unrelated side-jobs, you may not know if you’d make a good manager. Or, you know you have the leadership skills, but haven’t learned that the person closest to you in that time (like an exec assistant) should be all the things you’re not. If you’re outspoken and creative, you need someone that’s calculating and analytical.

Or, you know you want to do graphic design for culture pieces in magazines. You have the design experience from school and extracurriculars, but has anyone ever helped you pitch to media? Or how to get noticed when you’ve got minimal published design samples? Or how many times you’re going to have to pitch before getting through? Or when to STOP designing for free??

A lot of these issues– learning exactly what you’re good at, why, and how to manifest it in your career, are learned on the job. That’s why we fully believe your first job as a recent grad should always be with startups, not more traditional, 9-5, secure jobs with corporations.

Startups aren’t just for learning about the industry and specialties. They’re for learning what you love, what you hate, and what you’re best at in a job you thought would be waiting for you.

At startups, everything is on the fly. Some people are startup junkies as I’m sure you’ve heard — they flourish in this setting and never want to end up in a legit office with a 401k. Instead they hop from one entrepreneurial venture to the next.

Startups don’t get by without learning from their mistakes on a daily basis. With limited funds, founders must get creative in how they manage to hire talented people. Public relations blunders are the only thing that prompts them to finally seek out a publicity specialist. Getting angry Facebook comments on a video opens their eyes to the fact that they need a culture+trend driven social media manager, not just a Hootsuite account. Everyone is likely young and doing 3-4 jobs each.

There is no “I only do software development,” or “I am a copywriter.” Devs will also have their hands on user research, UX, and making sure they stand out with the best website design. A single ‘copywriter’ will likely be coming up with logo inspiration and running a marketing department on their own. Founders will juggle investor relations, press interviews, outsourcing, and every other decision that has to be made. If they’re smart, they’ll lean on their people for a lot of it.

Hired as a brand copywriter for a tech startup, I ended up in over my head in the best way: completely rebranding the company, realigning their vision, writing everything that was public facing from in-app copy to blog posts and press releases, and making decisions that would dictate what the company would look like for a long time. I was 21.

A High-Pressure, Collaborative Learning Environment

It was ONLY through this radical responsibility and job-juggling that I learned exactly what I wanted to do in my career. If you asked third-year college student me what I wanted to do, I might have said videographer or book editor. Flash forward two different startup jobs over three years, and I know I explicitly want to do branding and creative strategy. This was a life-altering discovery that took three years instead of a lifetime.

Only through this high-pressure, exciting, diverse, fast-paced environment will you learn as much about yourself as you need to before going for a long-term or traditional corporate gig. Once you’re in, you’d better like what you’re doing every day, because it’ll be much harder later to re-learn, take risks, or look for something better. The stable 9-5 full-time job with benefits is the killer of radical self-discovery and career creativity.

The Secret:

Get in on the ground floor somewhere. Having a role that’s actually way too much diverse work for a single person is how startups run, and it’s how you’ll learn where you’re meant to go in the future.

The Even Bigger Secret:

You don’t have to throw yourself necessarily at a startup that’s in an incubator or at ground zero, still researching web design trends and cool logo ideas— you can seek out and filter your job searches by how startup-like companies are. Hint — millennial- owned companies and new age tech companies are likely to be keeping this vibe (if they haven’t grown too big yet — don’t expect to hit up Apple and find anything but a corporate mess).

Find out in interviews how flexible your role is.

  • Can you change it based on company needs and your own personal development?
  • Does the boss believe in putting people in roles they’re passionate about, knowing that’s the way to get the best work out of them?
  • Is the road to promotion straight, or are you expected to carve it out yourself?

Just be wary of companies trying to lure you in with bean bag chairs and free yoga classes — if they offer this IN LIEU of better pay, run. Fast.

Bottom Line? Make a Mess at the Beginning of Your Career

Your biggest strength right now is being young, dumb, and daring. Go headfirst in a startup and go bankrupt? Chill; that was a ton of useful experience and you’re still only 24. Time to bounce back. That’s how Rock Candy Media’s CEO managed to make us the best ad agency in ATX, by being reckless and making mistakes. And it’s why we started The Digital Shortlist, to award the best web design, logo ideas, multimedia, and more by the creatives that tend to get glossed over by corporate-run creative competitions.

Make a mess at the beginning of your career. We promise it’ll be the right way to prep you for your future career. And who knows, maybe one startup will absolutely take off and you’ll end up with a hands-off-except-creatively executive position with loads of stocks and an office that allows puppies. It happens.

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