In the last year, I've had the good fortune of working with Venture for America and several of its übertalented Fellows. VFA recruits socially conscious graduates from top-flight universities who have a taste for entrepreneurship. It then matches them with startups in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati and my hometown, Cleveland. Fellows are smart, ambitious and full of change-the-world chutzpah. On the surface, these bright young things appear to have everything they need to succeed in life. In reality, they look like most graduates staring down the barrel of their post-collegiate lives. Clueless.
At twenty-two, I probably looked like I knew what I was doing. I was graduating with an economics degree from Stanford (a varsity athlete to boot). As luck would have it, I was entering a scorching job market for fresh talent, Silicon Valley in the late 90's. I'd just completed a smart-sounding business development internship at a prestigious software firm as well as the prerequisite backpacking trip across Europe (along with a trot through Australia). On paper I was talented, well-rounded and adventurous. In truth, I was utterly clueless.
I had one thing going for me: I knew that I was clueless. I knew a few other things as well. I didn't want to stay in school, I liked living in the Bay Area and I needed to feed myself. Other than that, it was a total crapshoot. So I accepted the first job offer I received, working with a fraternity buddy at an internet startup for $20 an hour. I was put in charge of a pretty important challenge the business was facing, credit card fraud, and told to figure it out. It wasn't sexy work. But it plunged me into the depths of the internet and emerging world of ecommerce. Quickly, I helped decrease fraudulent transactions from 10 percent of overall purchases (yikes!) to less than 1 percent.
I had another thing going for me: I was lucky. The people who led this startup were smart, good people who had developed a great platform. And six months after I started, we were acquired for about $140 million. I didn't make any money, but I learned that I really liked this startup thing and working on talented teams with good people. I just happened to stumble into a perfect scenario for a college graduate who didn't know how to start his career. And over the years, I've developed a few simple rules for clueless college graduates like me.
1. Admit that you are clueless. And it's perfectly OK. Hell, it turns out that your brain is still developing and will continue to do so well into your twenties. You've barely experienced the world, so don't expect to know your place in it yet. Any of your friends who tell you that they know their life's calling is either full of shit or extremely lucky.
2. Don't look for a job. Look for a mentor. Find a boss that will help you develop both professionally and as a person. I was so fortunate early in my career to work for really smart, good people who were both masters in their craft and patient teachers. More often than not, they were also people who I enjoyed hanging out with socially. Find those managers who grow people. You'll know it when you see it. They will remind you of that high school coach or college professor who took interest in developing you, not just your jump shot or grade point average.
3. Do anything. And I mean anything. Don't get hung up on the job description or title or even salary. If you've found a great mentor, don't overthink it. And if you're talented, you'll find that your job will change quickly and often. So who cares if you're a Marketing Associate or Marketing Coordinator? And leave the bloated expectations at the door. You won't be pitching ideas to Bono or Elon Musk on your first day. And just because you read an article about product development on TechCrunch doesn't mean you know one thing about product development. Remember that you are clueless. Most of the work you'll be doing will not be sexy. But it will matter. You will learn and before you know it, you won't be so clueless anymore.
4. Don't follow your passion. Find your passion. This one sounds cliché and that's because it is cliché. In fact, I think it's optional as you start your career journey. Passion usually develops over time after you've figured out what you're good at, among other things. However, once you've found that mentor and have begun learning, start searching for the type of work that excites you. For me it started with consumer marketing, understanding consumer behavior and influencing people's' decisions. Later, I fell in love with talent and culture, specifically in high-growth startups. That journey took me 15 years and it continues today.
Fifteen years ago, I was told to find the highest paying job at the most prestigious (consulting/banking) firm possible, buy some smart suits and prepare to get my ass kicked. The good news on those Venture for America Fellows is that many of them joined VFA looking for mentors, prepared to do anything and in search of their passions. So maybe they aren't so clueless after all.
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