The period after I graduated from college was a rude awakening.
I, like so many other ambitious but naïve 20-somethings, believed that I was ready to take on the world. Equipped with my degree, a résumé chock-full of collegiate leadership experiences and a positive attitude, I figured employers—especially sexy ones like Vogue magazine—would be eager to meet me.
Never mind that it was 2002, nine months post-9/11. The U.S. economy was in the tank, and companies were laying people off instead of investing in young talent.
But I could beat the odds.
My millennial mind was convinced that a forward-thinking company wouldn’t pass up the chance to bring someone like me on board—somebody so special and full of potential.
Fast forward to the fall, and I found myself working an hourly sales position for a retailer in the Midwest, a far cry from my high-styling New York City dreams.
An endless number of closing shifts in a store with little foot traffic. Living paycheck-to-paycheck. The daily dread of going into work. Questioning what I was doing with my life. That nagging feeling that I was completely wasting any talent I may have had.
This was my reality.
My mom, one of the few people who seemed to believe in me at that point, would always take my late-night phone calls. And she would patiently remind me that I needed to keep going and keep trying—and that one day I would get my big break.
Mom was right.
It took four years, but deliberate action, a whole lot of grit and baby steps eventually led me to my dream job at age 26: planning high-profile fashion events on a national level.
Based on this formative and incredibly humbling experience, below is my best advice for how a young achiever can get ahead—and ultimately land your dream job when the odds might be against you.
1. Get your head on straight: It’s bottoms up
Of course, our society likes to encourage kids. Growing up, they are surrounded by positive messages: You are exceptional. You are smart. You can be anything you want. And while this is a good thing—namely because they feel secure, supported and empowered—sometimes it paints an unrealistic picture of how to get to the top.
Success isn’t handed to you; it takes years of hard work. And people who make it to the top claw their way there, many times making extreme personal sacrifices. It doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s earned.
Do yourself a favor: Recognize and then accept that there are seldom privileges in the working world. The majority of us start at the bottom, in an entry-level role with low pay and little responsibility, and then we grind, learn the ropes, gain valuable experience and eventually prove ourselves.
2. Shout it from the rooftops
LinkedIn reports that 85% of all jobs are filled via networking.
So, decide what it is you want to do long-term, and make your intentions clear to 1) your manager, 2) colleagues who can support you along the way, 2) people who currently work in the role to which you aspire and 4) the hiring manager.
Putting yourself out there and getting on the decision-makers’ radars are critical first steps towards your goal. After all, they can’t hire you if they don’t know you’re a candidate.
And while you may not be invited to interview or selected for the position the first [or fourth] time around, establishing that relationship and rapport means you’re closer than you were yesterday.
3. Outwork the others
We can’t all be the smartest person in the room. Nor the most talented. Nor the most likable. Nor the luckiest.
However, two important things we have control over are work ethic and input. We can work harder than our colleagues—within our own company and within the industry—to set ourselves apart.
This might go without saying, but think long and hard about enthusiastically going "above and beyond" the job description and doing the best work that you’re capable of producing every single day.
Work-life balance can and should be a priority: Take your lunches, plan your vacations and enjoy personal interests outside of your career.
But when you’re at the office, be dialed in, work efficiently and do your job better than your peers. These tactics will not go unnoticed.
4. Do it anyway
So what if it’s not your responsibility?
Show interest in taking on new experiences and roles—without pay—to develop your skill-set. This sends a very clear message that you’re:
- Willing and eager to grow
The experience will serve as practice to prepare you for a future position, and the relationships will be invaluable as you continue to climb and expand your network.
Knowing that I aspired to become an event planner for my company, I intentionally attended as many fashion shows, designer personal appearances, private shopping events, cosmetic trend shows and store openings as possible—becoming friendly with those currently in the role and their supervisors.
What’s more, my current boss knew of my objectives and eagerly supported my desire to take on additional event-related projects to help broaden my portfolio.
By the time I started applying for open positions, the managers knew me by name and I was already doing much of the work—so the transition was natural.
Approach would like to know: What advice do you have for our readers who are just getting started with their careers?