Career counselors give advice to strangers day in and day out. But what would they tell their own child? CJJ asked career counselor and Quick Fix columnist Marty Nemko to share what he would tell his own daughter about seeking out her life's work. Here is his response:
A letter to my daughter:
Before I start, I worry that you'll blow me off. After all, my ideas are unconventional. Worse, they come from your dad. But they're the best I have, so here goes. Here's what I have learned from counseling other people about careers over the years:
Think twice about following long-shot dreams. Most career guides say, "Do what you love and the money will follow." They're filled with stories of starving artists who no longer starve, aspiring novelists or actors who no longer have to aspire.
What these books don't tell you is that for every person who achieves a long-shot dream career, there are dozens who don't: talented artists who still starve, terrific actors who still wait tables. I have a friend - I'll call her Rachel - who pursued her dream of being a writer. She did so for ten years, and now at age 40, she's in a Section-8 welfare apartment, flat broke and bitter. She deeply wishes she had a career that paid the bills. Now, she's trying to land a decent-paying job, but as a 40-year-old just entering the workforce, she's only getting offers for McJobs.
If you believe your life will feel empty unless you pursue a long-shot career, then do it, and do it full time, because there are a million others who are willing to work 70 hours a week to achieve the same dream.
The key to avoiding ending up like Rachel is to give it a fixed amount of time - say one year. Circle that date in red on your calendar. If, by the time you reach that red circle, you don't have clear signs you're going to make a living from this career, the odds are great you never will.
A Princeton Review study found that 90 percent of people who call themselves professional artists earn less than $1000 a year from their art! It seems society is willing to pay very few professional artists, performers and writers a living wage.
If you can imagine having a good life without that long-shot career, please make it an after-work activity. The key to achieving your long-shot dream is to not insist that you get paid for it. That allows you to keep doing what you love while ensuring you don't end up like Rachel.
Fact is, there are plenty of unhappy artists, writers and actors, and plenty of happy plumbers, managers, and small business owners. For most people, career happiness comes from doing something they're good at, working ethically, having co-workers who appreciate them, and making a reasonable living.
Consider becoming self-employed. Work for someone else and chances are they'll want to keep most of the profit for themselves and pay you the least they can get away with. They're usually not afraid of your quitting - there's always a desperate person willing to work for low wages. So it's tough to earn a good living when someone else is deciding how much you should earn. I want you to be the person deciding how much you should earn.
Unfortunately, many businesses fail within a few years, and I want you to succeed. So, here are some ideas you might consider:
Sell a service, not a product. A service business generally costs much less to start and to keep running. For example, I'm a career counselor. My start-up costs, especially because I chose to work in a home office, were tiny. Compare that with owning even a modest business like a greeting-card shop, which requires thousands of dollars for inventory, rent, etc. Another advantage of service businesses is a high profit margin: there's no cost of goods, so you keep most of the dollars you take in.
Those advantages are crucial because nearly every business owner makes mistakes, especially in the beginning. If your costs are low and profit margins
high, you can afford to make mistakes without their bankrupting you. For example, with most service businesses, if your first marketing strategy fails, it's no disaster. You simply try something else.
But if you're paying thousands of dollars a month on overhead, and your first marketing effort fails, you may quickly run out of money, and, thud, you're out of business.
Don't Waste Your Time Getting Technical Expertise. Unless you love the thought of a lifetime of learning techno-minutiae, don't bother getting technical expertise. It takes years, it's boring, and requires you to keep learning esoterica all your life. You can always hire technical expertise; what you need to learn is how to run a business. That's a skill that will never go out of style, it's more fun than learning endless arcana, is learnable by most people, and opens the door to big bucks. In contrast, most technical types work long hours to earn just a moderate wage.
How should you learn business? Volunteer or work for successful business people. Don't try learning it in school. If those professors were such good businesspeople, they'd probably be running a business, not teaching school. Remember, most professors are hired based on how well they do theoretical research, not how good a business person they are.
Spend most of your time marketing. No matter how good your service or product, you'll have a hard time succeeding unless you spend a lot of time marketing.
Try to get some free exposure:
- Send press releases to local media.
- Be interviewed on a talk show. Especially on small stations, getting on the air is easier than you might think.
- Post flyers where your target customers will see them. If I were looking for new clients, I might post flyers near a college's career center saying, Want more from your career center? I pick up where career centers leave off.
- Write an article for a trade publication or have someone else write one about your business. My favorite clients are doctors, so I might write a piece for the local medical society's newsletter called, "When Doctors Need a Career Transplant".
- Give talks at conventions and trade shows attended by your target audience.
- Figure out a category of business person you could cross-refer with: "I'll send you mine if you'll send me yours." In my case, I'd target psychotherapists. I'd attend a local conference of shrinks, and during the breaks, chat with people until I found someone with a similar interest and we both felt we could honorably refer clients to each other.
- Make a list of people who could most benefit you. Ask nothing of them. Invite them to a party, go to a sports event with one or two of them, send them an article they might find interesting, etc. Only after you've done a few such things for or with them, can you gently start to call in some chits.
Thanks for listening, kiddo. Now you can go ahead and tell your friends what a weird father you have.