Want a job? Act as if you already have the job.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me about landing an internship for her daughter in product design.  
What I told her, and what I’d like to tell all high school students aspiring to be a young Jony Ive, is this:

Even if you don’t get an internship working as a product designer, I highly recommend spending your summer engaging in endeavors as if you already have the job. For example, invent your own project in which you observe human behavior and try to design a solution that meets people’s needs. Learn how to code so you can build prototypes of your concepts.  Or, for physical products, hang out at a maker studio so you can start prototyping or building stuff with your hands. This experience helps you build a portfolio of projects that you can later show potential employers; it’s a great way to demonstrate your passion for learning and for this area of work. Going through such an experience will also be a good indicator to you as to whether this is truly something you want to do for your career — if you love it, that will be reassuring, and if you hate it, you’ll know early before you invest more energy in it.

Want a job?  Act as if you already have the job.  Invent projects for yourself, start making, start tinkering.

Recently I spent an afternoon mentoring a group of high school girls who are working on their Technovation Challenge.  In 10 weeks, they are tasked with understanding user needs, assessing market fit, sketching, designing, and building a prototype of a product idea for the identified need.  It’s an amazing experience that will help them gain tangible, employable skills and build a portfolio of project work.  From the perspective of an employer (like Google) who has their choice of candidates, students with straight-A transcripts from elite schools are easy to come by; what helps them identify great candidates worth hiring ultimately comes down to the portfolio.
As a hiring manager, I always look for passion in a candidate’s portfolio.  Where there is passion, creativity and grit come much more easily; passion is what we do when it’s inconvenient.  A high school student who actually has a portfolio demonstrates their willingness to learn on their own and their fearlessness in trying new things and iterating.
Towards the end of my graduate studies I applied for and interviewed for several jobs with high tech companies.  I sat through many interviews where hiring managers asked broad, high level questions that didn’t seem to help reveal whether I had what it took to do the job.  Interviewing students with no work experience is especially hard for managers because there isn’t prior work experience to ask about.  It was only when I pulled out my project work related to my master’s thesis that helped turn my fate around the corner.  As I walked interviewers through my work, they could assess how I solved problems, the tradeoffs I made, the determination I had to go through many iterations to find the best solution given the constraints and requirements.  Showing my project work is what helped me land my first dream job at Netscape.
Throughout my career as I’ve interviewed, hired, and rejected hundreds of design, research, and web developer candidates,  I always give candidates a chance to show their work.  Beyond asking for a link to their portfolio, I ask them to walk me through it, because hearing their story reveals so much more:  what was the opportunity they saw, how they framed the problem, how they approached solving the problem, the iterations they tried (or whether they iterated at all), the feedback they got and how they responded to it.  If they’ve thought further about how they would improve the project if they had more time, it’s a good sign that there is some self-awareness and introspection going on.
As I began teaching yoga, I found this advice “Act as if you already have the job” to be especially true.  You can’t get a job teaching at a yoga studio unless you have experience teaching.  How does one get experience teaching yoga if one cannot teach at a studio?  You have to invent reasons to teach.  My mentors talked about how they would offer free yoga in the park (on a donation basis) just to give themselves an opportunity to teach.  They would offer discounted private instruction to friends and family and build a network from there.  They would offer to substitute for absent teachers and assist teachers (for free) in their classes.
Want a job?  Act as if you already have the job.

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