Need Career Experience? Invent Your Own Job & Work for Free.

I often speak with students who are trying to land an internship or part-time role to get some job experience. But it’s a really competitive world, so even for these positions, most employers want to hire someone who already has experience. This presents an obvious challenge, so students always ask me:

“How do I get experience if nobody will hire me until I have experience?”

So let’s answer this once and for all. It’s actually really simple. Invent your own job and be willing to work for free. Here’s how it works…

First, you need to acknowledge that if you don’t have any job experience, you’re a really risky bet for any prospective employer. Companies don’t like risks in hiring since bringing on the right people is the most important thing a company does.

So you need to lower a company’s risk in hiring you. How do you do that? Offer to work for free… either for the company you want to go to or another one that will get you the experience first. This is worth way more than whatever salary you’ll get.

If you’re thinking that most companies won’t let you work for free, you’re absolutely right. However, SOME companies will jump at your offer to work for free. I’ll tell you how to find these companies below. Just remember that if you stick with the traditional way of doing things, you’re competing head to head with everyone else. That sucks. So, why not try something novel and give yourself a huge advantage?

Ok, let’s make this happen. It’s all about finding things you’re passionate about. So first, create a list of your favorite companies or people in the following categories. It’s better if they’re in your town and not really big or famous, but don’t worry about that right now.

  • nonprofit organizations
  • professors (if you’re in school)
  • small businesses (restaurants, retail, etc.)
  • newspapers, magazines, radio stations
  • authors, artists, bands
  • schools / departments

You’ll be surprised at how much help many of these organizations need. I guarantee it. One universal truth is that every organization looks better from the outside than from the inside. They need more help than you think.

Look at your list and imagine yourself working with these organizations or people. Think about the skills you have or want to develop. Think about what you’d love to do with them. Are you excited? I sure hope so… it’s your list!

Now, read the sentence below and never ever forget it. Burn it into your memory. Ok?

The easiest job to get is the one you invent yourself.

So, here are your five steps. Then I’ll explain them further below.

  1. identify an organization
  2. learn about their needs
  3. figure out how you can provide value
  4. make your pitch
  5. if necessary, offer to work for free

If you do those steps, don’t you think you have a decent chance of success? Certainly better than following the traditional approach of applying to a position listed on an organization’s website. When you do that, you’re competing against dozens or even hundreds of other applicants. And let’s face it, many of them will be similar to you… maybe even (dare I say it) more qualified than you. Ouch. That’s why you’re not going to put all your eggs in that basket, right?

So, do some research into the potential employers on your list. What might they need that you can do? Or, maybe you just love that organization and are willing to work hard for them doing whatever is required. Either way, write these ideas down. Start formulating these into a short 2-3 sentence pitch. You see what you’re doing…

You’re writing your own job description!

Figure out the best way to introduce yourself. If the organization is local, try to go in person. If not, email is fine too. Of course, also look through your personal network and see if you have any connections into these organizations. If so, ask for an intro.

When you speak with this organization, remember that you’re trying something unconventional. They may have no precedent for someone doing the work you want to do, so you might need to walk them through it and why you’re offering up your time. If they’re willing to pay you, great! If not, you’re going to offer to work for free.

For example, maybe you’re offering to build a website and run the social media accounts for a local animal shelter in order to boost their pet adoption rate. You should explain your background, your passion for what they do, and talk about the dog your family adopted when you were a kid. Tell them you’re excited to help and in the process build up your skills and confidence. Think about what you’ll want to say on your resume or in an interview someday, and go get that experience.

Critically, make sure the employer knows you’re not just volunteering to support the cause, but that you also have an important goal to get experience for your career someday. You don’t want your time to be abused by them. You’re there to learn. Some people will find this admirable and “get it”. Others won’t. Don’t fight it, go with people / organizations who get it. Those people may become great mentors for you and perhaps even write a recommendation letter for you someday. And, you never quite know how this will come back to help you someday. The universe is funny that way.

Trust me, this works. Not at every organization, but for some. I’ve worked with several award-winning authors and nonprofits through this approach. Some of those lead to paying jobs later. And I built up my resume in the process.

Let me end with a personal story. My first real job was as a summer research assistant for one of my college psychology professors. It was a Human Perception lab that also conducted research using Virtual Reality. Cool, huh? I had some web development and design experience, but not much… and it wasn’t too relevant anyway. I had no background in research since I had only finished one year of college. So, I went up to the professor after class one day and offered to work for free that summer. I knew I would never have gotten the job otherwise. He confirmed that years later.

I worked for that professor for four more years, we still speak regularly (now 16 years later), and he has been the most valuable mentor in my career. I even got my first post-college job through someone in his lab… and it was in Honolulu! During my eight years in Hawaii, I had a great career (and met my wife) that set me up nicely to get hired at Google. And none of this would have happened had I not offered to work for free to get experience.

Later in my career I’ve done this again and again for authors, nonprofits, artists, and more. It’s always been a great learning experience and introduced me to some incredible people. And, when you help causes you care about, you feel really damn good about your contributions in the world. And that happiness worth a fortune!

I’ve advised many students to follow this strategy and I know it’s worked for some of them. So please, give it a shot! And, let me know if it works for you too. Good luck out there!

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