My career began as sort of an accident.
In the summer before my senior year of college, my roommate, the co-editor at our college newspaper, was asked to do some proofreading for a special edition of a magazine at a company where he used to work. They wanted him to bring a friend to help, and he brought me.
Once that task ended, he was offered a part-time job during the school year. Given his busy schedule, he said no. As the second choice, I said yes and began working a few days a week writing small stories, proofing pages, and doing odd jobs.
It was a part-time job to enhance my empty resume, not a potential career starter, but then the editor of the magazine I worked for got fired over Christmas break. In his absence, I did his job -- perhaps not well, but good enough to be offered the position.
That was a challenge for the second semester of the year, as I balanced going to school, editing a weekly newspaper, and working full-time. It was a blessing, though, because without a plan in mind, I stumbled into a career-starting position when most of my friends had to settle for jobs.
It was an accidental path, but in hindsight, I did some things right without knowing that was what I was doing. And thanks to my stumbling path, I have some tips I can offer you to help you launch your career.
1. Be open to anything
My journey could have ended before it began if I had turned down my roommate when he asked me to come along to his short-term job. Instead, I joined him -- probably because the office was near an amazing Mongolian barbecue buffet -- and by tagging along I ended up starting at a company I would work for multiple times over the first few years of my career.
When the offer of a part-time job came up, I had every reason to say no. I was already busy as co-editor of the newspaper and didn't need the money, because I worked on Saturdays teaching swimming -- which paid stunningly well for a college job. I also had friends, a girlfriend (now my wife of 17 years), and lots of fun senior-year things ahead of me.
There were so many excuses to say no, but I didn't -- again, not because I had a plan, but because I was afraid of having to move back home after college. Keep yourself open to opportunities when you're offered internships, jobs, experiences, or even a chance to meet someone interesting.
2. Seize initiative
My boss at the magazine was let go in December while working a trade show for the company. That was fortunate for me, because I had nearly two months without school to fumble my way through putting the magazine together. I was never asked to do that. Someone else would have done it, had I not. But by the time the senior management came back from that trade show, I had most of an issue put together.
That was a particularly dramatic situation, but the logic applies to anything you do. Whatever your situation, be proactive. Be the person who volunteers and the one willing to learn new things. Opportunities aren't always obvious, but seizing initiative can make things happen.
3. It's never just a job
Whether you work in fast food or have some other low-level job before your career starts, do the best work you can. That's a good practice in general, but it can also lead to greater things.
Maybe you never considered managing that restaurant or holding a job in the corporate office, but working hard may open those doors. It's also possible that a boss or colleague at one job could one day help you land another. In addition, when you have a thin resume, every reference counts. A recruiter or potential boss will be wowed if he or she hears you gave your all flipping burgers, working a register, or carrying out whatever other duties you had.
4. Don't be shy
This may be the hardest advice for young people to follow, and it may be the most important. As you start your career you are not only someone with limited, or no experience, but you are also an unknown.
Your best chance at getting hired may be to change that situation. Doing so requires introducing yourself to strangers, being bold, and accepting rejection.
Try to set up informational interviews before you enter the workforce. Email people in the position you want and ask to pick their brains over a cup of coffee. Attend hiring fairs and any on-campus events.
This is not a time to be shy. Even if you decide to contact one stranger a day, you could meet someone in the field who could open an otherwise locked door.