Bullish: How To Compete When You’re Young And Inexperienced

“I will be turning 24 soon, and feel as though I’m getting a late start, particularly because the fields I have chosen are notoriously difficult to break into and it will take a few months, minimum, and am intimidated by how much experience and competence everyone else seems to have. I am currently contacting everyone in my network to see if they have any advice or connections and am starting a blog, but I feel like this is not enough. Do you have any advice for how to make up for lost time?”

You know how, when you’re in high school, a 15 year old dating an 18 year old is kind of creepy, but when you’re older, a 26 year old dating a 29 year old is totally normal?

So, I first want to address the fact that, to someone over 30 (as in, most of the people who hire other people), 20 and 24 are the same thing (actually, to someone over 30, a 20-year-old is basically a fetus you would not entrust money or responsibilities to).

While other 24 year olds might think you’re getting started late, no one over 30 is going to think that. 24 is a fine age to do anything. I find that most interesting people I know spent their early 20s trying a lot of different things. People who decided on a single career when they picked their major at 19 or 20 are often rather boring, obedient types.

I strongly suggest that, whatever you’ve been doing for the past few years, you spin that as an obviously valuable way to bring a much-needed perspective to your new field.

For instance, I spent various parts of my youth running a dotcom (see Bullish: 3 Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To), modeling (see Bullish: What I Learned About Business From Being a Low-Rent Model), doing standup, donating my eggs, adjudicating an adult spelling bee, and starting various small businesses. Obviously, I’ve spun some of those things into articles. More importantly, I can point out the relevance of these things to my current pursuits.

My standup experience has been phenomenally helpful in getting writing, teaching, and public speaking gigs. I once ended up consulting for PBS because someone googled “math and comedy” and found me. At one company I do a lot of work for, it’s well known that, because of my artsy side, I know how to find a good videographer (or whatnot) for cheap. (Mainly because I look on Craigslist for intellectual grad students living on the margins of society and producing amazing work, rather than for cheesy dudes who market themselves to corporations and also do bar mitzvahs.) In Bullish: Be a Badass, Not an Intern, I wrote about a friend who switched careers into journalism. Rather than pitch herself as a beginner-in-her-late-twenties, she made her previous career sound like the perfect qualification to jump right into writing for major news outlets. It worked.

So, 24 is not too late, and whatever you’ve been doing up until now is fine! Fine, I say! Just be likable and eager and smart, and spin the story of your nascent adulthood in some kind of way that indicates that you are smart enough to spin things on behalf of your future employer.

That said, here are some thoughts regarding feeling as though others are more competent:

1) Most people are bullshitting (especially dudes – various studies say that women only apply for jobs when they meet all of the qualifications, but men will apply if they meet even less than half of the qualifications). You, too, can bullshit a little bit. It’s kind of like how, when you negotiate, you’re supposed to start with something a bit ridiculous so you can be bargained down. When you’re competing with bullshitters (which is almost everyone in American culture), you have to bullshit too.

2) Even people who are very competent often suffer from “impostor syndrome,” and feel that their competence is fake, or some fragile thing that could float away on the wind. (There’s some debate about this, but it’s clearly true for some people.) It is not hard to compete with these people or ingratiate yourself into their circles.

3) A lot of people who want to hire an expert have no ability to judge expertise, so they just go with who they know and like. If I wanted some headshots, I would think “Who are the photographers I know?” And I’d probably pick someone who was a nice person. I have no special ability to judge a person’s photographic skill or experience. Most buyers are like this. In the world of full-time work, employers often sort resumes for appropriate keywords, and then an awful lot of the decision is based on “fit.”

Here’s a great post from Penelope Trunk: How to Get a Job You’re Not Qualified For.

A version of this piece originally appeared on The Grindstone.