I have spent the last couple weeks working on a new profession I had not even been previously aware existed: textbook punch-up. Have a dry, academic-sounding textbook? Call a comedian who majored in philosophy! Now your textbook is full of logic jokes!
This has prompted me to think: while I think my resume looks pretty good, no one gives a shit. The editors I write for haven’t seen it. No one at the textbook company asked for it. At the company I teach test prep classes for, it was a mere formality: my resume was looked at to ensure that I had teaching experience, and then I had to nail an hours-long audition. Once, I did some consulting for a local PBS affiliate because someone had googled “math” and “comedy.”
That is, your resume is nowhere near as important as it used to be. Your personality is your biggest competitive advantage. The personality qualities that make you indispensable are (obviously) not taught in school, but are adoptable by nearly anyone, with some practice and motivation.
An impressive resume is the new high school diploma. You need more.
Here are some skills and personality qualities most college graduates have not developed, and which can allow you to beat those people at everything:
Pitching Things — In the freelance world, the value of pitching is obvious. You pitch an idea, you get the gig, you deliver on schedule, you pitch again. You should be great at pitching. You should have enough good ideas that you can pitch several things to different people in a single day and not get hung up waiting for replies, because you know you’ll have more good ideas where those came from.
However, pitching is extremely important even in traditional jobs. Here’s what I mean: individuals move faster than companies. Or, at least, they should. If you’re waiting for a job opening to be posted on a job site, that company’s need has gotten so acute that the company has already gone through a dozen or more slow, bureaucratic moves to try to fix their problem. At that point, it’s resume versus resume. You want to get in there first. Even a shitty entry-level job gives you that opportunity. If you answer the phone at the front desk, you will learn enough to be able to spot problems and suggest ways to fix them — ideally, ways that involve a new, expanded role for you. If you don’t already have a foot in the door, plenty of people have made jobs for themselves by tracking down the president of a small company and saying (tactfully), “I know how to market your product better,” or “I can rewrite your web copy so you’ll sell more of your product,” or “This is great — I can help you take it to the Spanish-speaking market.”
You have to be able to pitch. In school, the only pitching I remember is occasionally having to come up with my own paper topic and get it approved by my English teacher. But there was no benefit to coming up with a better paper topic over a mediocre one; this isn’t really pitching. A teacher who wanted to teach pitching would say: “We’re going to spend the next three weeks working on this big science project, and you’ll be turning in X for a grade. However, if you can think of a way that you, personally, would learn more about this topic doing something else and turning in a different end product, please come convince me after class.” Make this offer, and the vast majority of children will ignore it. The one kid who takes the teacher up on the offer will then end up skipping all the boring stuff and doing something awesome that they actually care about, and the other kids will be jealous. Next time, the teacher gets a few more pitches. By the end of the year, the teacher gets pitches all the time without even making the suggestion that they’re open to them.
Whether you are a student, an employee, an unemployed person, or an entrepreneur, you are fortunate enough to live in the age of the internet: pitching can be as easy as sending an email to someone whose email address is on the internet. You can pitch 10 good ideas in a day. You can pitch in the middle of the night. Try getting something published somewhere — if you’re not expecting to get paid (yet), this should be easy. If you’ve never been published anywhere, that can actually give you more credibility, provided that you are writing about something you do know: even professional science writers are trumped by actual scientists who stop doing science long enough to pen an op-ed. If the guy who cuts my hair wanted to comment on celebs’ new looks, I’d be way into it. When people who aren’t writers bother to get something published, it’s usually because they really have something to say. (Of course, not all pitching is about writing. Pitch yourself as a hitting coach for the local Little League team, I don’t care. But it’s easy to open doors when you’re creating those doors yourself).
Public Speaking, Including Responding to Questions — At my alma mater, there was no public speaking department, but there was a single public speaking professor who taught persuasive and expository speaking. These classes were very popular and among the few on campus that had wait lists. Yet, Dartmouth canceled the classes and let the professor go because the administration deemed, in its infinite wisdom, that public speaking was not “academic.” (Tell that to the ancient Greeks.) The College has since seen the error of its ways and, after a years-long hiatus, hired a new speech professor.
During the very time that the public speaking class in which I was enrolled was on the chopping block, I was learning HTML and graphic design and systematically contacting every campus department and asking whether they needed someone to make their website. Sometimes I responded to job postings. Either way, I ended up in interview after interview. Now, Dartmouth had a well-regarded computer science department; I’m certain I didn’t have the best resume on campus. Yet I got every single gig. I prepped talking points in advance and discovered that a particular favorite among the administrators interviewing me was, “I can add special code to the website so that blind people will be able to access it with speech browsers.” This was true, and was not difficult to do in 1998, but was probably not something my competitors found a way to work into the conversation. It is important to be able to speak fluently and cogently on the spot.
Later, when I ran my own company, I never paid for advertising; I held events, and gave speeches about what it was our company did. I didn’t give sales pitches; I actually just brain-dumped everything I knew about internet marketing, allowing people to take notes and get all the “inside information.” They generally then decided that they’d rather I did all that stuff for them, because it really was kind of a lot. And I’ve kept doing this ever since; I give college admissions talks at libraries and for PTAs. If public speaking sounds like a chore, it’s a lot better than most other methods of selling.
Why do we have young people write paper after paper, totally ignoring the fact that talking is at least as important as writing in adult life? Why is paper writing an integral part of school, while the debate team is an extracurricular activity? Why don’t we make students defend their ideas verbally prior to the graduate level, when we suddenly spring a thesis defense on them? If we’re going to make students write papers about The Great Gatsby, let’s make them defend those papers verbally. Or give them an option to make a speech rather than write a paper, with the understanding that that speech needs to have a well-developed thesis and make its point via the use of three separate examples with specific references to the text (or something equivalent to the paper requirements), the point being that there’s isn’t a lower bar for cogency when you’re talking than when you’re writing.
I once taught public speaking in a prison. Lesson 1: Tell me something you think and three reasons why. I’ve seen plenty of high school students at expensive private schools who can’t tell me something they think and three reasons why.
Of course, here would be a fine place to recommend Toastmasters as a way to improve one’s public speaking, and the book I used in college, An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication (under $1 used at Amazon), as a source on persuasive technique.
Being Funny, Dynamic, and Interesting — At the company where I teach, Ivy League graduates with perfect scores on standardized tests are regularly rejected for being boring. No one wants to listen to boring people. No one wants to read anything written by boring people.
I’m retired from standup comedy; in my heyday, I went to the Middle East to entertain the troops. But the amount of money I’ve made doing comedy is dwarfed by the amount of money I’ve made doing other things that people would prefer to have done by a comedian: running a spelling bee, hosting a trivia show, tutoring children, teaching adults, giving presentations, writing textbooks, writing blog posts, maintaining the company Twitter account, etc. And, pleasantly, the bar for being funny while doing most of these things is much, much lower than the bar for being funny in a comedy club. You don’t have to be a comedian to be pretty funny for an accountant, or for a teacher, etc.
If there’s a place to teach being funny or interesting in schools, it’s probably in teaching non-academic kinds of writing, such as journalism (as journalism jobs die out, the task of journalism is distributed to more people, somewhat paradoxically making high school journalism classes more, rather than less, relevant). Such a class would teach students to adopt different styles for blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc., as well as to write in an engaging but didactic style (i.e., make the 10th graders explain some difficult academic material in an interesting way to the 9th graders). Versatility in writing style is highly valuable in the adult world; oh, what variety of job interviews have been nailed by throwing in, “And I’d be happy to maintain the company Twitter account” (or blog, or newsletter).
If anyone wants suggestions, most comedy clubs and improv theaters offer classes; in New York, The P.I.T. and U.C.B. are fine places to start. Improv classes are taken by a multitude of people who do not aspire to perform improv comedy. I am an introvert, yet I have a big personality that goes on display when needed. You don’t need to change who you are, but it is possible, and advisable, to learn to bring a big personality out of yourself.
Big personalities rise above the clutter of resume accomplishments that have no practical value to employers. And, of course, they’re fun to be around, which can only help your cause.
originally published on The Gloss