Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College


I always say that you shouldn’t take business advice from someone whose only business is giving business advice (Pyramids: Great shape for a pharaoh’s tomb, bad shape for a business model), and that multiple streams of income are crucial.

One of my businesses is offering educational comedy shows to universities — I do about six gigs a year — and this was how I recently found myself at sunny Palm Beach State University, where I had offered, since I was in town anyway, to speak to any college classes that wanted to have me. That turned out to be an introductory composition class.

My speaking topic is “Forging Your Own Career,” but I tend to do my public speaking a bit on the fly — you really just have to get a feeling for things once you get there. Colleges are more different from each other than nearly any other group of groups of people; there is no Chamber of Commerce that only takes the top 8% of businesses, and then some other Chamber of Commerce for people who couldn’t get into that Chamber of Commerce, and then a bunch of Chambers of Commerce full of people who were excluded from the other Chambers of Commerce for a host of financial and sociocultural reasons.

I sat in the back of the class as the professor talked for about twenty minutes about the persuasive research paper the students were supposed to write over the next two weeks (on the topic of “anything but abortion,” which sounds like a pretty good policy for an English professor who has to read a lot of papers). This gave me time to work on my notes, which I had roughly organized into:

1. How to Get a Paper Done
2. How to Get Anything Done
3. What This Has to Do With Your Future Career

The professor had briefed me ahead of time: many of these students had never written a research paper before, and some didn’t have home computers. Many had children to care for in addition to keeping up with school. I opened with the Great Universal — not “Everybody cries” or “Underneath our skin color, we’re all the same,” but:

Do you ever have something to get done, so you open up a blank Word document, and then stare at it for fifteen minutes?

A woman said, “Oh, hell yes!”, and we were on our way. (Followup question: And then you put your name on the Word document, and then stare at that for awhile? Truly, we are all the same person when we have writer’s block).

I’ve had some time for my Palm Beach sunburn to fade and for me to think about this topic — how the skills that help you succeed in college can help with your career. When I was a young entrepreneur (see Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To), I regularly lied up about my age, assuming that youth was an unmitigated weakness. Surely, in some ways, it can work against you, but there are many advantages to being fresh out of college. On the most basic level, if you did well in college, you were able to succeed at three to five fairly unrelated things simultaneously (who among us has not fulfilled our science requirement at the same time as our non-Western cultures requirement or some such eclectic program of study?) Many adults have become locked in to doing one big job, and then coming home and chilling, or pursuing hobbies like “exercise” and “restaurants,” which are fine pursuits, but not totally adequate as mojo outlets for ambitious young people.

When I stood before approximately 25 Palm Beach State students filled with more than a little trepidation about their big research paper, I took a poll: What’s the longest thing you’ve ever written? Students offered: 5 pages, 6 pages, 8 pages. One student hit 20 with a personal project. I shared a few techniques that helped me write a 100-page screenplay in college (not a great screenplay, but I got it done in time for my screenwriting class deadline and it also involved a teenage lesbian superhero, so there).

First, do the easiest parts first. If you still have writing skills left over from composing on paper, you would likely have a natural tendency to “begin at the beginning,” but I find that even teenagers who have always had technology don’t seem to be aware that you are totally free to start with the part where you explain, for instance, that Hamlet has mixed feelings, which is probably the easiest thing to say about Hamlet. And then you write the part that comes just before that, and the part that comes right after that, and then finally the hard parts are just little missing bits sandwiched between already-written bits, so you just need to link A to B, as it were.

For me, the easiest thing was writing the fight scenes first. One of them called for “one hundred extras who do not know martial arts but who are willing to wear ninja suits and pretend to do martial arts.” There’s a reason this movie was never made. More recently, I wrote 1,000 vocabulary flashcards for the GRE (coming to bookstores this August). It turns out that 10% of all GRE vocabulary words begin with “a”. I got so bored with abdicate, abnegate, abrogate, etc., that I did X, Y, and Z instead for awhile, which was pretty fun. Xenophobia! Yoke! Zenith!

Second, feel free to write like an idiot and fix it later. One of my main lines of work today is tutoring people for standardized tests, some of which are computer adaptive, making perfection effectively impossible — you get a question right, and then you get a harder question, such that basically everyone feels like a failure (if she chooses to think about it in such a self-defeating way). This only magnifies many people’s problems with being emotionally unable to fail or look stupid for even one minute on the way to a goal. Some people would rather do nothing than do something dumb and then something dumb and then something fucking fantastic.

One school of thought in education says that praising students for being smart causes them to clench up and freak out when they later hit a wall — if they can’t do something, they must not be smart anymore, and certainly they couldn’t let anyone know about that, right? This school of thought — of which I am a card-carrying member — suggests that students do better when praised for hard work. A student told, “Wow, you really worked on that until you got it down!” will not be afraid to fail, and fail, and fail again on the way to really getting the next thing down (and to fail, fail, and fail again on the way to being in the top 1% of the GMAT bell curve).

I have regularly been hired to tutor teenagers for the SAT, but when I get there, they can’t concentrate on the SAT because they have a huge paper the next day, so — with their parents’ blessing — I help someone write a paper about a book that I have not even read. Usually, I ask questions based on some kind of handout from the teacher (“What are the different female archetypes in the Joad family?”), and then I write down what the student says, in normal student language:

Mama is a take-charge kind of person but things keep going badly
she cooks a lot of gravy because they’re poor
Rosasharn is totally irrational and also pregnant
there’s also a grandma

After a little more of that, I hand the laptop back to the student, tell them I have to go to the bathroom so why don’t they write a first line of the paper by rephrasing the topic, and then I come back from staring at someone’s decorative soaps and the kid is well on her way to turning “Mama cooks a lot of gravy” into a sensible sentence. (I wrote last week about how the wealthy very often hire people to do things they could totally do themselves).

Those two tips for getting a paper done — write the easiest parts first and then stitch them together, and don’t be afraid to write like an idiot and then fix it later — are extremely helpful in a knowledge economy in which most of us are now writers. I wrote in Bullish: What to Do About Being (Temporarily) Pretty about how people lose their shit over whitepapers. A whitepaper is basically exactly like a regular paper, except you make money from it (either by subtly selling a product or by promoting yourself as an expert). After paying tens of thousands of dollars for college, this is really quite refreshing.

In other columns, I’ve suggested creating a portfolio website for your work, creating a simple career website with a blog in your field (if you are an employee, keep it low key — enough to show that you’re genuinely intellectually engaged in your field, but not so much that it looks like you’re looking to leave your company), or demonstrating value to your boss by reading books in your field and occasionally typing up reports or summaries that it’s pretty likely your boss will forward to others (“Hi X, I just read this book about exactly the thing we do in our office. Here are two big things I learned that might be helpful to others….”) We are all writers (and marketers, and salespeople) now, at least as an auxiliary part of our careers. It’s good if your college skills are fresh.

For more tips on getting things done in general, you might enjoy Bullish: How To Stop Procrastinating About Stopping Procrastinating, Bullish: How To Be A Productivity Unicorn, and Bullish: Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans. Whatever the skills are that help you get through college classes — mostly meeting deadlines without someone looking over your shoulder or telling you when to wake up and do your work — are pretty much the skills that allow you to run a freelance career or a business.

The other big message I always have for college students is that, no matter how hard you work for that degree, it’s just one entry on your resume, and it’s an entry nearly everyone else also has. It’s not enough, by itself, for anything. However, many of the other skills that help you launch after college are skills that you can develop with far less time and money than it takes to get a college degree: pitching things, public speaking, displaying a dynamic personality on the job, doing things faster than other people by vigilantly cutting out inefficiencies, and productively managing your emotions during your working life. In fact, some of these are things you can just decide to do: I will do all of my projects at least a day before deadline or before my peers can complete similar work. Most people aren’t setting goals to be faster at a salaried job, or to use their emotions to propel them ahead rather than to whip them around randomly all day.

And finally, I tell people: You can’t just have a job anymore. That might seem daunting, but it’s actually pretty good news if the only jobs you can seem to get right now are ones that suck. It’s time to start a freelance career, write a book or whitepaper, start a blog that will sell your services, pitch big thing to important people who are easy to contact over the Internet, or become an entrepreneur. (See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)

Whatever got you through college — writing, balancing several things at once, working late into the night or ass-early in the morning — is what helps you beat everyone else who gets lazy once they get out of college and start receiving a paycheck.

originally published on The Grindstone

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