Thursday, December 4, 2008

You cannot win if you do not play

About one month ago, I flew up to SUNY at Buffalo to give career advice speeches to two very different groups of students.

One was a class of freshmen and sophomores who were undecided about what major to declare. The other was a standing-room-only conference room full of English and communications junior and seniors.

Yet, they both had two things in common: uncertainty about what lie ahead, and some degree of fear to solicit help from the outside world.

Before I spoke to both groups, I told the English department chair that students periodically contact me about internships and job opportunities. Their letters are often cookie cutter and a few are absurdly short. When I e-mail them back that I have no open positions, but offer to chat with them about looking for a job and networking, they almost never take me up on the offer. They are afraid of speaking up and making a personal connection with somebody who may give them invaluable advice and help their careers.

Fear manifests itself when asking businesspeople for advice or what it is like doing what they do for a living. Students think their heads are going to be bitten off. My retort to that is: people love talking about themselves. I asked one student what they were good at, and he said javelin throwing in athletic competitions. Wouldn't you be flattered, I asked aloud in his class, if a high school student expressed their admiration for what you did and wanted to know how you built up your stamina or threw for distance? Of course, he said. So why wouldn't it be any different if you asked your friends' parents about what they did for a living and what it was like?

Fear doesn't end in college. I've met my share of public relations peers who don't like to, for lack of a better word, "schmooze." There are others who are afraid of pitching TV producers or business reporters because for some reason, they found them intimidating, so clients are left languishing in those departments. I think of the publicists who pitch the same group of contacts over and over again, without expanding their circle of placements. Some things just don't change.

I don't know if there's a surefire recipe for getting over professional fear except the realization of running in the same place. That's what separates the truly ambitious from the vast mediocrity. Some people are content, as you know from watching shows like "The Office," to just do a few things and stay within that circle of competence. However, in a horrific economy where it pays to be adept at many skills and adhere to "knowledge is power," that old model diminishes the chances of even getting a job interview or staying employed.

Somehow, you've got to suck it up, roll the dice and be a player.

At the end of both classes that day in Buffalo, I offered my e-mail address for any of them who wanted to contact me for further questions or have me review their resume. I don't ever recall anybody offering a direct contact opportunity like that to me when I was in college. Of the approximately 65-75 students I spoke to that day, two of them LinkedIn to me and two others e-mailed with with follow-up questions. I'm hoping at some point in the future, they are brave enough to take me up on my offer.

My parting words to each group was the title of a 1978 Steve Forbert song: You cannot win if you do not play.

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