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Trying too hard to be "professional"

Today Seth Godin writes about college students in SIFE being more worried about playing dress-up than doing something remarkable in free enterprise. Here are five more examples of young people trying way too hard to be professional, to the detriment of their professional success. (And, yes, sadly, these are all things I frequently see firsthand.)

1) They freak out about having to wear a suit to a career fair but never seem to have anything to say to employers. Yet anyone worth working for would prefer a student wearing jeans who could actually convey that she is interesting and intelligent.

2) They end a first message to me, perhaps asking for my advice or help, with a line like the following:

"Thanks and I look forward to building a great relationship with you."

It sounds so weird to tell me that we're going to build a great relationship when we haven't even met. Even if we have met, you don't need to describe exactly what you're trying to do. Just do it.

3) They give you a handwritten thank you note immediately after you meet with past-tense language about the meeting that just ended 30 seconds ago like "Thank you so very much for meeting with me. It was such a pleasure!" I'm flattered that they were predicting it would be a pleasure, but the impossibility of preparing a post-meeting comment before the meeting itself pretty much negates the brownie points they were trying to earn with a handwritten thank you. Even an e-mail the next day would be better than this.

4) They create massive e-mail signatures, trying to seem super-important like professors do even if they're college freshman.

Robert C. Jones
Class of 2009
Elite University
Department of Chemistry
(555) 555-5555

Department of Chemistry? Most freshman haven't even really declared majors yet. And they certainly haven't built up a level of expertise that would enable them to represent the department in any way.

5) They put their full names (Robert C. Jones) on the top of their resumes even though they always go by a different name altogether (Charlie Jones). It's hard enough to get someone to spend more than 10 seconds looking at your resume, so it's not very smart to make employers confused about whose resume it is.

For all of these reasons and more, I tell college students and young professionals that one of the best ways to put their careers on the fast track is to move beyond trying to be too professional to just being normal. Only then can you try to, as Seth would advise, be remarkable.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 30 March 2006 Permalink

Can't convince your family you're doing the right thing?

Then have someone else do it.

After a talk I gave at USC in January, a college junior approached me with the following dilemma: He's from a tight-knit immigrant family that had to sacrifice a ton to put him through school. His major is biomedical engineering, and because of his family's limited knowledge of the white-collar professional world, they expect him to work strictly as a biomedical engineer and nothing else for his entire life. Problem is, few biomedical engineering majors actually take on first jobs under the title "biomedical engineer." Furthermore, he doesn't know what he really wants to do after college anyway.

Of course, I tell him No problem. Just find something you love and do it. Doesn't need to be biomedical engineering. You seem smart and mature. You'll be fine.

"But I'd never be able to convince my family to let me do that."

My gut reaction was, "You're an adult. You can do whatever you want, regardless of what your family says. They can't really make you go to law school or whatever unless you let them." But I understand the emotional need to have their blessing. So I told this kid to launch a propaganda campaign on his family. That's how they came to believe what they believe -- someone else brainwashed them. Why can't you reverse it? Deep down, they want you to be successful and satisfied, but they want whatever you do to match what they know and are comfortable with also.

For his family, my first prescription was a graduation speech by Guy Kawasaki. In it, he discusses his top 10 hindsights from his life and career. At one point, he recommends studying and doing what you love, and not just whatever seems the safest path to a nice car or house and says this about how parents are involved here...

You parents have a responsibility in this area. Don't force your kids to follow in your footsteps or to live your dreams. My father was a senator in Hawaii. His dream was to be a lawyer, but he only had a high school education. He wanted me to be a lawyer.

For him, I went to law school. For me, I quit after two weeks. I view this a terrific validation of my inherent intelligence. And when I quit, neither of my parents were angry. They loved me all just the same.

This student was nervous about trying to backwards brainwash his family, but he gave it a shot. At the end of his next casual reply to an aunt the next day, he slipped this in at the end.

Here's a nice read.

His aunt wrote back:

Dear, Kevin. Yes, it is interesting to read. I might buy his book to read. Did you see his book yet? It is good that you find some interesting stuff and share with us. Keep doing it. We need more input from you - young man! I will spend more time to read it. Love, Aunty Jenny

And Kevin wrote to me, "You were right!"

So if you're having trouble standing up to your parents by yourself. Get some help. Enlist the opinion of any expert or non-expert you can to give your parents (or friends) a new perspective. I don't know what would work best in your particular situation, but these two things have been working well for my friends lately.


Posted by Ian Ybarra on 27 March 2006 Permalink

You won't win an Oscar...

...unless you're doing what you love.

It's usually not a big deal to miss the presentation of the Academy Award for Sound Mixing (not exactly the sexiest category), but I wish everyone would have heard the acceptance speech delivered by Michael Semanick, one of four men who won for their work on King Kong.

I want to thank my mother for giving me unconditional support when I chose this crazy career. You questioned me only once. "Are you sure you don't want to be a doctor?" Yes, mom, I'm sure. I love you.

...he said, as he thrust his gleaming Oscar high into the air.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 7 March 2006 Permalink