Today, I spoke with Laura Vanderkam, who is a columnist for USA Today, an author and a long-time journalist. She talks about how there are other career options for people these days and how you don’t have to work in a cubicle all your life. If you’re a young professional who thinks they have to sit in a cube upon entering the workforce, then this post is required material for you. Laura gives us hope for our futures by talking about her story, of how to became a freelance writer, after working for a company. You can certainly achieve the same lifestyle by following some of the insights she provides here.
Laura, what does it take to escape from long hours in a cube?
If you’re asking that question, that’s a good first step — realizing that there may be other possibilities. In short, getting out of the cube is going to involve taking a risk. I tell people to figure out what they love to do so much they’d do it for free, then figure out a way to start a low cost business doing some aspect of this avocation. This takes some serious thought, but breaking out of the cube is worth it.
What career alternatives are there aside from working for a company?
There are the standard ones, of course — working for a non-profit or the government. But it’s really important to consider self-employment, too. With the internet, it’s quite easy to start a business and instantly have a huge potential market. Also, corporate business models are relying more on freelancers than ever before. If you want to work in a creative field, chances are you’ll need to work for yourself for at least some time. Fortunately, though, you can make decent money doing this — sometimes better than you could working for a big company!
What can a young professional do to switch their career path early on and not wait till senior year to be locked into a company they might not even want to work with?
Young people need to spend some serious time thinking about their careers. Eventually the days of “when I grow up” are upon you, and you have to figure out what to do with your life. Frankly, if college students spent as much time thinking about their interests as they did about what they want to do Saturday night, then that would solve a lot of the problem right there! But I do realize that young people are often swayed by parents and friends and the idea of what is the “right” thing to do.
No one else can live your life for you. Just because your father was a lawyer doesn’t mean you need to be a lawyer. Just because your friends say you can’t make a living as a writer or graphic designer doesn’t mean it’s true.
“Talk to people who make a living in the field you wish to pursue.”
How did they get there? What do they suggest doing? Ask for specific details. Lots of times successful people like to claim they were lucky or things happened serendipitously, but there’s usually a lot of specific hard work they did, too.
What are the drawbacks to entry-level jobs?
Ideally, an entry-level job would teach you how a company functions, and teach you different business skills, so that you will be able to rise through the company. Unfortunately, a lot of companies no longer work this way. They assume that employees only intend to stay with them for a few years, so the philosophy is more to get what you can out of the new hire until he or she quits. You could spend 12 hours a day cranking out spreadsheets. You might be very good at Excel by the end of that, but you won’t necessarily be further along in your career. I tell people to approach each job as if it were a training program — what skills and contacts can you get to move you closer toward where you want to be?
Did you ever have an entry-level job? If not, what were the steps you took to carve your own career path?
I did a 1-year internship at USA Today right out of college. I worked for the editorial page. The job was quite entry-level — I did a lot of fact-checking, and even emptying out-boxes — but it didn’t end that way. I got to see what columns were accepted and rejected. So I wrote one that looked like the accepted ones, and soon I was writing columns for USA Today regularly. I parlayed that gig into other freelance gigs and now I am writing full-time.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues (McGraw-Hill). She is a member of USA Today‘s Board of Contributors, and has written for a variety of other publications including Reader’s Digest, Wired, Scientific American, and The American. She is the co-author, with Jan and Bob Davidson, of Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and the co-author, with Dr. David Clayton, of The Healthy Guide to Unhealthy Living (Simon & Schuster, 2006). She lives in New York City.