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his Saturday, I am going to be a panelist for my alma mater, Wheaton College’s, “Sophomore Symposium”, a program that helps sophomores make the best career path choices. Following Scott Hanselman’s advice to write a blog post on anything that is longer than 3 to 4 sentences and that you are bound to repeat, we decided it would be a good idea to put down all the ideas that emerged when I asked our team what they wished they had known as sophomores.
While a lot of the ideas that emerged were pretty ubiquitous – work harder in school, drink less, think about the future more – some of the ideas were more novel and nuanced.
Here are our favorite three:
1. Spend Serious time on Introspection
While this may seem like a fairly obvious predicament, we put it into the list to suggest some strategies for attacking it. The ‘what should I do with my life’ problem is like a lot of business issues we encounter everyday because it is large, nebulous, daunting and seemingly intimidating.
I can remember being a sophomore, weighing the benefits of careers in finance, law and academia with no tools to legitimately consider them while feeling totally overwhelmed and lost. I think that being at a liberal arts college, immersed in academia and surrounded by mentors who espoused the merits of academia, was part of my problem because I couldn’t see anything beyond additional formal education. With that in mind, my sights were solely set on getting my MBA, law degree or PH.D. I had no inclination that maybe it would be best for me to just venture out into the business world and to see what would happen.
Looking back, I should have realized that I am too rebellious to truly excel in a traditional format. But, nothing I was doing at the time was making me aware of this, which is why our team thought it would be a good idea to recommend serious and methodical introspection as a sophomore. We know that attacking huge, complex problems is all about chunking and finding the next action item so we came up with one approach:
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins outlines the nine ways that companies make the leap from good to great. In the fifth chapter of the book, Collins describes the Hedgehog concept which states that excellent businesses focus on a small territory of one thing they can be great at, opposed to foxes that try and defend a large area of things they can’t focus on. We believe that the concept that deals with the three circles below applies to individuals just as much as it does businesses.
The graph states that a business, or person, should find the intersection of what they can be the best at, what they love to do and what there is a market demand for. We think that worrying about what there is a market demand for is a red herring, causing people to concentrate on the wrong things. Even our firm’s limited exposure to the marketplace has taught us one thing: if you are determined to make money at it, there’s a way to do it.
So, we’re sure that as sophomores, time would be best spent concentrating on the intersection of your interests and your talents. Alan Watt’s video below, “What if money was no object?” is a personal favorite and a great video to get you in the mindset of thinking about what your interests and passions are.
We are pretty sure that thinking broadly about your passions probably isn’t too difficult. Although most people do have a lot of different interests and passions and it may be worth while making a list of things you like doing or things that interest you. The father of a friend, a fellow entrepreneur, has often said to us that we had to find the thing that “we could work at without looking at the clock.” For him, it’s hardware development; for me, it’s been bringing grand ideas to life.
While thinking of all the things that you enjoy may be relatively easy, the difficult part is finding how those things can intersect with your talents and personality and, for that matter, determining your talents and personality. On the personality front, we recommend taking the Myers Briggs test and reflecting on your personality type.
Recognizing your talents, then, is probably the most difficult part of this process and the part we have the least advice for. But, we will say that you can notice your talents by identifying the traits about yourself that are objectively more developed than your peers. They could be public speaking, physical fitness, the ability to empathize with someone or anything in which a person can have a skill in.
Essentially, our advice is that instead of looking at the different career fields and trying to find which ones align with you, we recommend looking inward and determining the intersections of your passions and talents and then finding careers that conform to them.
2. Experiment with Internships Early
If you have completed the first step, then you should have some hypotheses of what you might like to do. So, the next step must be to gather experiential data, or essentially test out your hypotheses. As entrepreneurs and creative problem solvers, we go through this process a lot. We spend time brainstorming possible solutions then testing them out to see if we were right with our initial thoughts. (We generally are.)
Anyways, the best way to test your career hypotheses is to get out into the real world and see if you like what you thought you might. It makes sense then to start trying to do a bunch of different internships early so that you can zero in when you find what you like. Again, this may go against the conventional thinking on the subject, but as a sophomore, you have nothing to lose by doing an eight-week internship on a whim.
As startup people, we may have a large bias here, but we recommend doing at least one internship at a startup because there’s often a lot of flexibility in a startup. Unlike applying for a major corporate internships where you will have a clearly defined role, at most startups if you notice you want to be doing something else, there is a pretty good chance they’ll let you work on it. Put simply, startups offer a lot of freedom to explore and opportunity to change direction without changing internships.
Either way, startup or not, you should get out there and test your hypotheses to see what you actually like as soon as you can.
3. Bring a Positive, Can-do Attitude
As a sophomore, there’s a good chance you won’t have a lot of relevant experience but you can make up for that with 1. energy, 2. attitude, and 3. effort. The easiest ways to display that you will bring these things to an internship are to be preemptive and action-oriented throughout the interview process.
By preemptive, we mean that you should do everything you can do before an action to be adequately prepared for it. For instance, if you are going to write a cover letter, which you should do whether or not the internship asks for one, you should start by doing extensive, EXTENSIVE, research on the company. Being specific and detailed is one of the easiest ways to stand out in a cover letter.
You have to remember that the person who chooses interns probably has a handful of more pressing responsibilities at the company. You want to display, as early as you can, that you are truly passionate about the company and what your role could be within it. For instance, if you were applying to be a social media intern for a company you found had very poor Facebook presence, you may spend a paragraph in your cover letter explaining how you would create content about their x-initiative, share content about industry leaders, naming a handful and respond readily to comments.
The above boils down to one thing: know the company and be able to articulate clearly what you can and will do for them.
Secondly, being action-oriented is a great way to make a good impression. By that we mean take the initiative on something early on. For instance, at F&F we ask our interns to take the Myers Briggs test mentioned above. It’s a good sign if they take the test and respond accordingly. It’s a great sign if they take the test and respond by talking about how their personality type may fit into the role they are going to play at F&F. Going the extra mile on a simple task is an easy way to show that you will get things done at a position.
To conclude, none of us knew what we wanted to do when we were sophomores. But, you can start working through that process now by looking inward, experimenting and having a can-do attitude.