“So will you write it?”
Ariel had just graduated college and was starting the process of applying to jobs. She had invited me to coffee because she wanted to ask me to write her a letter of recommendation to Ogivily, one of the most prestigious advertising firms in the world.
I wasn’t sold on the idea. I knew her well — she has intelligence and high character, but I’d never worked with her and like most college students, she had little experience.
“Okay, I’ll do it on one condition. I want you to write a letter of recommendation for yourself to me first as if I were making the hiring decisions at Ogivily.”
Ariel stared at me.
I continued. “I want to know that you aren’t relying on me to tell you and the hiring person why you’re worth hiring. I want to know that you’ve thought this through. It’ll help me write the letter and it’ll show me it’s worth my time to do it.”
After a bit more hesitation, she agreed to send me some thoughts later that night.
Little did I know how much this experience would teach me.
The letter I received read like a college application.
It talked about her passion for learning and her interest in various subjects in school. It talked about her beliefs and how she wants to see the world change. It talked about her passion for learning a bit more and ended with some examples of things that inspire her and some future goals she had.
It had everything a college looks for in a student and nothing an employer cares particularly about in an employee.
I didn’t write the letter.
Breaking Free of the Schooled Approach to New Opportunities
I’ve been asked to write a number of letters of recommendation since then and every time I’ve made the same request — write a letter of recommendation for yourself first.
I don’t do this to be a pain. If you can’t write a letter of recommendation for yourself, a third party endorsement won’t matter.
The conclusion I’ve reached from reviewing these letters is that most young people today haven’t really thought all that much about what makes themselves worth hiring.
Like Ariel, when you ask them to explain it, they fall back on everything they’ve been told growing up by the parents and teachers around them. They take what I call the “Schooled Approach.”
They list very general qualities that they’ve seen most other students praised for throughout their lives.
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work. Metrics for value and success in school are vastly different from those in the real world.
The truth is that while a “passion for learning” and many of the other qualities we’re praised for in school are valuable, they do not by themselves constitute a significant reason to hire a person. It may be enough to get by in the classroom, but it won’t get you far in the real world.
We end up with a cycle of elite students finding it incredibly difficult to begin their careers not necessarily for lack of skill, but because they think that employers are looking for the same things their professors and college administrators are looking for and they’ve never done that hard mental work it takes to know the difference.
Employers vs College: A Comparison
So what exactly is the difference? Here are the most important things that you need to know:
- In school, you can usually get away with saying you have a passion for learning and intellectual discussion. Employers want a passion for getting the job, THEIR PARTICULAR JOB, done. How does your passion for learning relate to the job at hand? You’ll need to be very concrete.
- In school, success and the steps you need to take to achieve it are usually clearly defined with a syllabus and course outline. Many jobs are much more open ended and employers are looking for someone who can come in and bring new ideas to the table.
- In school, you’re buying a product. As an employee, you’re providing a product (you). This means you need to put yourself in the shoes of the customer. What is unique about the “product of you” and how can it solve their problems?
How to Get Started
If you’re a college student or a recent graduate struggling with your job searches, here’s a challenge: write a letter of recommendation for yourself to a company that addresses the above points AND makes no mention of anything that is normally mentioned in school.
Most people are unable to do this on the first try and thats fine. The goal here isn’t to be perfect. It’s to help break down some of the old ways at looking at things and lay a general operating framework which you can use to land any job you want.