Saturday, May 13, 2006

Starting out.

About That First Job

Rich Karlgaard
1019 words
22 May 2006
Volume 177 Issue 11
(c) 2006 Forbes Inc.

This question always comes up at the end of a speech: "Given the dizzying pace of change in the economy, what careers should my kids pursue?"

I always chuckle. The question is legitimate, of course, but the fact that I am being asked it is a bit funny, if you know me. In college, let alone high school, I had no clue as to what I wanted to do once I graduated. All I cared about was sports, track-and-field especially. That I wound up working for a magazine might have been predictable--might have been--from my twin passions at the time, Sports Illustrated and Track & Field News. I would read and reread each new issue to the point of memorization. At the library I shirked my homework and pored over old bound volumes of these magazines. Forget Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. The best American writer was sportswriter Dan Jenkins.

As a result of this goofballing, I graduated with low Bs and was clueless about careers. College friends headed off to law school, med school, divinity school and I headed off to a security guard agency. My first job was to show up at 5:00 p.m., relieve the receptionist and sit in the lobby until midnight. It was there that I discovered the prose of H.L. Mencken and George Orwell. And lively contemporary writers, too, such as Tom Wolfe, George Gilder and P.J. O'Rourke. They were nothing like the sour postmodernists I had been force-fed in college.

The written word, I had come to appreciate (on my own and rather late), was everything. So here is my first piece of advice to parents: Get your kids to fall in love with reading. It doesn't matter what the writing is. What's key is that the kids claim it as their own. I know scholars who were intellectually awakened as teenagers by Playboy magazine interviews. Those are great interviews. A few years ago a neighbor's kid was struggling in high school, despite an IQ score in the nosebleed zone. His passions were golf and basketball. "Fire the tutors," I told his mother. "Buy him subscriptions to Sports Illustrated and Golf magazines." She did. The boy was awakened. Now he works for Lehman Brothers in London.

Find the Right Mentors

Passion, like energy, is vital. Of course, passion must be captured and directed in order to accomplish actual work. And it needs a mechanism to express itself, just as a waterfall needs a turbine wheel to make electricity. In the realm of school the best teachers and coaches know how to direct their students' passion and energy. But careers don't work that way. In the world of jobs and careers the student must find the mentor.

The mentor needn't be a boss. The mentor doesn't even have to know he's been selected as a mentor. Throughout my career, I've never told my mentors they were my mentors. I picked mentors because they had something I needed to learn. From one of my bosses I learned how to match a jacket, shirt and tie. He always looked sharp; I wanted to look sharp, too, so I quietly observed the color of his clothing, the knot of his tie, the amount of shirt cuff showing. Sounds trivial and even silly, but it helped me and gave me confidence.

For several years during the mid-1980s I worked for myself, making brochures for technology companies. I sublet space from a pal who ran a consulting firm. I marveled at how this guy could sell six-figure consulting packages while I was stuck in a four-figure piecemeal world. So I studied my friend. I would sneakily stand outside his office while he was on the phone schmoozing a client. I would read draft memos and proposals found by the copy machine. I was literally picking the guy's knowledge and methods off the floor.

Another mentor, unaware he was chosen, was William F. Buckley Jr. One day in 1986 a friend got a call to pick up Buckley at the airport. He invited me along. Buckley, in town to debate George McGovern, was eager to learn about Silicon Valley. We brain-dumped all that we knew, and he nodded. And then he asked: "Is there a magazine that covers this?" Well, no, we said. "Maybe you should start one," he said. Two years later we did. My goal for Upside magazine was to marry a Dan Jenkins prose style with the subjects of technology startups and IPOs. And so to change the world, as Buckley had done with National Review.

Think Like an Owner

My last piece of advice is for your kid to learn to think like an owner. Your kid will get that first job and report to a foreman or a middle manager or someone lower on the totem pole. The company's big-picture goals may be blotted out by the narrower demands of the boss. Maybe the boss just wants to upstage a rival or knock off early for golf.

This is a dangerous time for the young careerist. It's when destructive habits can be learned. The worst of these mental habits is: restricting one's vision to the internal view of the company--that organizations and jobs exist for their own preservation. Actually, they exist to keep a customer and make a profit. This ownership view can get lost in the bureaucracy. I've seen too many talented people in their 40s and 50s who are stuck in their organizations, deeply frustrated. Ask them what they do, and you get a boring, task-oriented job description such as an h.r. department might write.

Even if your first job is sweeping floors, think like an owner.


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