How to gain a 3-5 year head-start right out of college

Every job position requires 3-5 years of experience but no one will hire you for 3-5 years to help you get it, ammiright?

I know the struggle - I was there just over a year ago. Why is this? The reason isn't because everyone's in on this evil plot to force you back into your parent's basement. Especially not your parents. The reason is that employers realize that the first three years of being employed right out of college are when many young adults get their first real taste of the working world and - as with any new environment - there's an acclamation period. A time when the employee learns the things you don't really get taught in college. Stuff like grit, creativity, initiative and self-reliance. Sure, you get some of that in college. You cook grits in the microwave, you get creative with the answers on a test and you rely on yourself to show up to class on time but it's hard to fully learn their importance until you're asked to take on something much bigger than a 20-page paper.

So... what can you do about it? My thought is that maybe you could tackle something much bigger than a 20-page paper while you're still in college. ...anyone?

Okay, hear me out. I've come up with a few reasons why it's a pretty good idea. They're by no means the exhaustive list but the benefits do speak for themselves.

If you have lived an orchestated existence, gone to great schools, participated in lots of extracurricular activities, had parents who really concentrated hard on developing you broadly and exposing you to lots of cultural experiences, and graduated from an elite university in the first 22 or more years of your life, you are in danger of entering the real world, being smacked hard across the face by reality, and never recovering.

What do I mean? It’s possible you got all the way through those first 22 or more years and are now entering the workforce without ever really challenging yourself. This sounds silly because you’ve been working hard your whole life, but working hard is not what I’m talking about. You’ve been continuously surrounded by a state of the art parental and educational support structure — a safety net — and you have yet to make tough decisions, by yourself, in the absence of good information, and to live with the consequences of screwing up.
— Marc Andreeson, Pmarchive - Guide to Career Planning, part 2: Skills and education

1. It streamlines your interests

Anytime you find yourself diving headfirst into a non-school project, you're immediately hit with the realization that you don't HAVE to do _________. You could, instead, sit in the bed with a bowl of Ramen Noodles and watch Netflix. That would be easy enough and no one would judge you. So when you make the decision that something is worth your time, energy and resources, you do so because you truly love it. If you are unsure if you love anything more than a bowl of Ramen Noodles and Netflix, we've got another issue to deal with first.


2. It broadens your understanding of how the world works

You can watch all the movies and read all the books, but when it comes down to real life, you'll discover it's more like the game of Mouse Trap or Operation and less like the game of L.I.F.E. It's tricky, it's difficult, it's complicated and sometimes, it's disheartening. But navigating those waters while you're in college allows you a buffer period to get your sea legs under you and learn the ropes. Think of it as interning for real life. You get to figure out how stuff works while not shouldering all the risk. If you have a personal project that isn't what the usual 20-year-old is up to, you'll be sure to run into your fair share of real life and be forced to troubleshoot and figure out how to stay afloat.

While this may sound like a horrible reason to do anything other than homework, I promise you'll love the reward of overcoming a significant challenge.


3. It encourages hard work

Accomplishing anything of sizable proportions while in college takes hard work no matter how you cut it. It might be fun work, but that doesn't make it any less difficult. It forces you to manage your time well, use it efficiently, stretch your finances, prioritize and work hard.

These lessons in ingenuity, quick thinking and resourcefulness will make a big difference in how you work.


4. It helps you learn from your failures

One of the perks of college is that you already have structure built around you that acts as a life preserver. If your project fails, you aren't entirely out of luck... you're just a regular old college student again. Not having to worry about where your next meal will come from or where you'll sleep at night goes a long way toward helping you not get caught up by a failure and instead, reflect on it and determine how you'll do better next time.


5. It teaches you to think creatively about logistics

Anyone can do cool things if they have money. But try being a poor college kid and pulling off something unexpected. It requires a bit of creative thinking and unorthodox strategy to make it happen. It might mean thrift stores, Pinterest crafts, long hours, awkward conversations and a bit of begging but in the end, that's what shapes you into an adult who is a creative, ingenious, self-sufficient employee or employer. You learn how to just make it work and any employer will tell you that that skill alone is an invaluable asset.


6. It refines your skill sets

Working hard, troubleshooting, researching, learning, teaching, communicating, doing... when you spend enough time on something, you're bound to get good. Practice makes perfect, right? Investing time in non-school projects that you love and are interested in allows you to hone those skills in your portfolio. When you graduate, you'll be hitting the ground running instead of walking around in a daze. You'll feel competent enough to hold your own - and in some circumstances excel - in a new work environment. You'll become better at picking up adjacent skills and becoming more well-rounded. These are skills that employers can't teach.


7. It gives you something to show for yourself

Here's the one of the most beneficial reasons to start doing work you love while in college - it pads the resume. Employers get resumes that include college degrees, sports, clubs and internships every single day. But how often do you think they get resumes that include,

  • Organized and raised funding for a medical mission trip to Guatamala
  • Wrote two books
  • Became a successful political social media consultant
  • Built a loyal social following of 80,000+
  • Wrote and directed a full-length feature film
  • Featured on Forbes, Business Insider, Inc. and Huffington Post

If the examples I listed seem incredibly specific, it's because they are. The men and women who accomplished these, I'm privileged to call my friends (and yes, they were all in college when they accomplished them).


8. They're fun

For the first seven points I may have sounded like your dad when he asks you to go rake the front yard. "It builds character!" But I promise, personal projects have the greatest potential to create some of the most fun you'll have. Think about it. It's a project that you LOVE, a project that you're good at (and getting progressively better), a project that you believe needs to exist in the world and a project that's difficult enough to make victory sweet. Find your project and get to work. When you do, I want to hear about it!


9. You give something to the world

You're never too young to make a difference. Just because you're in college doesn't mean you don't have anything to offer the world. So begin creating and sharing it because, though you might not change the whole world, you might very well change someone's world. As Solomon pointed out in Ecclesiastes, nothing we do here on this earth matters. Building empires, having fun, attaining wealth... it's all in vain. But he concludes the book by saying that we should fear God and keep His commandments for this is the chief end of man. So what... do we all become monks? I don't think so... I believe that God has blessed us each with talents and callings and using those to the glory of God is the only thing that matters. Empires crumble, artwork fades and wealth doesn't follow you when you die. But each of those things can play a part in you touching the lives of others. So while they are not our end, they are our tools. So use what you've been given and invest your time in that which yields everlasting rewards - the work of the Kingdom of God. You're never too young to start.