Discover more from From Nina With Love
How to Break In
A non-authoritative guide to getting the job of your dreams
A non-authoritative guide to getting the job of your dreams
You’ve seen that job description. You know the one. The stunner at the end of the bar dressed head-to-toe in your wildest dreams. The one you think you could do, you know you could do, but you suspect you won’t ever get the chance to do.
So what do you do?
Here are six tips to help you get what you want.
1. Show them what you can do for them.
A stand-out job application is not about you and what you can do. It’s about what you can do for them.
Hiring managers scan your resume wondering whether your skills are a match for their needs. Don’t make them guess. Don’t leave it to chance that they will infer correctly. Make it clear to them how you will help them reach their goals.
Don’t write a letter about your capabilities. Write a letter sketching out what you see as the organization’s opportunities and how you are the person to seize those opportunities.
There’s a huge difference between a sentence like: “I have five years of project management experience at orgs X, Y, and Z,” and: “I am ready to apply my project management experience to make this team more effective, productive, and joyful.” The first sentence is about you. The second is about them.
2. If you don’t have what they are asking for, show them what you can do for them instead.
When I applied for my first dream job at the International Spy Museum, they wanted someone with a graduate degree. I didn’t have a graduate degree. For the interview, they wanted to see my “graduate portfolio.” I didn’t even know what that meant. But I thought to myself: what does the Spy Museum really need in a programs assistant? What could I — a 22-year old electrical engineer — bring to the table that they don’t already have on their team of people with graduate degrees in museum education and history?
I figured they probably didn’t have skills to execute all their wildest ideas for programs and exhibits. So I built a little lie detector, stuck it in a brown paper bag, and brought it to the interview. I told them: “I don’t have a graduate portfolio. But check this out. If you are interested in developing interactive, hand-on programs about espionage, I think I can help.”
In many fields—especially where there are more applicants than jobs—hiring managers get lazy. They add uncreative (and exclusionary) requirements like graduate degrees or decades of experience to job descriptions that don’t actually require those things. They don’t do this to get better candidates. They do it as a quick and dirty way to cull the herd.
What they should do is find a way to ask you to demonstrate that you can do the job brilliantly. But usually they are not creative enough to ask for that. Pretend they did. Show them what you can do for them. Demonstrate that you can do a great job there, even if they don’t ask.
3. Own and address their likely top concerns about you.
When a hiring manager scans your application, what flags will they identify? The years you bounced from job to job? The fact that all your experience is in a different field? You can’t hide these things or sweep them under the resume. Instead, directly address them. If you can explain why those flags are there, you will answer the nagging questions in the hiring manager’s head. Don’t make them guess. Don’t let them assume. Show them how to interpret it so they can get past that flag.
When I was 29, I applied to become a museum director. I was terrified. I thought I could do the job, but I assumed the deck was stacked against me. I had no management experience. No fundraising experience. And I figured there was no chance they’d hire someone with a 2 in front of their age.
So I decided to find a way to address my biggest liabilities. I tried to imagine reasons the hiring committee would turn me down. “She’s too inexperienced. She’s a creative type and probably can’t actually manage this place.” I wanted to give them a way to get past these concerns. The committee didn’t ask for it, but I sent them a draft three-year strategic plan with my application. I didn’t do it to show them exactly what I would do in three years. I did it to show them that I could plan, organize my thoughts, and set a roadmap for an institution.
I have no idea if the hiring committee read that plan. But I like to imagine someone holding it up in a meeting, waving it around, and saying, “Maybe she can do it. Maybe we should give her a chance.” I’m glad they did.
4. Be aggressive about pursuing amazing opportunities.
Lie detectors? Three-year plans? This all might sound like a lot of work to get a job. But you shouldn’t do this for just any job. Do it for your dream job.
Your dream job is like your dream date. You shouldn’t be afraid to expose yourself and take a risk to try to make it happen.
And if you think about it, the hiring period is the lowest risk time in your life as a professional. Yes, a hiring manager can choose not to hire you, but otherwise, they have zero power over you. They can’t demote you or fire you. They can’t steal your lunch or yell at you in front of your colleagues. All they can do is opt not to interview you.
So go all out. Put in the time to show them what amazing things you could help them achieve. Do things that feel a little risky or outside your comfort zone.
Sometimes that means pursuing an opportunity before it even exists. If there’s a place you’d love to work—or a person you’d love to work for—reach out to them. Tell them how much you admire their work and share how you could help them go even further in achieving their goals. You don’t need to be able to solve all their problems. You can just say something like: “You have so many amazing projects going on. I’m a detail-oriented person. Maybe I could help organize the chaos around you so you can stay focused on what matters most.”
There doesn’t need to be a job open right now. Your goal is for them to keep you in mind when future opportunities arise.
Here’s the secret about my first dream job at the Spy Museum: the job itself was not a dream. I didn’t go all out to become a programs assistant. I went all out to work for my dream boss, Anna Slafer. I admired Anna’s work and I wanted to learn from her. I knew any job directly reporting to her would be my dream job.
So I reached out to Anna months before any job was even available, asking for a meeting. How did I get to Anna? A lobbyist housemate (this was Washington DC) sat me down and shared his script: call from different phone numbers at different times of day. Only leave a message once. When you get her on the phone, get her to commit to an in-person meeting.
Sure, I felt foolish making all those hang-up phone calls. But they got me that in-person meeting.
When I met with Anna, there was no job available. All I did was sincerely communicate my desire to work for her, my admiration for her work, and my (vague) belief that I could help her. When a job did come up a few months later, Anna let me know. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but I decided to apply. I pursued it with all my heart. I built that lie detector, showed them what I could do, and got hired.
5. Once you get your foot in the door, don’t stop striving. Keep pursuing your dream job.
Sometimes you get in the door and then find out that door leads to a janky office supply closet. You find yourself in a dead-end role, like an internship with no path to employment or a temporary position. You’re in the door, but let’s be honest: you haven’t reached your dream yet. So don’t let up.
If you’re in but not yet satisfied, keep being aggressive and clear about your goals and how you can have the most positive impact on the organization. Bosses are not mind readers. You have to tell them what you want. While it may feel like a risk, consider telling your manager at your first meeting about your goal to become an employee. Summon your bravery for fifteen seconds and say something like: “I’ll work for you for free for three months, and then let’s talk about whether you are going to pay me.” This one sentence will change how your manager sees you from the start.
My first job at the Spy Museum was about 40% interesting to me. Once I was in, I kept hunting for ways to do more for the museum. When an exciting expansion project got greenlit, I went to Anna and made a proposal. I argued that we needed someone to lead creative development and coordinate the project under her — someone without all the other responsibilities Anna had as a department head. I promised to commit to stay through the project opening if she’d let me take on this role, and I offered to maintain my (low) current salary. I also told her if I couldn’t work on this project, I’d likely move to the West Coast within six months.
Does this sound overly aggressive? Was I risking my current job by asking to create the new job? Maybe. But it was all true. I would move away if I didn’t get a bigger opportunity. I could do a great job supporting her on the project. I wasn’t being pushy. I was telling her what I wanted and what I could offer.
Anna accepted my proposal. I stayed on for three exhilarating years, during which I learned a ton and delivered a ton of value to the museum. I got my dream job. And it paved the way for many more dream jobs to come.
6. Go all out — while taking care of yourself.
To get your dream job, you have to think of it as something you can achieve — not something someone else can grant you. You have to give it your all while guarding your own sense of self. Show them what you can do for them. Show them the strength in your heart. But hold on to that heart. It’s yours.
Rejection is shitty, but if you can find a way to guard your heart, you can compartmentalize and handle it. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from pursuing the work you most want to do. If someone says no, it’s not a judgment on you nor your potential. No one but you gets to define how valuable you are and the good you can do in this world.
I know how hard it feels to get rejected. I know how exhausting it is to look for a job and feel unseen and unappreciated. I’ve been rejected from two dream jobs (and many more not-so-dream jobs). In one case, they sent me a rejection letter staccatoed with typos. In the other case, they never even wrote me back. I felt like I offered my home-cooked potential to them on a platter and they tossed it in the trash. I remember staring at that stupid misspelled rejection letter, feeling small, feeling like no one wanted me, like I would stay lost and restless and invisible forever.
But that’s not what happened. I found another dream. I found a way to show them I could do it. I built a career I love.
Yes, privilege played a role in my story. So did luck. But I also never stopped being aggressive in pursuit of my dreams. I never left it up to someone else to give me a chance or tell me how far I could go. Even when I felt like someone’s discarded trash, I tried to remember that I was a heck of a lot more than what they didn’t see in me.
You are too. You are amazing. You have something incredibly amazing to offer this world. Guard your heart, show your potential, and find your way.