Three Tips for the Frustrated Change Maker Trying to Get a First Job

I wish I’d had a bit more help in my early twenties, when I had bags of energy and didn’t know how to channel it professionally. I still recall the frustration of being unemployed for a year as I tried to get a foot on the ladder.

I also made embarrassing mistakes, withdrawing from a role I realized I wouldn’t enjoy weeks after having accepted it. Confusion is inevitable, and you are likely to experience it throughout your working life, but hopefully at a lower intensity than in the early years when you are starting out. Here are three things that I find helpful antidotes to those feelings:

Your direction is more important than the next step

It’s natural  to puzzle over which job should be your first, or your next, but its your direction that matters more – not for the whole of your life, but perhaps for the next three to five years. Careers rarely unfold in a straight line and unless you are pursuing a formal career like law or accountancy its also unlikely that there is a career ‘ladder’ with obvious steps. Its more like navigating a walk in the countryside, in the dark without a map, so its really important that you develop your own internal compass.  You need to be able to work out where your professional desires lie in the general sense of which issue and activity is likely to motivate you for the next period of your life . You can then slalom your way to that destination, moving sideways when necessary, but keeping your ideal destination in mind.

With the benefit of hindsight I can break my career into four distinct directions or desires. Initially my love of nature led me to study biology at university and to join a scientific expedition to the cloud forest of the Andes. Then I wanted to do something to stop it disappearing so fast , met some inspiring Ecuadorian environmental activists, and decided to switch from biology to campaigning. That led me after a couple  of years to Greenpeace and a great education in change making. After roughly a decade I could see that campaigning was great at stopping things but not so useful for finding solutions. I decided I wanted to work with others on those solutions, and set up a renewable energy agency. Finally, I went full circle and decided I wanted to return to creating solutions for forests, my first love, via agriculture which is both its greatest threat and where its future can be secured if we make it work without needing new land. That led me to IDH where I am now.

Of course it didn’t feel this clear at the time, but asking yourself why you like the sound of a job or an organisation, and then quizzing yourself about your underlying motivation might help. If you cant do it yourself ask friends or family to ask ,listen to your explanations and feed back what they hear. If you still aren’t sure that’s also fine, and you will need to learn by trying different activities and distinct roles, perhaps starting at  the level of  working out what role  you enjoy taking when organising things with friends.

Your experience is more important than qualifications

You want that job to get the experience but can’t get the job without the experience. It’s a cruel trap. But it’s a trap everyone starts in, barring nepo babies, and yet most find a way out. Everyone working in an NGO at some point had no experience. I honestly don’t know how this happens, and random effects and hidden privilege are bound to be significant factors,  but my guess is that many of us come to learn to tackle the problem laterally, rather than literally. That is thinking about how to get similar or smaller versions of the same experience. I’m a big fan of comedian Tim Minchin’s concept of ‘micro- ambition’. He says you don’t need a big dream but a ‘passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals’.  If you want to influence politics, try influencing your university department, your sports club, your parents. What are the skills you used, and what didn’t work? If you can tell that story you might just stand out from the crowd of the other one hundred people who have applied for the same starter role in a campaigning NGO. If you want to work in an NGO like my current home at IDH which works to transform agricultural markets have you ever worked on a farm? If so you might have an inkling of how some farmers think. If you can save for the travel fare how about using schemes like work-away  which will feed and house you whilst you get some experience at working in another country?

I have reviewed thousands of applications in my career and interviewed hundreds of people. I have rarely paid attention to their qualifications, and always to their experience. Someone who had worked in McDonalds for a year whilst pursuing their (relevant) micro ambition is much more likely to stand out than someone who had used the same year to get a Masters degree.

Your story brings your direction and experience alive

I hate the idea that organisations are already using machines to sift applications and create short-lists, but I’m afraid humans aren’t that good at it either. After reading the tenth application I can feel my concentration wandering, after the twentieth it is really, really hard to stay interested. What every recruiter is looking for is help – a clean, short explanation of your experience and above all a clear story that explains your professional journey and what you could bring to the role.

If you feel underconfident telling your story consider these two friends and the career paths:

The first, lets call him Indecisive Ian, is a failed biologist, doesn’t have a second degree, struggled to get his career off the ground and has switched direction at least three times, so each time he had to rebuild his expertise, develop a new network and regain his momentum.

The second, Indomitable Iris, has had a very successful career, took some risks,  set up her own NGO’s , led very effective teams in high profile campaigning organisations , and helped change the world for the better.

Which would you want to interview? They are actually both based on the same person, wrapped in a different story. They summarise my professional life, but in one my glass is half-empty and the other it is half-full.

You may find it hard to do this story telling at the start because it requires confidence and some knowledge of how people describe themselves in a work situation. Try talking to people who have more experience, rather than relying on online searches. Not just closest family and friends, but friends of the family who might have a different perspective. Most people are delighted to help.

It’s natural to get frustrated at the lengths you have to go to get started but remember this is a marathon not a sprint.  Don’t be a hero and sacrifice your quality of life on the altar of urgency. Keep your hobbies and your friendships alive, and stay healthy, loved and loving.

Speech given by IDH Global Director Landscapes – Matthew Spencer during the Impact Fair that took place in Utrecht (The Netherlands).