Note: This is a slightly modified version of an original post on my personal blog, better mistakes.
Re-watching a few episodes of the AMC show Mad Men recently, I was struck by how many of its characters provide examples of young professionals trying to carve out their own little niche in the world.
One character ends up at the head of the fledgling Television Department. In the early 1960s, television advertising was still considered the stepchild of the advertising world, and he is constantly struggling to find creative ways to adapt his media buying skills to a new medium. Another character, Peggy Olson, takes advantage of a mentor relationship with the Creative Director and her own creative skills to move up the ladder. Starting as a secretary, Olson eventually becomes a copywriter in a world where women typically did not hold much respect. Finally, in one of my favorite lines of the show, a character explains how she made the transition from being a housewife to become the manager of her husband (a famous comedian):
“This is America. Pick a job, then become the person who does it.”
With those characters’ trials in mind, I thought about my struggle to carve out my own niche as a young professional. I came up with three important aspects that should help you as you navigate the working world for the first time:
Own your expertise. Some people are lucky enough to have one glaringly obvious skill that sets them apart from their colleagues — their expertise is easy to see. But for many others, it’s a matter of combining a few more common skills in an uncommon way. In my case, this meant combining my interest in technology and social media, my experience advising students, and my communication skills. None of those skills on their own are particularly novel here in our office (I have some very talented colleagues), but recognizing how useful they are combined was an important discovery. It has allowed me to take the lead in conversations among colleagues when we discuss how technology and social media will impact the job/internship search, and to present those ideas to students in engaging ways both online and off.
Reflect on your own abilities. What comes natural to you, and what are some skills or abilities that you’re consistently complimented on? How can you tie those skills into your professional aspirations? If you need some more help with this, be sure to try the ‘me at my best’ exercise.
Find mentors. Navigating the professional world can be a daunting task for a recent graduate, and mentors can make that process exponentially easier and more productive. A mentor can act as a sounding board for new ideas, can steer you toward opportunities and projects that will utilize your skill set, and help you understand the politics of your organization. I’ve been fortunate enough in my time here to have a few fantastic mentors that have helped me along the way. One has a very strong grasp of my interests and skills, and consistently pushes me to go outside my boundaries. This has allowed me to not only utilize my expertise, but to continue growing in my role and beyond. Another mentor is always there when I have a slightly ‘off the wall’ idea, and helps me think through both the opportunities and challenges it presents for our organization. Even if you’re performing well in your role, a good mentor can mean the difference between staying exactly where you are (both literally and figuratively), and continuing to grow as a professional. Penelope Trunk offers up some great tips for finding and keeping a mentor.
Prove it. In the end, results are what really matter. When you’re just beginning your professional life, you can sometimes get so bogged down in trying to complete the day-to-day tasks for your job that it seems impossible to stand out from the crowd in any meaningful way. While it’s normal to go through a learning and adjustment period at the start of a new job, remember why you were hired; it’s not because you were the “most adequate” of all the people they interviewed! You may not have the autonomy or authority to make big innovations at your organization right away, but you should always be thinking about how you can contribute above and beyond your job description. Offering extra help to colleagues, showing enthusiasm by taking on ‘orphaned’ projects, and looking for more efficient ways to do your job are all great places to start.
Take me for example. I felt that a blog would be a great way for us to communicate our message to students in a more timely manner. But before making a big push for an office blog, I needed to prove that I could write clear, engaging posts about career topics…so I decided to create one for myself. I was able to provide my coworkers and supervisors a tangible example of what I planned to ask for, and what success in that area would look like.
Your path will obviously be different than mine — after all, it’s your niche! But if you have the confidence to own your expertise, the humility and curiosity to understand that you have a lot left to learn, and the determination to follow through and make your mark, you’ll go pretty far. What are some of your tips for carving out a niche as a young professional?