When I was in college, I had a good friend named Steve. Steve was incredibly nice and always loyal, but he wasn’t really anybody’s idea of a good-looking guy. He was lumbering, a little bit goofy, and to top it off, he had this huge handlebar mustache.
But somehow, Steve never had a hard time getting a date. In fact, he frequently went out with girls who were seriously out of his (and just about everybody else’s) league. At the risk of sounding mean, it left the rest of us scratching our heads at times.
One night (after a few drinks), I was feeling loose enough to ask him what his secret was. He said, did you ever wonder why I have this mustache? I hadn’t. I just assumed he liked it that way, or maybe he thought that it was ironic somehow.
He said, “Nobody would ever pay attention to me without this mustache. I’d just be the fat guy everybody ignores. But now, everybody on campus knows who I am. I’m the guy with the handlebar mustache. That’s how people know me. And, as far as women go, most of them probably find it a little repulsive. I know that. But I wouldn’t have a chance with most women anyway, so that’s not a loss. And there might not be many, but there are just are enough girls who love it that now I don’t have any problems. I have no competition. You too can be a little bit different, just find something that works for you. Somebody out there will go crazy over it. And be confident in your decision.”
I’ve thought about what he said a lot over the years, particularly when it came time to get a job after college. How was I going to stand out, when there were thousands of us with the same qualifications and the same skills applying for the same jobs? I was also bothered by the irony that, after spending four years figuring out who we were, we were all willing to scrap those discoveries and conform for the sake of a job that we’d probably grow to resent. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
It was then that I realized that my career needed a handlebar mustache. If you’re having a hard time finding your place, then maybe your career needs one, too.
Here are a few things you can do to try and find yours:
Find your irresistible quality
You can be the same as everybody else if you want to. You can wear the suit and tie to work, order the #2 off the haircut menu, and start at the bottom of the corporate chain. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can work your way up the pre-defined career path before you die. If that’s you, and you find fulfillment in that kind of career, then that works out great. A lot of people do it, and some people even like it. But most people will have a much easier (and in my opinion, more fulfilling) career if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and be just a little bit different.
If you’re not sure how to make yourself irresistible, you should…
Develop your value proposition
When people build products, they develop what is called a “value proposition.” The value proposition is basically a statement that says, “this is what we do that makes our product different from everybody else’s.” In short, your value proposition should be what makes you valuable and unique. Or as Steve would say, it’s your handlebar mustache. You can sell valuable and unique. You can’t sell normal.
Now, I’m not recommending that you actually go out and grow massive facial hair before your interview. But I am suggesting that you…
Find something that you’re great at.
Do you want to have a reputation as the third best accountant on the eighteenth floor? Probably not. Most people don’t. Some people love accounting, but I’ve learned that most people in any position don’t really care for it. A lot of us end up doing things that we hate, because we’re a little afraid to put ourselves out there. Safety is comfort.
Now, finding out what you’re great at can take some time. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you will probably not find it for many years after you graduate college. For me, it took about 12 years (including five Phish tours, taking a hiatus from school, getting married, having kids, working some horrible jobs, and getting a couple lucky breaks) before I found something that a) I loved, b) was good at, and c) was valuable enough that people would pay me to do it for them.
Hopefully you will find something faster than I did, but be prepared to be patient. While you’re being patient, just don’t just sit around doing nothing. If you want to find something you’re great at, you have to...
Teach yourself new things.
In my corporate career, I heard so many people complaining that they couldn’t move up the ladder without being trained to do certain things. Unfortunately, formal training is expensive, and either it wasn’t in the budget, or they weren’t selected to participate. They felt stuck.
My response to that was always, why wait for someone else to teach you? Just start learning. There are a million great websites and communities out there where you can teach yourself anything with some practice and dedication. If you don’t know where to start, look for resources on Google. Shoot someone an email asking for help, or set up an informational interview to ask questions about how you can learn. With information all around us, there are no excuses anymore.
Whatever you do, don’t sit around waiting for your company to send you to class. If you do, you’ll be no farther ahead than everybody else who is taking that class. This is to say, not at all.
Once you find it, you have to grow it.
Some people are lucky enough and smart enough that they can just dive into something they love and not look back. Most of us aren’t that lucky. In all likelihood, it will take you a long time to get great at what you love, and even then, our responsibilities can make it even more challenging.
In my case, I discovered what I loved about five years before I was able to actually make a career out of it. I had a family at that point, and I had to be careful. I would have been an irresponsible husband and father if I just jumped ship without a plan, and without making the right connections. I had to save, I had to plan, and I had to practice. I kept working at it every night after work, and every moment on the weekends when we weren’t doing something together as a family. After five years of hard work, I was finally able to get to the point where I could quit my job without putting my family at risk.
So don’t get impatient. Don’t think it’s impossible. Don’t’ give up. Work hard every single day, and make the most of your time.
If you do that, you can find your handlebar mustache, too. But…
Once you grow it, you have to flaunt it.
Be confident in your decision. Believe in what makes you different, know exactly what makes you valuable, and sell it in everything that you do.