The conventional paths to the best jobs are fraught with bureaucracy.
In most established industries, even the most talented must “pay dues” before they can play. And while there’s value in mastering the basics of knot tying before one captains a 200-foot sailboat, it’s a shame that convention can clog the talent engine of an organization or stall the career of a creative person.
When I first moved to New York City to study journalism, my goal was to pop out of Columbia’s MS program as a writer for my favorite magazine, WIRED. I soon learned, after pitching a story to WIRED during my first semester, that magazines use bureaucracy to filter the barrage of pitches random writers send each week. Editors are so busy they won’t even look at a pitch unless it’s from an established writer or someone who already writes for them.
“Sorry for that dose of cold water!” a WIRED editor wrote, after kindly letting me down. I soon learned that the conventional career path for an aspiring journalist goes something like the following:
Step 1: Get a crappy job as an intern or poopsmith at the newspaper or magazine you hope to one day write for.
Step 2: Work hard enough to get noticed and eventually upgraded to the slightly less crappy role of Fact Checker.
Step 3: Pound away the months in your lonely back crevice of the office until some kind editor lets you write a tiny story that no one else has time to bang out.
Step 4: Keep writing the sucky stories until you get promoted to a regular reporter.
Step 5: Work for years — usually on stories you’re not interested in – until one of the feature writers or columnists dies of liver failure.
Step 6: Congratulations! Your high-profile dreams have come true! Unless, of course, there’s another, more senior writer (or better butt kisser) in line for the position before you, in which case, go back to Step 5.
It is possible, however, to hack this process: I published a full-length feature story on Wired.com just nine months after my initial pitch.
Instead of climbing the traditional ladder and dealing with the bureaucracy of a big magazine, I established myself as an experienced writer, then pitched WIRED again. I did this by attaching bigger and better brand names to my portfolio.
Here’s the nontraditional ladder I came up with:
(Step 0: Learn to be a decent writer. I’m still working on this.)
Step 1: Find a rising new blog that seems desperate for content. Pitch it some good story ideas — for free — going out of your way to do tons of pre-reporting and research or even pre-writing the stories, so a blog editor can basically just click “buy it now.” (I pitched several blogs until someone gave me a shot. That person was Zee from The Next Web, then a brand new property trying to compete among a growing number of social media blogs).
Step 2: After writing two to three stories and establishing yourself as a “regular contributor,” pitch the next tier up, and tout your experience at the previous blog. (I approached Gizmodo and said, “Hi, I’m a tech journalist who’s written for The Next Web. I have a great story for you.”)
Step 3: Repeat Step 2 until you get where you want to be. (My path went: The Next Web > Gizmodo > Mashable > Fast Company > WIRED. The pitch to the second WIRED editor went something like, “Hi, I’m a tech journalist who’s written for Fast Company, Mashable, Gizmodo, and others. I have a great story for you.” Obviously, if my actual stories at those places were badly written, WIRED would have said “No” to me, but good writing and approval stamps from other publications were all it took to establish my credibility.).
Once you’re up one ladder, you can climb sideways to other ladders. I’ve continued writing for the places I love, and I soon climbed from Wired.com to WIRED’s print edition, which I now contribute to every month or two. Though I’m still a relatively new writer, I’ve expanded my portfolio to New Scientist, The Washington Post and others. All in the time it would normally take to get to Step 3 of the traditional ladder.
Every career path has a shortcut
The concept of Nontraditional Ladder Climbing probably maps well to your industry, too.
Want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company one day? Traditionally, you’re going to start at the very bottom of the totem pole – even after you drop $100k on MBA school. Then, over decades, you’ll claw your way up.
Or you can start your own company and cut down the time to achieving your dream dramatically.
Climbing to the top of anything takes work, but you’ll work just as hard on the nontraditional route as you would scaling the multitudinous rungs of the conventional ladder.