Mar 022011

Charlie HoehnCharlie Hoehn is a man of many parts: aspiring filmmaker, online marketing strategist, blogger, and Twitter ninja. His online tutorial “Recession-proof Graduate” has an Internet following that even some PR gurus would envy. He is also very much twenty-something: space on his blog seems evenly divided between professional tips for his peers and meditations on the merits of Brazilian girls. By his own admission, Charlie is at the beginning of life after college, and (like all of us) navigating the murky waters of adulthood.  But his philosophy of life and work reveal a guy who is definitely on the right track: “Work on stuff that matters to you, do something that will add value and help people, and try to disrupt the status quo and make things better for everyone.” It was this mix of entrepreneurial savvy and honest self-reflection that made me want to start a conversation.

Carolyn: In your e-book “Recession-proof Graduate”, you explain the personal circumstances that lead you to take some unorthodox steps in finding a job. What motivated you to put together a guide on the topic?

Charlie: It was tough for me to watch so many of my friends, who are all smart and capable, struggle to find work that required more than a pulse.  I took a different approach from all of them, and got the exact results I wanted — working on cool stuff with cool people.  It was really hard for me to explain to anyone how I had gotten access to so many fun opportunities (working on best-selling books, going on a movie tour around the country, having employers approach me with job offers, etc.), which was frustrating, and I kept having college grads who’d been reading my site emailing me for advice on how to get a decent job.  The advice they were getting from college counselors and career books obviously wasn’t working.  So that’s what ultimately what made me write it.  I also wanted to see if there was enough demand for me to justify writing a real book on the topic.  There might be — it’s been read at least 65,000 times since I posted it last year.

Carolyn: I can empathize with that. I had similar feelings for many of my former students, which is why I started recommending “Recession-proof Graduate” to them when I found it. You have acknowledged in your blog that some readers have had great success applying the ideas from RPGrad, while others have foundered or felt lost.

What are the qualities of people who benefit most from the methods you used in your own situation?

Charlie: That’s an excellent question, and I’m not exactly sure I have the answer.  There are obviously no guarantees, no matter what you do.  Even if I gave someone a magic formula for getting a job at any company they wanted, and they followed it perfectly, there are still countless variables that could lead to them staying unemployed.  They might be socially inept, the company may have just hired someone for that position, the employer might find their proposal to be too bizarre… whatever.

Having said that, I think the people who really do well when they run with RPGrad’s ideas are the ones who are truly passionate about something.  They get legitimately filled with excitement at the notion of free work, because they’ve just been given permission to approach anyone with the passion that they’d previously bottled up inside, and they can now use that energy to help them land a job that they truly want.

Let’s compare this to the people who continue to struggle…

Now this is just my personal theory, but the ones who aren’t able to really get RPGrad’s ideas to work seem to view them as a “hack,” or a shortcut, to getting a paycheck.  I had one guy email me all confused because he’d been messaging RANDOM PEOPLE in his industry on LinkedIn, asking if he could do some free work for them… [Slaps forehead].  Clearly, that’s not what doing free work is about.  Free work should be about approaching very specific people or companies that you genuinely want to work with and learn from, because you’d love the work so much that you would do it even if you weren’t getting paid.  It’s not about doling yourself out as a slave to anyone in your field.

There are a few other problems that keep popping up with the people who are struggling…  Not being able to figure out what your existing marketable skills are.  Thinking that a blog is going to magically drop you into a successful career.  Not aiming high enough with who you approach is probably the biggest one.  A lot of people have told me who they’re approaching for free work, and I’m just confused, because the position they’re trying to land is not difficult to attain using traditional methods.  For instance, you don’t need to offer to do free work for the president of your local bank — they’ll just hire you, and then you can climb the corporate ladder.  If that’s the kind of work you want, then RPGrad isn’t for you.  It’s intended for graduates who want to take a more difficult and unconventional path, working with people who are very accomplished and typically out of reach, on projects that are far above your qualifications.  It’s about learning from people who will make you a better person.  On that note, do NOT ask if you can do free work for me.  This is a painfully bad idea (yes, it has happened multiple times), and I shouldn’t have to explain why.  Again, you need to aim HIGH.

One last thing, which I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it: There are also a few industries that, as far as I can tell, just don’t really lend themselves to doing free work.  Several mechanical engineers have emailed me, saying that free work is nice in theory but just not possible for them.

Carolyn: You have occasionally demurred when asked to comment on certain aspects of the current job market or cultural moment.  I recall something about feeling too young and “dumb in more ways than I can count.”  It seems to me that one thing you have done well is create relationships with people who you find wise, whose observations and work you DO trust. Who are the people that you would advise your peers to look to for advice as they establish themselves in our society? Who’s writing (or speaking or blogging) would you recommend that they seek out?

Charlie: Yes, developing relationships with a handful of great people is something I’ve been lucky enough to pull off over the last couple years.  I’ve been very fortunate, and it’s been kind of tough for me to explain to others how to do the same thing.  The truth is that I can’t just point to certain writers or speakers and say, “Oh, you guys need to be following them / seeking them out.  They’re the ones you need to be working for.”  It doesn’t work that way, because it completely depends on the person.  If I’m being honest, I approach certain folks based not just on the fact that I respect them and want to learn from them, but also on the feeling that I could see us going out and having a few beers.  Basically, would I want to hang out with them even if we weren’t working together?  There are some really smart people out there who I think are just kind of mean, creepy, or socially handicapped in some way.  I don’t have any desire to work with them.  It’s too stressful.  Smart and nice don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Authors are the easiest for me to approach because they’ve revealed so much about themselves and what kind of people they are in their writing.  And if I see a video of them or something, it’s even easier to see how comfortable they are in their own skin.  I know that’s not a great answer, but it’s very important for me to work with people that I could see myself being friends with, and I don’t think that’s a bad approach for people my age.

Carolyn: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far in your budding career? What’s your approach to learning from your mistakes?

Charlie: Fortunately, none of the countless mistakes I’ve made over the last few years have been so catastrophic to really stand out.  But there is one situation that I wish I’d handled differently…

In mid-2010, I was juggling a bunch of freelance work for a handful of clients.  I reached a point where I lost my enthusiasm for two of the projects; I just didn’t dig the work I was being paid for (e.g. writing email newsletters).  It was my fault, since I was the one who had proposed that stuff in the first place.

After a couple months, I was mentally exhausted and started getting really sloppy.  The work I was churning out was sub-par and I knew it.  What made things worse for me was how nice and accommodating the clients were.  They saw I wasn’t doing my best, yet they were still supportive and patiently waited for me to turn things around.  I should have walked away, but I was dumb and dragged things out.  I didn’t want to quit because, embarrassingly, I was terrified of destroying the relationships I had with them.  I considered them friends and I thought they’d look down on me for bailing.  It was the same dynamic you have when you’re scared of breaking up with someone.  You know the emotional battle that’s about to ensue, so you stagnate in tolerable unhappiness because it’s easier.  I always thought I was above that behavior, but there I was, doing it myself.  Everything worked out eventually, but I really regret how long that period lasted.  It was a waste of everyone’s time.

My approach to learning from mistakes is pretty simple: try not to repeat them, and learn from other people’s mistakes.  I think a lot of folks could dodge huge problems in their lives if they actually observed those who have completed the path they’re about to walk upon.  For instance, someone might be totally convinced that graduate school is where they need to go.  But how many grad students have they actually talked to about where they are in life?  A lot of them will say they’re now in crippling debt and their situation hasn’t dramatically improved.  It’s extremely rare to find yourself dealing with something that no one else has been through.  So I always ask people about the top three mistakes they made if I’m about to try what they’ve already done.  It’s the easiest way to save yourself time, money, and heartache.

One last point I’d like to make in this drawn out answer… The biggest mistake I see people my age making is investing too much of their identity into just one area.  Because if that one thing they cling to gets taken away from them, they’re destroyed.  If you find that it’s a little too easy to label yourself as (athlete, musician, entrepreneur, Billy’s wife — whatever), you’re probably guilty of this.

I’m in a very fortunate position to be working a dream job that a lot of people would love to have.  But I don’t revel in this spot, kissing my biceps and thinking I’ve got it made.  If this was taken away from me, my world would not crumble.  I always have other things I’m working on outside of my day job that I can fall back on.  These side projects and hobbies keep me sane, because they diversify my identity and mitigate against the risk of losing one of them.

Striving to become a well-rounded person with a variety of interests — someone who chases what’s exciting for them — is not nearly as common as you’d think.

About the Author:
Carolyn D. Roark works as a freelance writer and editor. She has held positions in industry and in the Ivory Tower. Dr. Roark specializes in written communication, creativity, and entrepreneurship. She also keeps one foot in the academic world, running an academic journal titled Ecumenica.

  One Response to “The Original Recession-proof Graduate: An Interview With Charlie Hoehn”

  1. Very enjoyable and positive story. It’s lovely to have some good news that shows the value of being passionate and following your heart. I also appreciate Charlie Hoehn’s willingness to learn. Thank you for posting this, Nick

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