I’ve been able to interview so many cool young people who are eager to jumpstart their careers. They come from many different backgrounds. They all have different levels of professional experience under their belt.
But a common issue with a lot of qualified applicants isn’t their lack of work experience, work ethic, or ambition.
It’s their lack of confidence in selling themselves.
They don’t think their past experience is relevant or respectable enough. And they don’t realize that nine times out of ten, their soft skills (attitude, mindset, work ethic, etc.) compensate for their lack of hard skills.
There is no such thing as irrelevant work experience. Your experiences are far more transferable than you think.
Isaac Morehouse has written more on this topic. He explains that learning to get good at something–anything–is far more transferable than spending all your time studying one thing you never actually start doing. Once you can apply grit, determination, and self-mastery to one job, you can apply it another.
James Walpole was eighteen-years-old, working on his family’s farm. Just a few years later, he’s now working as the marketing and communications manager at Bitpay in Atlanta.
Jackie Blum built a career for herself as a teacher for many years, and she is now working full-time at a successful tech startup doing customer service management.
Luke Ruffing was working seasonally at Barnes & Noble. He’s now working full-time in sales at PandaDoc.
Brian Nuckols used to do manual labor on boats in the Carribean, and now he’s doing marketing full-time.
The job postings for these types of roles usually say things like “college degree required” or “three-plus years of relevant experience preferred”. But these young people got hired anyway.
Because they did something more interesting than simply checking off boxes and meeting basic, boring criteria. In addition to creating tailored pitches, rather than blasting out their resumes to hundreds of companies, they used their “irrelevant” past experience as an intriguing selling point, not a shameful secret they should avoid talking about.
In an interview, don’t feel pressured to hide your previous employment as a retail associate or pizza delivery driver or substitute teacher. Make it obvious and undeniable that even though you don’t meet the company’s traditional criteria, you are still a phenomenal asset who can out-work any other applicant.
Stop Worrying About Whether Your Job is “Respectable” Enough
A common assumption I run into when interviewing applicants is their belief that their previous “menial” jobs in food service, retail, or customer service are unimpressive and not worth talking about.
It’s a huge missed opportunity. You should be selling the crap out of those jobs other people view as monotonous and pointless.
When I applied to Praxis in 2014, my only work experience was a year and a half at a fast food chain and some occasional gigs doing balloon animals and face painting at kids’ parties.
I didn’t think any of this was impressive or relevant. I was probably even a little ashamed of these jobs for not being “revered” or “professional” enough.
During my interview, I chose to talk much more about my leadership position as club president at my high school, my involvement with student government, the college classes I was dual-enrolled in, my community service, and my meaningless three-month stint as a marketing volunteer at a technical school where I did nothing but sit in a swivel chair for a few hours per month.
I thought these activities were a fancier signal of my maturity and professionalism than my fast food job, where I stood by a window at eleven p.m. wearing a visor and an apron taking drive-thru orders.
In retrospect, I now realize why my interviewer kept steering the conversation away from my extra-curricular activities to talk more about my fast food job. My year-and-a-half experience working that job completely out-shined my resume-padding internships, clubs, and college classes.
That fast food job transplanted me from a cushy, schooled environment to a bustling business where I had to think fast and learn quickly. I learned how to work full-time hours, start conversations with strangers, multitask, solve customers’ problems, build social capital with my managers, and make delicious milkshakes. Oh, and disinfect urinals. If nothing else, food service jobs build character and humility.
Let’s put this mindset into a hypothetical interview context:
Interviewer’s question: “What’s been a challenge you have overcome at Chick-fil-A?”
Answer one: “I mean, there’s nothing very challenging about it. I haven’t had too much work experience yet. At Chick-fil-A, I mostly just take customers’ orders, answer questions about the menu, and help out the kitchen staff from time to time. It has helped me come out of my shell a little to help customers when they have problems.”
This is not a horrible answer, but it’s very common and generic. Plus, it undermines the work you do. It’s not overtly negative, but it doesn’t show me you’re an optimist. On the surface, it tells me this person doesn’t completely hate their job–they have benefitted from it in some way–but they don’t really go out of their way to use their time there as a learning experience.
Answer two: “I’ve been working at Chick-fil-A for over a year, and it’s been a great opportunity to get my feet wet in a professional working environment while I’m still in high school. I’ve gotten to see firsthand how a business operates. When I started, I was pretty shy, but I quickly learned how to interact with customers in a personable way. For example, one time our kitchen was backed up, and there was one customer who had to wait over twenty-five minutes to get her meal. All of my coworkers were so busy and stressed out that they ignored her. I decided to walk up to her, apologize for the wait, and give her a coupon for a free meal for her next visit. Then, since there were no customers left in line to place orders, I ran back to the kitchen to help them with the rest of the rush. There have been many situations like that where I had to think fast and solve problems under pressure while maintaining professionalism with guests. I have a sense of urgency, pride, and a problem-solving mentality in everything that I do.”
Answers like this tell the interviewer so much more about what type of worker you are. It’s positive, energetic, and highly specific. This answer shows you care about your job and your reputation. You have a growth mentality, you like to learn, and you enjoy creating value for someone. It signals you are someone who sees a problem that needs solving and immediately solves it.
Your “Irrelevant” Experiences Make You Multidimensional and Interesting
Your “irrelevant” experience can and should be used as a selling point, not as something that would deter an employer from hiring you.
Companies are not looking for people who can only do one thing. They don’t want to talk to a bland cardboard cutout who isn’t willing to take risks and do something a little unconventional. The unique value of your previous odd jobs can make you stand out amongst all the other applicants who played it safe.
Your previous job as a part-time dental assistant or construction worker or as a traveling circus performer are only as useless as you allow them to be. Each of your experiences have molded you into the type of worker you are. When approaching a job interview, talk about your jobs, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, as if they’re something you’re proud of.
Let’s say I’m talking to a nineteen-year-old college student who works as a surf instructor during the summer. Here’s a hypothetical interview question: “Why do you think your one part-time seasonal job as a surf instructor is transferable to a sales role at our company?”
Answer one: “I’m really personable. People are drawn to me. I like hard work, and I’m a quick learner. I had to learn quickly to become a certified instructor at such a young age, which taught me to be disciplined and hardworking. I’m a really dedicated employee, and I like seeing students succeed in my classes. I’m interested in sales work, and although I don’t have much experience with it, I’m eager to learn and work hard.”
This is an okay answer, but it’s not going to blow an interviewer away. It’s a good start. But it’s vague and only scratches the surface as to why someone should hire this guy.
Answer two: “It would be a challenge, but I love to be challenged. I’m no stranger to hard work, and I’ve been able to use that in situations where I’ve needed to adapt and learn things quickly. I was the youngest person at my job to become a certified instructor, and I finished the training in half the amount of time as my coworkers. When I wasn’t getting up at five a.m. every morning to practice, I was studying the certification and teaching materials to pass the tests. When I did become an instructor, I wasn’t used to talking to people all day, but I quickly fell in love with socializing and building relationships with my students. Most of my first-time students continuously come back and request to have me as an instructor because of the rapport I build with them. I’m constantly challenging myself to be the most-booked instructor. I love my job, but I’m eager to expand my skills, learn a lot more, and sink my teeth into something more long-term. I’m really interested in sales, and my communication and relationship-building skills as an instructor could be very transferable to a sales role. I have a competitive edge I think would fit really well in a sales role.”
This answer is highly-specific and enthusiastic. He didn’t speak negatively about his current job. He didn’t speak in platitudes or put the responsibility on the interviewer to interpret vague, roundabout answers into an actual pitch for him. He didn’t beat around the bush.
His answer gives the interviewer multiple concrete examples of his best qualities: he’s dedicated, reliable, and personable. He learns quickly, he’s good at building relationships, he’s competitive with himself, and he’s hungry to learn and be challenged, which are all qualities an employer would be excited by during the hiring process.
Identifying and Selling Your Strengths In An Interview
If you’re struggling to brainstorm your top strengths and skills in the workplace, here are some questions to consider next time you’re at work:
- What am I better at than everyone else at this job?
- When do I feel most in my element?
- What am I doing every day to help the business?
- What am I most likely to be praised for?
- What have I learned while working here?
Don’t assume you have too little to offer to land an opportunity. Don’t spend time looking at all the ways in which your previous jobs are too different or irrelevant. Look for the similarities that make you hirable. Write down as many as you can, and think about how you can use them as selling points.
Working in retail teaches you patience. Becoming a freelancer requires time management. Repairing computers requires problem-solving. Design demands creativity. Being a factory worker helps you conquer monotonous, repetitive tasks. Door-to-door sales builds thick skin. Being a writer requires discipline and attention to detail. Digging ditches requires mental strength and resilience.
Career pivoting or breaking into the professional world for the first time can be a much less painful process with the right attitude. If you can show an interviewer you’re a creative force in your professional life, and you don’t view your jobs as limitations but as learning opportunities and tools for self-expression, they’ll be much more interested in working with you.