WE’RE ALL OUT OF OUR DEPTH
Richard Turley discusses how to get hired when you don’t know what you’re doing
Did I know what I was doing? No. But it sounded like a good idea at the time. And we learnt – well, I learnt
In order to become fully versed in the art of talking your way into positions far beyond your skill set, you have to understand – to the very core of your being – that the person interviewing you is as incompetent as you. You need to look into their eyes and see the blagger staring back at you. This is crucial.
Confidence in your future employer’s bemusement at how they ended up here is as important as your own. You are the same – two clueless bodies entwined in a surreal employment dance. Neither party knowing quite how the planets aligned, enabling this moment to be. Any doubt in the person opposite’s incompetence will render this process ineffective.
But don’t mistake (your own or others’) incompetence for lack of talent. Talent comes in all shapes and forms, and the ascendance up the corporate ladder is a talent in and of itself. The nuanced variations of your hustle up that ladder are yours alone; all I’d say on the subject is when you see an opportunity, throw yourself at it.
For me, my life changed one grey October morning in 2008 when I arrived uncharacteristically early at the Guardian offices in London, and was greeted by a ringing phone. On the other end of the phone was a man called Jim Kelly, who’d been sent some work I’d done years before. He was looking for someone to redesign a magazine called Businessweek, and wondered whether I’d like to throw my hat in. A door opened just a bit, an ambition to work in New York that felt unattainable now seemed graspable. I never thought I’d get the redesign, that would surely go to an agency, someone who knew what they were doing. But – they’d need a new creative director to implement the design, that was my aim.
Something happened over those few weeks between that phone call with Jim, and when I arrived a few weeks later in New York to present. I started to believe. I felt that confidence you get when you understand the brief better than your client does. So when I woke up early that morning right at the end of December on a frigid, New York, clear-as-crystal winter day, walking to the Bloomberg offices, I knew the magazine they wanted forward, backwards, sideways. I believed so strongly in it, that I was able to talk about it in the present tense, rather than future. Like it was there. That it was to be.
At times like this, it’s also useful to emphasise the importance of ‘the journey’. Journeys sound optimistic, exciting. And they’re nice coveralls too. A journey implies adventure, fortitude, obstacles and victories. Vanquishable opponents created, targets targeted. Someone once said of one place I worked that nothing good ever happened that wasn’t a conspiracy of some sort – a renegade operation operating on a counter-narrative. People love that shit, it gives purpose and shape to otherwise established and calcified daily routines. Be the adventurer. This instils quickly a tight bond of trust with those you’re presenting too. We all want to feel part of something. Some people are happy for that to be our family, a sports team, church, political persuasion, others seek this personal narrative through corporate affiliations, where companies become a cypher for a need to belong, investing emotional capital and self-esteem in the trials and tribulations of the offices they work in. You may be repelled by even the suggestion of that, but I would suggest it’s not an unhelpful strategy – when seeking employment – to at least pretend to buy into it. If nothing else, it shows the sort of commitment that might be otherwise lacking in the organisation.
Indeed, presenting yourself as the adventurer might be your only strategy if you find yourself in a situation where none of your skills have any apparent application to the position you’re interviewing for. This is when you need to pivot into explaining how your skills, applied to a different form, will have a hitherto unforeseen transformational effect. I got hired by MTV primarily because of the Businessweek covers, and the hope was that similar thinking could be applied to short animated bumpers. That I had never animated anything before was less important than the implication we were entering a brave new world where print and TV could inform each other.
Did I know what I was doing? No. But it sounded like a good idea at the time. And we learnt – well, I learnt. And what you learn over and over is that no one knows what they’re doing. If they do know what they’re doing, the chances are that thing they’re doing will shortly become irrelevant at best, obsolete at worst. Things move quickly in the corporate world whilst never actually changing much, but fluidity matters, or at least the illusion of fluidity. Picture a fast moving, undulating river, full of energy and momentum, life, fish, children at play, canoeists; an artery of life for the land it touches. Now picture a large crumbling concrete dam (built in more prosperous times) traversing that river, harnessing the energy, stopping it, preventing movement. Welcome to corporate life.