One of the biggest challenges my 20-somethings clients face in navigating their career paths is their own perception around the concept of having “enough” experience. They go the extra mile in their education and network with key players in their dream fields, yet as they read job descriptions, they frequently worry that their qualifications are being measured solely in terms of years.
…Years they don’t always have under their belts.
They often buy into the belief that experience means everything. It’s an unfortunate matter of mindset, and it’s one that’s encountered by professionals of all ages and backgrounds.
The reactions to the concept “experience” tend to vary.
For example, the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) values hard work for the sake of it, so they’ll take the time to master a near-extinct software program just because it’s listed on job descriptions, or spend two years in a position just to be able to check the “experience” box.
Millennials (born 1980-2000), on the other hand, prioritize values that aren’t measured by the number of hours logged in the office: results, purpose, and professional growth, to name a few. These individuals are more likely to take matters into their own hands when experience-focused employers pass them up.
Take my client Kate, for instance.
She skipped two years of school and made it into college at age 16, after which she desperately wanted a job in the competitive world of fashion. She landed several interviews, but kept running up against the same problem: every firm wanted her to have “real” experience before they’d hire her.
What does “real” experience mean in this context? I’m so glad you asked.
“Five years being someone’s assistant and organizing clothing closets,” Kate replied.
…Kate graduated cum laude from Harvard.
She probably could have settled for a job in an easier-to-crack industry, but like most young professionals, she decided that no job was better than a job she didn’t love. So she put her passion, education, and talents to work: She began blogging about fashion, and it went viral… It wasn’t long before she started receiving invitations to appear on television and radio talk shows.
Kate’s story is a perfect example of how the emerging workforce is redefining the concept of “experience.” By 2025, three out of every four workers will be a millennial and the emphasis placed on past job experience will undoubtedly fade in significance.
In the meantime, here are four ways professionals can overcome the experience barrier:
1. Do something. In other words, don’t wait to get hired. Expressing your gifts in non-traditional ways — starting meet-ups, blogging, consulting — is a great strategy to gain rich experience through initiative – no guidance or permission needed. It’s also a powerful opportunity to showcase your work ethic, knowledge, and ability to network. For the young professionals just starting out, don’t panic!
According to statistics, chances are good that you already have a few experiences you can cite: Studies show that millennials are more likely to volunteer than their generational counterparts, and a Pew study on “young people and the workforce” revealed that 25% of those polled had taken an unpaid job to gain experience.
Experience takes many forms, whether or not it comes with a paycheck and benefits.
2. Show employers that you are results-oriented. Leaders from all generations can collectively agree that results are the most important goal (though we differ on how we get there), so focus your communication— via resume and in-person—on your impact. For Kate, this meant sharing the goals she set for herself and the steps she took to get there, such as learning code, mastering social media marketing, and building relationships with designers, retailers, and PR executives.
Those were challenges she never anticipated when she started out, but she tackled them head-on for the sake of getting results. You can talk about a time you volunteered to manage a project no one else wanted to work on, or about stepping up to complete someone else’s work just to get the job done… These examples tell employers that you can foresee what it takes to achieve results and lead the team to success.
…It also sends a powerful message about your ability to check your ego at the door.
3. Keep tabs on your mindset. The recession hit Gen Y (born 1980-2000) harder than any other generation in the workforce, and data suggests that the early experience of unemployment had a negative impact their collective opinion of corporate America. With the general mindset in the workplace being one of scarcity, job hunters feel that they have to “take what they can get.” Before even walking into an interview, millennials too often adopt the mindset that they are neither qualified nor deserving of opportunities.
Ask yourself: Do you think you deserve the position, or are you stuck in a vicious cycle of self-defeat? In interviews, there’s a fine line between demonstrating self-awareness about your “weaknesses” and shining a spotlight on your insecurities.
If the interviewer is concerned, trust that she’ll ask for more detail… The fact that you’re sitting across from her is a pretty good sign that she is already comfortable with your qualifications.
4. Focus on business development. In today’s increasingly competitive economy, the fastest way to become invaluable to a company is by helping grow the business. Whether you are interviewing for a new job or angling for a promotion, highlight a genuine interest in building relationships and collaborating with potential business interests, even if doing so is beyond the scope of your present job description. At the end of the day, sales are the pulse of any company. In addition, emphasize your interest in networking and being a true ambassador to their brand, regardless of your role. In today’s knowledge economy, who you know can be just as valuable as what you know.
Whether you are looking for new clients or a new take on existing information, make it clear to your employer that you aren’t shy about reaching beyond your cubicle walls to help the company succeed.
If an opportunity speaks to you, don’t buy into the belief that you’re not “enough,” especially when the requirements are meaningless indicators of your potential. Overcoming that noise and negativity requires substantial mental fortitude, and your ability to meet those challenges head-on is indicative of the success you’ll find if you refuse to let the naysayers chase you away.
As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t you’re right.”
So, where is Miss “Not Enough Experience” today? Making a stunning seven figures as CEO of her own fashion PR firm.
This article first appeared on Forbes.