Transcript: Charlie Hoehn on The New Way to Work at TEDxCMU 2011

Charlie Hoehn, the author of Author of Play It Away discusses The New Way to Work at TEDxCMU 2011 (Transcript)

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Book(s) by the speaker:

Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety

Recession Proof Graduate: How to Get The Job You Want by Doing Free Work


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Charlie Hoehn – Author

My entire life I’ve done what everyone told me I should do. From kindergarten to my senior year of college I had a high GPA. I volunteered, I played sports, I was in groups, extracurricular activities, student council. I did all that stuff.

I was checking off the boxes in order to become a successful American. And so by the time I graduated in 2008, even though we were in the heart of a recession, I fully anticipated that I would be able to land a $40,000 gig without very much effort.

And after 12 weeks of applying for jobs to dozens of companies — maybe even a hundred, I had been turned down by every single one of them. With the exception of two: One was a staging company whose only job requirements were “have a pulse” and “be a chain-smoker”. And the other company was a pyramid scheme. So, thank you

And my friends were all going through the same thing. It wasn’t just me. And I remember coming across a buddy of mine, and they were so excited because everyone had been saying, “You got to take what you can get in this market.” And they had just landed a sales rep position at Verizon wireless. And they thought within a year maybe they could make middle manager.

I was like, “What? Did we really just spend the last 4 years — no, the last 17 years — pursuing this stuff that other people told us to do, following the rules? And this is where it’s going to take us? Verizon wireless, selling crappy cellphones?” I hate Verizon!

I didn’t want that at all. And that’s what brought me here, the bathroom floor, where I laid on the ground for an hour one night, just like pulling my hair out in frustration, being like, that advice that I took for my whole life, it was a lie. It was a scam. It’s leading me somewhere that I do not want to go. It’s taking me to a place that is going to be unremarkable.

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And so, I decided I’m going to forget what everyone else is saying. I’m going to make up my own rules. And I asked myself: “What is the worst that could happen?” In my early 20s, I had nothing to lose. Am I going to keep getting turned down by companies I don’t want to work for? Am I going to keep not getting paid? I have nothing to lose.

So, I’m just going to work on stuff that is interesting to me, that I want to pursue. And within 8 months of doing this new strategy, I had turned a complete 180°: I had done all the stuff that I really cared about, and was really passionate about. I had worked with all these best-selling authors, I got to help market a Hollywood movie, I had worked with successful entrepreneurs.

And the coolest part was I didn’t have to send out my résumé anymore. Like, really good companies were coming to me and offering me jobs, and I was turning them away. And I was doing stuff that I really loved. And it’s not because I’m special, it’s not because I’m smarter — believe me, Carnegie-Mellon, I’m not smarter. And I am not unique. I wasn’t handed any of this stuff. Anybody could have done what I did.

The only thing that separates me from everybody else is that I adapted and took a different strategy. And that’s what I want to teach you guys today. I want to teach you how to become recession-proof graduates.

What does it mean to be “recession-proof”?

First thing it means, is that the economy does not dictate what kind of work you can have. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in a boom, a bust, depression, recession, whatever. You can still work on stuff that you really care about and stuff that makes you happy. You’re not going to do soul-sucking work in your mid-20’s. Please do not work at Verizon! You’re going to work on projects that you actually care about with people who are smarter than you. So you’re going to continue to grow and learn.

And most of all, you’re going to control the lifestyle that you ultimately want. Because what I see over and over is people who get out of college and the first halfway decent offer that they get with a good paycheck, they take. And they think to themselves, “You know, I’ll do this for 6 months, maybe a year, and then I’m going to leave and go pursue something I actually care about.”

And then, after a while they get a girlfriend, and then they get an apartment, and a car, and their girlfriend turns into a fiancée, then turns into a wife and they have kids, and then they get a house. And then 10 years later they’re in a spot that they didn’t want to be in, but they’re in an industry that they didn’t want to be in as well. And we want to avoid that.

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Don’t expect anyone to understand this stuff that I’m going to talk to you about today. It took my parents like a year and a half before they were like, “Okay, maybe he’s on to something.”

Because the advice that I kept hearing – they’re going to keep giving you the advice that they were given because it’s going to justify all of their past decisions. The stuff that my friends were telling me were, “Dude, you got to keep shotgun-blasting your résumé out to these websites. We’ve got careerbuilder,, that’s where it’s at!”

No, it’s not. These sites are terrible. These sites are like city bars. They’re where mediocrity thrives. Because there’s only going to be 2 hot offers in the bar, and the rest are going to be wildly mediocre. You don’t want to have anything to do with them. And for some reason, douchebags wearing Ed Hardy shirts snatch up all the hotties. I don’t know why they thrive in this environment, they do. I don’t have those answers.

But I can offer you an alternative. In terms of rapidly advancing your career and working on stuff that you actually care about. There is one way: it’s my way that stands above the rest. And that is free work.

And some of you might be sitting there thinking, “Oh, I know what free work is, it’s an internship. That’s not the new guy. You’re not even that good of a public speaker.”