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)

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The New Way to Work by Charlie Hoehn at TEDxCMU 2011


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.

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.

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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.

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.”

Well, chill out, let me get through my speech — jeez. An internship is actually very different from free work. In internship, you’re applying for like it’s a regular job. You’re sending in your résumé, you’re doing an interview, and you’re competing with other applicants. And then, if you get that internship, you’re going to be given menial work from 9 to 5. Because they don’t trust you, so they’re not going to give you much responsibility.

Now, this is generally speaking, so — settle down. But you’re going to be likely filling out spreadsheets and retrieving coffee and all this stuff that you don’t want to do. And at the end, there are no guarantees. You might do this for 3 to 6 months, and the door is going to close, they’ll tell you to hit the bricks. Happened to me.

With free work, it’s different. You can work with anyone in the world, and you can reach out to them virtually. So you can work at any time, you can work on your own hours and there are no dead ends. If you do this correctly, if you work for a bunch of people, then something will pan out and more opportunities will open up for you than you ever thought possible.

And, most importantly, you’re only going to work on stuff that you care about and you’re going to be able to figure out what you’re truly passionate about. Because you can objectively say, “I would do this even if I weren’t being paid.” Because you’re not being paid. And this is the key distinguishing point between internships and free work. You’re continually building a foundation for your career.

So, the 6 steps to become a recession-proof graduate. This is how it’s done.

Step 0 – this should not be a step. Stop acting entitled. For some reason, as soon as we throw our graduation caps into the air, we expect this 40K, 50K, $60,000 job to land into our laps. But the fact is that college degrees are not given to unique snowflake children. Seriously, they aren’t. The people who get college degrees are people who are good at taking tests and people who can afford them, generally speaking — again.

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This is the truth: Sadly, college degrees are commodities at this point — but not Carnegie Mellon.

So, Step 1: Choose a few areas that you’d like to work in. A lot of us get out of college and we feel completely pigeon-holed by our major. And it’s like, “Aw, man, I just spent 4 years studying something that I’m not like that crazy about. Ah, I have to get a career in this industry. I have all these other interests, I like music and art, and all this other stuff.”

Well, you can still do all that stuff. So choose all the things that you’re still interested in, because you’re in your early 20s, and again you have nothing to lose. So you can try all this stuff for free, and figure out what you really care about. You don’t have to be pigeon-holed.

Step 2: Get some skills.

It’s so sad, because so many college students leave their university and they have no marketable skills. If you’ve thought about writing “proficient in Microsoft Office” on your résumé, or “I have excellent communication skills” you have no skills. Seriously, you’re competing with 35-year-olds who are willing to take a cut in pay, who have 10 more years of experience than you. You’re just not going to win.

So the way I think of getting skills is those industries that you’ve picked, you look at the skills that are both in high demand and difficult to learn. Those are going to be the ones that are a value and will land you gigs. Seriously, if you want to be making $100,000 right out the gate from college, go learn how to put out oil fires in the Middle East. Is it in high demand? Yeah. Is it difficult to learn? Yeah. Is it scary as shit? Absolutely.

But more realistic, if you’re an iPhone developer, or an iPad developer, whatever, the demand for that is so huge that even if you’re not that good at Cocoa [Objective-C], which is a kind of difficult language to learn, you can command five-figures a project for doing that and you’ll be able to market yourself super easily. So have skills that are in high demand and are difficult enough to learn.

Step 3: Build your online presence.

I’m not going to get into the process of this, because we got into it earlier and ultimately what it boils down to is blog, blog, blog, dorky stuff, whatever. But the reality is that résumés are pretty antiquated. The truth is, you’re going to be googled. That’s more important than your résumé. And if you googled my name in 2007, in the top 5 results were the words “drunk” and “abortion”. I swear to God! That is like the worst possible result you could ever have. I can’t make up anything worse than that except murder. It’s terrible.

And, while I didn’t want to have a slide that said “Charlie Hoehn = Drunk Abortion”, there is a backstory to that, so —

The first one, the “drunk” one, was me submitting a video of my friend to of him drunkenly riding a bicycle down a flight of stairs. Very funny, and I didn’t think it would come to bite me in the ass years later. But collegehumor has great SEO, so it did.

And the “abortion” one, was me making fun of abortion protesters on my campus. Not because I hate or love abortion, I just think protesters are funny.

Step 4: Pay the bills and cut costs.

Because you’re going to be doing free work, obviously you’re not going to be getting paid for a little while so you’ve got to figure out a way to pay the bills and cut your costs. So, do something on the side — doesn’t really matter what it is — but you’ve got to make a side income to allow you to do stuff that you really care about for a while, because eventually, that stuff will transition into paid work. If you do it well-enough.

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Step 5: Contact those targets and prove your worth.

So you remember, you picked the areas that you want to work in, and now you pick your contacts or your targets, the people who are really high up, because you’re an unproven college graduate with no experience and anything notable for most of you — sad to say. And you’re offering to do free work, they’re going to have super-low expectations. And because you’re doing free work, you’re removing these barriers of, “Do I have to pay this guy?” and because you’re reaching out virtually they don’t have to pay attention to you so they don’t have to spend time monitoring you. So you’re removing these barriers and you can reach people who are further out of your reach than you think, like if you approached them for paid work, for a paid gig right away, they would have said no.

So the way I always reach out to these people who are seemingly unreachable but they’re very, very approachable is I send them an email. I give them a courteous introduction and I delicately allude to the research I’ve done on them. I say I’m a fan of their work, and then I offer three examples of free work that are going to have a positive impact on their business. And I tie them back into skills of mine, so, “I can edit video, I’m good at online marketing, and I’m a good writer”. So I’ll be like, “Oh, you can improve this, this, and this. The way you are going to improve it is by hiring me, I’ll do it for free and you don’t have to worry about me, if you don’t like my work, you can scrap it.”

And then I’ll just sign off with, you know, “I’ll do this stuff for 2 weeks, and if you dig my work, then let’s talk about doing something more formal, and possibly a paid gig in the future. Can you talk this week?” Pretty easy, it works very well.

Finally, you transition to paid work.

And if you’ve done your job, if you do a really good job doing the free work, then they’re going to have more to lose by not paying you than you’ll have to lose. So they’re going to want to keep you around, and they’ll eventually pay you. It’s the way it works.

But now, there’s some bad news. America is in a tough time, and it’s going to get tougher. I mean, honestly, we have to pay for your sins at some point, we can’t keep this up. I mean, let’s get real.

And the economy is going to get worse, and jobs are going to be cut, jobs are going to be eliminated, jobs are going to be outsourced. It is a tough market for us.

But, there’s good news. And the good news is, as long as there are problems that need to be solved, there will always be work. And I’m here today to ask you guys to try free work. Because I want you to chase after the things that interest you and make you happy. You need to stop acting like you have a set path in life. You don’t. No one does.

You shouldn’t be trying to check off the boxes of life in order to become a successful American. Those boxes are not real. And they were created by other people. Not you.

Now is the best time, when you’re in your early 20s, when you have nothing to lose, to pursue a path that you care about. And to start building a reputation and a history of work that matters to you and that you’re proud of.

So, when I ask you to try this “free work” concept, I want you to ask yourself the same question I asked myself on the bathroom floor 3 years ago: “What is the worst that could happen?”

Thank you.