How to Make Your Place in the World

Tina Seelig is the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), where she teaches courses on innovation and entrepreneurship. Tina earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University Medical School and has worked as a management consultant, multimedia producer, entrepreneur, and author. Her newest book is titled, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World.

  1. Question: How does making stuff out of rubber bands and paper clips over the span of a few days transfer to the reality of the long-lasting grind of innovating, marketing, and supporting products?Answer: In the exercise you’re referring to students are given a handful of paperclips or rubber bands and are challenged to create as much value as possible in only a few days. Value can be measured in any way they like. The lessons they learn are priceless: They realize that there are opportunities everywhere, that they can easily leverage limited resources, and that they can create real value in only a few days.Also, they experience the power of rapid prototyping, effective teamwork, and how to execute on a plan. It is amazing to see the range of solutions from teams from around the world. This exercise reinforces the idea that life is the ultimate open-book exam—the doors are thrown wide open, which allows you to draw on endless resources to tackle open-ended problems in creative ways.
  2. Question: But what makes you think that the companies have wide-open doors, endless resources, and open-ended problems?Answer: It is up to each individual to see it that way. Most jobs involve projects that don’t have one right answer. It is up to each individual to discover the best solutions using whatever resources they can find. These solutions don’t have to cost a lot of money. They often involve identifying other people who can help, leveraging work that has been done before, or combining ideas in new and interesting ways.This is just as true for a CEO as it is for engineers, sales people, lawyers, teachers, chefs, and even babysitters. We often limit ourselves by not seeing all the resources in our midst. However, those who do see that the doors really are wide open, who can reframe problems, and who can creatively draw upon the endless resources in their midst are much more successful in both the short run and the long run.
  3. Question: How should a college student decide what to study?Answer: When I started college I was a pre-med student. Right after I got to college I asked a girl in my dorm if she would help me with a calculus problem. She refused, saying that if she helped me, I would get into med school, and she wouldn’t. She was so focused on her long-term goals that she wasn’t able to engage in everyday relationships. That was a huge wake-up call. I was forced to rethink my plans and realized that I should do what interests me and figure out the things that I do best instead of staying on a pre-planned path that might lead me somewhere I didn’t want to go. Now I encourage students to do the same thing—that is, spend time trying lots of different things so that they can see where their passions take them and where they can really shine.
  4. Question: What should a college student look for in a first job?Answer: The most important thing to remember is that your first job probably won’t even be on your resume in a few years.  With that in mind, it makes sense to take a job that will put you in a position to learn as much as possible. Don’t be worried about the title or the salary and focus on with whom you will be working. Remember—and this is important—that when you get a job, you are not getting THAT job, but the keys to the building. Once you are inside, you will find endless ways to expand your role, to build your credibility, and to excel.
  5. Question: What should a person do in her first week on the job?Answer: I wish someone had told this to me when I was getting out of school. You should spend the first weeks on a job figuring out what is really going on. The stated culture of an organization is often quite different from the real culture. And formal titles don’t necessarily reflect real influence in the company. Also, use the first few weeks to set the tone for your working style. People will draw conclusions about you very quickly, and you will want those conclusions to be accurate. Finally, figure out if there is someone who might be willing to be an informal mentor—someone you can go to to ask for help, especially at the beginning when it isn’t clear how the organization really works.
  6. Question: Is there anything you “knew” at twenty that turned out to be still true?Answer: I was a kid who never liked to follow the rules. Other people make rules for you to make life easier for them not for you. For example, when you ask someone how to get into graduate school, make a movie, write a book, or run for political office, they will give you a recipe with a set of incremental steps that gets you closer to the goal. However, many people who have successfully reached those goals have followed a completely different path. If you really want to accomplish something, there is usually a creative way to get there even if the traditional path is blocked.
  7. Question: What’s the biggest thing that you “knew” at twenty that turned out to be wrong?Answer: When I was twenty I beat myself up whenever I made a mistake. I thought that I had to do things correctly the first time and spent a lot of time agonizing about what I should have done. In fact, if you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t taking enough risks. I was comfortable taking risks, but wasn’t comfortable with the inevitable failures along the way.  Now I realize that mistakes are part of the learning process. Now when I make a mistake, I add it to my “failure resume” and figure out what I should do differently the next time.
  8. Question: What’s the best analogy that describes a career?Answer: I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later.
  9. Question: When should a company give up on a product or service?Answer: This is always a hard question. We all know that in order to be successful you have to put in an enormous effort, and many people work for years before their ventures look like overnight successes. Even when others suggest that it is time to cut your loses, you know that with more time you will be able to make it work. However, this can only happen when you are completely committed. If you have lost your passion, it is time to quit. Without a strong drive to succeed, there is no way you will have the energy to ultimately reach escape velocity.
  10. Question: What is the key to leading people?Answer: From my experience, one key to leading others is to “paint the target around the arrow.” That is surround yourself with really sharp people—arrows—and make sure that they are doing what they do best. If you empower really talented people to do what they do best, then astonishing things happen. Everyone feels that they are doing the easy job and truly appreciate what everyone else is contributing. Also, figure out what motivates each individual on your team. With that knowledge you can put incentives in place that encourage each person to deliver their best.
  11. Question: What’s the best way to fix mistakes?Answer: It is important to correct mistakes quickly. The longer they linger, the bigger they get. As mentioned above, I tend to take lots of risks, and therefore have had lots of opportunities to correct my errors. I find the best approach is to acknowledge the error and move on. If possible, find a way to quickly demonstrate that you have learned from the experience.
  12. Question: What is the secret to successful negotiation?Answer: Make sure that you understand the other person’s point of view. If you make assumptions, you will very likely be wrong. When I bought a car for my son. I assumed that the salesperson wanted us to pay the highest price. That wasn’t the case! After asking a bunch of questions, I learned that his commission wasn’t based on the price of the car—it was based on the scores he got on the customer evaluation form we filled out afterward. Of course, I was happy to give him a great score in return for a great price. This is how win-win negotiations come about.
  13. Question: How does one balance work and “life”?Answer: You copied a quote from my book into one of your recent blogs. That quote, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, is very powerful.

    “The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”

    This is what we should all aspire to—having work that enriches our lives and lives that enrich our work. On the path to this perfect balance, it is best to pick three things that are most important to you and focus on them. This list will change as your priorities change and is a reminder that you can do it all—just not at the same time.


Out of work 6 months. Now what?

If you’ve been unemployed for half a year in this market, should you just take any job you’re offered? Rewrite your resume? Enjoy the break?

By Anne Fisher, contributor
April 13, 2009: 10:13 AM ET

NEW YORK (Fortune) — Dear Annie: I got laid off from a senior management job in marketing last September, just as the worst of this recession was getting underway, so I’m now coming up on six months’ unemployment. As a hiring manager for many years (I’m 47), I always looked askance at candidates who had been out of work this long, so now I’m worried that prospective employers will do the same to me.

I’ve been called for a couple of interviews, but neither job seemed right for me. Am I being too picky? Should I take just any job, if I get another chance, simply to avoid having such a big hole in my work history? Also, should I rewrite my resume? Currently it’s chronological, but maybe a functional one — emphasizing types of experience rather than when I did what — would serve me better now. Please help. –Sleepless in San Francisco

Dear Sleepless: Granted, half a year can seem like an eternity when you’re on pins and needles, but chin up.

“In this market, six months is nothing,” says Nancy Keene, director of the Dallas office of executive recruiters Stanton Chase. “This is unprecedented. In the dot-com implosion, for example, lots of managers got laid off — but many other industries were still strong, so there was someplace for those people to go.” Not this time. “You have to take a long-term view and expect that it may take you a full year to land the job you want,” says Keene.

A couple of new surveys back her up. Executives can now be unemployed nine months before it even begins to hurt their marketability, according to a poll of hiring managers at 1,000 big U.S. companies by Robert Half Management Resources. And the average senior-management job hunt now takes even longer than that, according to a survey of 5,060 executives and 476 headhunters for the 2009 Executive Job Market Intelligence Report from ExecuNet. In fact, 10.1 months is how long most senior managers have to job hunt these days, the poll found.

Moreover, you were smart to turn down two opportunities that didn’t seem right for you, Keene believes. “The worst response to this situation is jumping into the wrong job. That leads to a series of short hops, which spells career derailment,” she says. “Look for consulting projects instead. As a senior manager, two years of consulting looks much better on your resume than two jobs where you only stayed a year, or less.”

She adds: “You need to do a dual marketing campaign for yourself: One where you’re seeking your next full-time job, and the other in search of appropriate consulting work to keep your resume filled up, get new experience, and add new people to your network.”

Wendy Enelow, a longtime author, trainer, and career coach (, agrees. “Not long ago, putting ‘consultant’ on your resume screamed ‘couldn’t find a job’,” she says. “That stigma is gone now. If you’re an expert at something, it’s perfectly acceptable to sell that expertise on an interim basis.” (See the March 16 column, “Be a Manager and a Temp?”)

And don’t change your resume from a chronological to a functional one, advises Enelow. “For people who have been out of work for a very long time – for instance, moms who took 10 or 15 years off to raise their families and now want to get back into the workforce — a functional resume makes sense,” she says. “But for you, out of work just six months? It’s a mistake. It makes it look as if you have something to hide.”

“Be 100% honest and just tell interviewers you were laid off last fall and are still looking for the right opportunity,” she adds. There’s nothing wrong with taking the time to explore all your options in depth, especially if you’re also sharpening your skills and building your network with short-term consulting gigs, maybe even lending a hand to a nonprofit in your community.

“The same people who sit on corporate boards are on nonprofit boards,” notes Nancy Keene. These are good people to be visible to.”

As a 47-year-old senior manager who presumably has been toiling away nonstop for a quarter of a century or so, Enelow says, you should feel free to mention to prospective employers that you’ve used some of these past six months “to slow down and smell the roses” — spending more time with your family, brushing up on a foreign language, taking photography classes, or whatever else you’ve been doing to recharge and re-energize yourself for the next phase of your career.

“A long job hunt can be demoralizing,” she says. “But if you go into an interview feeling and acting like a victim of the economy, it will sink you. You need to find ways to keep your spirits up and maintain a positive, forward-looking energy.”

In other words, try to have some fun. If that sounds like a waste of time, consider Ben Wallace, age 40, who two weeks ago started his new job as chief operating officer of Penneco, a Pennsylvania oil and gas exploration company, after being out of work since last June. Wallace says he spent those nine months doing what he calls “quality networking,” which led to consulting assignments that eventually landed him his current position.

“As soon as I was free and clear of my old employer, I started calling senior managers at other companies in the industry and asking them out to lunch,” he says. His companions would start talking about gaps in their current talent pool, which Wallace would then offer to fill on a temporary basis.

Between consulting projects, he says, he enjoyed life. “I took my 9-year-old son to Boy Scout camp for a whole week and left my BlackBerry at home, which is something I never, ever would have done when I was working full-time,” Wallace says. He adds: “Everybody who has been working very hard for a long time has neglected some part of their personal life and at some point thinks, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to take a 6-month sabbatical, spend more time with my family, go to the gym every day and get back in shape…’ So if you’re job hunting, in a sense this is your sabbatical. Make the most of it!”

The advantage of not obsessing over your career 24 hours a day, Wallace says, is that “you will feel great, which will boost your self-confidence — and that will help your job search.” Worth a try, no?

Readers, what do you say? Have you been out of work for six months or longer? What are you doing to cope? How long can someone be unemployed in this market without it being seen as a black mark against their candidacy? Can changing resume styles really help cover an employment gap? Tell us what you think on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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When the jobs are hidden

To get a job, you have to find the openings that no one’s advertising, and really impress your potential employer.

By Jia Lynn Yang, writer-reporter
March 30, 2009: 12:31 PM ET

NEW YORK (Fortune) — David Perry, a longtime headhunter, says you’re wasting your time if you’re looking for job postings online. And he should know: he’s often the guy on the other side helping companies lure new talent. Perry, who’s based in Ottawa, says that in the last 22 years he has accomplished 996 searches totaling $172 million in salary. And the bottom line in today’s economy, he says, is you have to tap the “hidden job market.”

Perry’s also the co-author of “Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters” and he recently spoke with Fortune.

What’s the “hidden job market”?

When companies say, ‘We have a hiring freeze,’ that doesn’t mean they’re not hiring. It just means they’re not adding headcount. Every year there’s 20-25% turn over. So in a 1,000-person company, 200 or 250 people are going to turn over, either through attrition, or someone moves. Those companies are still hiring but they don’t want to tell you.

So how do you find these jobs?

What you have to do in a recession is map your skills to employers to where you know they have a problem you can solve. My advice to job hunters is pick 10 to 20 companies, no more, and pick companies you’re interested in, and that you think you can add value to. That requires researching companies, and so that list may take you two weeks. If you’re trying to crack the hidden job market and you know the job position you want reports to vice president, find that vice president on LinkedIn and look at his profile to see who else he’s connected to and go ask them, ‘What’s this guy like to work for?’ Do the research before you even pick up the phone.

How can you get someone’s attention?

We can go into billboards, sandwiches – that stuff only works once. It’s only for one person who figures it out once, once in a city. If you’re looking for fun stuff, we have this thing called the coffee cup caper, 30% of the time it will result in an interview. You send an employer a coffee cup with a little $5 swipe card with a little note that says, I’d like to get together and talk with you over coffee. I’ll be calling soon. And you send it by U.S. post two day delivery, and that gets registered. So when they’ve signed for it, you wait about 20 minutes and then you call them. And then you go, Hi, I know you just got my package.’ You’re proving you’re imaginative and creative.

What something people should avoid during a job interview?

This drives me insane: I’ve seen people mentally deciding in the interview whether they want the job. That’s the last place to decide. You go into an interview, and you sell like your life depends on it. You’ve got to get the job first. I’ve seen it thousands of times. There’s this point in the interview, where people go ‘Hmm, do I really want this? You can see their body change. The employer picks it up and it’s gone. If the employer is telling you, ‘I love you,’ and you’re not saying ‘I love you too,’ it’s over with.

How about following up afterwards?

If you really like the opportunity, don’t go home and write thank you very much. Go back and write a letter that says, upon further reflection of what we were talking about, here’s what I bring to the table, here’s how I see myself fitting into the organization, including a 30-60-90 day plan.

How can someone attract a recruiter’s attention?

You have to go to ZoomInfo and LinkedIn and create a profile. All corporate recruiters and probably 20% of the headhunters in America have ZoomInfo accounts. When we start a search, companies aren’t going to advertise. The headhunter goes to ZoomInfo, types in requirements that we need, like skillset, degree, city, functional title, and up will come anywhere from a hundred to several thousand people who fit that criteria. Then we go to LinkedIn and run the same search. If you’re in ZoomInfo with a picture, we’re going to call you first. Just reverse engineer what recruiters are doing so you get found.

How can you really impress a potential employer?

It hasn’t worked in years just to bring in your resume, except only in the most junior positions. I concentrate on directors to CEOs, and the last interview for us regardless is always a Power Point presentation of what you’ve learned, pain points, and how you intend to fix that. Everyone talks about being a great leader and great communicator, so prove it. Don’t go into an interview and treat it like it’s just another business meeting. Your career is your biggest asset now – because it’s certainly not your house. To top of page

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sexy bodysuit is a hit this season

Well this onesie is definitely our ultimate recession must-have. A two-in-one twist on the traditional tank, the bodysuit continues making its way back on the scene as a sexy alternative to everything from lingerie to loungewear to a body-skimming blouse. We’re actually partial to wearing one off the beach, under some high-waisted jeans or with a pretty bubble skirt. Part top, part tease, our one-piece picks are the total package!

Above, from left: Opening Ceremony Cut-Out One Piece, $185, available at Opening Ceremony; Lover Chambray Underwire Bodysuit, about $217, available at Lover; Petit Bateau Cotton Bodysuit, $69, available at Petit Bateau.