New paths to a great job

Of course I have to open this post with something about how stupid college is. Colleges are finally responding to the problem they charge tons of money and then graduates are unemployable and in debt. Colleges are responding by becoming job preparation centers. And Frank Bruni, opinion editor for the New York Times, says this is a waste of time and resources. Here’s what’s better:

1. Skipping college.
The real issue we have with admitting that college is not a path to the work world is then we have to ask ourselves why we send our kids to high school. There is plenty of data to show that teens are able to manage their lives without the constraints of school. The book Escaping the Endless Adolescence is chock full of data, and a recent article by my favorite journalist, Jennifer Senior, shows that high school is not just unnecessary, but actually damaging to teens who need much more freedom to grow than high school affords.

2. Focus on internships instead of school.
Kids should be working in internships in high school. Because the best path to a good job is a bunch of great internships. But great internships don’t go to people who need money. They are mostly for young people. Yes, this is probably illegal and classist and bad for a fluid society. But we will not debate that here. Instead we will debate why kids need to go to college if the internships are what make them employable? Kids should do internships in high school and by their college years, they are capable of real jobs where they are doing work that people value, with cash.

You cannot take this route if you’re saddled with huge student loans. You can’t take this route if you’re inundated by homework in required subjects you don’t care about. You can’t take this route if you have no work experience when you graduate college. It’s too late. (Don’t tell me you need to go to school to learn, okay? People just do not believe this anymore.)

I was reading the Fortune list of 40 under 40 and I was struck by the career history of Kevin Feige (number 11 on the list). He’s president of Marvel Studios at age 39. He wrote that he interned with the Superman movie director as a film student and that was the last job application he filled out. That’s because if you get an internship with someone great, and your performance is great, your network will cover your employment needs for a very long time.

3. Start a company instead of writing a resume.
I’m struck by Marissa Mayer (number 3 on Fortune’s list) whose announced acquisition strategy is buying small, cheap companies. Which is, in effect, buying the team. Silicon Valley calls these acqui-hires. She is looking at young people who start companies that are not necessarily successful in terms of product or sales but successfully market the founders as visionaries, self-starters, and hard workers. You can’t show those traits in school, so if you have those traits, you slow yourself down by going to school where you cannot exhibit your best,  marketable traits.

4. Refuse to present yourself in a linear way.
Do any workaround that lets you forgo the linear obsession that LinkedIn has with career presentation. Because linear presentations favor people who have long, rule-following careers – which don’t necessarily make you look good anyway.  I could write a post ten thousand paragraphs long of all the new things people with nonlinear work histories are doing to get jobs.

People use twitter as a resume, according to the Wall Street Journal, which requires only that you publish ideas, not any sort of academic experience.

Young people are selling stock in themselves – paying out dividends for decades at a time.

Agents represent workers who pick and choose projects that match them rather than signing on for indefinite amounts of time. The Harvard Business Review calls this supertemping. Business Week calls it going Hollywood.

But here’s the big takeaway. A fundamental shift is taking place, where the path to getting a job is massively circumventing college credentials. And, at the same time, the American public is fed up with the insane debt that college are expecting new grads to take on in order to graduate. (Good essay: How College Ruined My Life.)

If you are not going to school in order to “fit” into the adult world, then why are you going to school? The love of learning, presumably. But school reform pundits are 100% sure that kids will choose to learn if you put no constraints on them. They will just learn what they want. Best example: The MIT program that gave iPads to illiterate kids in Ethiopia (pictured above), and they taught themselves to use it, program it, and read it in English. No teacher.  No curriculum.

The biggest barrier to accepting the radical new nature of the job hunt is the reverberations throughout the rest of life. If you don’t need school for work, and you don’t need school for learning, then all you need school for is so parents can go to work and not worry about taking care of their kids.

It takes bravery to go against the grain. It’s difficult to say that the great learning and the great jobs come from leaning out, doing things in a nonlinear, non standard way, and playing only by the rules that fit your own style for personal learning and growth.


111 replies
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  1. a
    a says:

    “Do any workaround that lets you forgo the linear obsession that LinkedIn has with career presentation.”

    Does that mean LinkedIn is bad for you?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      LinkedIn favors those who have had long, successful careers. LinkedIn requires you to list things chronologically which makes people who have had non-linear careers look like a round peg in a square hole. LinkedIn also favors who have had multiple successes, so if you’re at the beginning of your career, the best thing to do is post as little as possible so that people can find you, but they can’t judge you based on traditional criteria.

      The best way to have a stable career is to be known for your ideas. LinkedIn is a place to be known for your achievements. Other types of social media cater better to your ideas.


      • Le
        Le says:

        Ohhh I have never liked LinkedIn but could never put my finger on why … I thought it was because I have a ‘jump around’ resume … Now I know why – thanks P

      • A
        A says:

        What a great point, Penelope! I love how you focus on a functional definition of success rather than a societally defined one. I find it to be disingenuous and dishonest when society pushes one set path on many different types of people (e.g. a linear career path at a bunch of corporations), and then acts as if anyone who doesn’t follow said path is some sort of incompetent, unintelligent dolt. The people who push standard paths on society (e.g. 20 years “progressing” in corporate America) focus more on the ‘image’ projected by the path they’ve laid out as sacred rather than on actual practical solutions to life’s problems, (problems like the fact that 15 years climbing up the corporate ladder leads people nowhere and is a waste of their time) and then act quizzically indignant when others don’t do the same. I find this to be ESPECIALLY disingenuous .

      • Joanne
        Joanne says:

        Is there an alternative to LinkedIn for those who have a less conventional, more non-linear career path?

  2. Brian Dunham
    Brian Dunham says:

    This post is so spot on. I am a 26 year old who graduated at 25 with a BA in business communications and marketing, with a minor in PR. High school curriculum was an absolute joke to me, because I was “required” to learn certain things which did not interest me in the least bit. I actually attended school maybe 3 days a week and was easily able to maintain a 3.5 GPA. If I wanted to learn what they were teaching, all I really needed was a computer and some search engine savvy. Not a 5 day a week block schedule.

    I had to take the longer route through college because my parents did not have money. I went and got my associates degree at a community college so I could work, study, and pay my tuition and rent at the same time. Luckily when I was ready to finish undergrad at ASU I was already 23, which gave me financial advantages in the form of a Pell Grant. Unfortunately it didn’t cover everything and I still had to pull out loans to graduate.

    It took me an entire year to find an entry level position in the marketing/ advertising field and I’m only making $15 dollars an hour. I made $25 an hour working part time as a laborer while I went to ASU. Now I have this degree that everyone told me I needed to get a “good” job and I can barely afford to live on my “salary”.

    It’s amazing to me that this piece of paper was supposed to be my portal to young adulthood success, yet it has actually set my career back years. Everyone I wanted to interview with requires 3-5 years experience, even for entry level/ junior positions. Recently, I’ve added a 20 hour a week internship that pays $8 an hour on top of my 40 hour a week j.o.b. because companies want REAL experience. Not someone who spent 5 years reading texts books

    I’ve been reading your blog ever since I graduated in May of last year when I didn’t have a clue on how to handle real life. Can’t thank you enough for all of your guidance and insights. Your posts have drastically changed the way i view my career, and the avenues I can take to achieve my goals.

    • A
      A says:

      This is a great comment, Brian. I feel the same way. Reading Penelope’s blog has gotten me through some rough patches in my career as well. What do you plan to do about your situation? I am asking with an open-mind and no judgement. I think your solutions could give me ideas for my own life.

      • Brian
        Brian says:


        Right now, my main concern is gaining the experience that my dream job would require. I figured out at the end of my college career that I wanted to be a creative professional at an ad agency and do some freelance as well. I.e. Art Director, Creative Director, Graphic Design, PR, Marketing etc. Fortunately my undergrad in biz communications/marketing fits the bill, but not to a T.

        So for now, I am working at an HR outsourcing firm (or PEO) doing their marketing and PR for them, with a little graphic design and minor web coding (which I’m learning on my own). For the next few years, my plan is to master GD software, and build a respectable portfolio.

        Once that is accomplished, I will have a few years exp. as a marketing and PR pro, with a nice creative portfolio on top to start interviewing for my dream job at an agency. The only problem is agencies want agency experience, so my internship this summer will provide some valuable exp.

        My overall goal is to show employers that I didn’t take the conventional route with my path carved out for me. But, that I took initiative and taught myself the skills needed to obtain the job that I want. Although college credentials are nice, I think being a self-starter and drive are much more attractive to employers.

        (Of course, this is not always true with other professions such as sciences and mathematics, but I think it works well in my field)

    • Carole
      Carole says:

      Brian, if you understand marketing, drop your $15/hour job (unless you are learning a lot) and find a local plumber who needs more customers. He will pay you more than $15/hour and you will have a career.

      But the first step is letting go of the idea that you have to get hired by people who have built the agency that bills plumbers $200/hour for the deliverables you will create for $15/hour.

      It’s called “disintermediation” — ie, cutting out the middleman.

      Once you realize that all of these fuckers you’re begging to hire you are just MIDDLEMEN, life gets way better.

      • barefootmommy
        barefootmommy says:

        This comment is so true. My husband owns a large painting company and he is always looking for professional marketers who have experience, and he pays commission on top of a good hourly wage… it’s more then what you’re making now.

  3. Wooden U. Lykteneau
    Wooden U. Lykteneau says:

    Remember that column you wrote about the lower-middle class kids whose parents weren’t rich or well connected, but still managed to get an internship without being perceived as underprivileged or a minority? Or what about the one about how difficult it is for a family to survive on one income, and therefore, home-schooling is not only ill-advised, but financially untenable? Or better yet, remember the one you wrote about how easy and inexpensive it is to get proper services for children with special needs (e.g. autism, bipolar disorder) without seeking help from public schools and/or the government?

    No? You don’t remember any of those? Maybe that’s because, like most folks who grew up with privilege, you’re clueless about these kinds of challenges and circumstances. And as much as claim to the contrary, the evidence does not support your delusion.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You must not read this blog very often. I’ve written about how I was a single parent and our electricity was turned off. I’ve written about how I had such a hard time getting services for my special needs son that I cashed out my 401k early to pay for legal fees. Just because someone looks like they have their life pulled together doesn’t mean they had an easy path to get there. There is something we can learn from just about everybody if we take enough time to see them.


      • Jane
        Jane says:

        Your electricity was turned off because you chose to buy an expensive violin for your son, instead of paying the electricity bill. That is not the kind of financial “problem” the writer was talking about.

        • Bob
          Bob says:

          To be honest, this blog isn’t really targeted at that audience. It’s more targeted to middle class, general business graduate demographics (ie. marketing, HR, etc).

          You might’s well complain this blog doesn’t offer suitable advice for mercenary armoured vehicle gunners or freelance spies!

          Also I was a working class graduate who got an internship. Not everyone has to intern with Google or the WSJ. Heaps of smaller businesses are happy to take on interns, and you’ll even learn more there, rather than just fetching coffee and photocopying.

          • Carole
            Carole says:

            I got an unpaid internship with a public television station and was basically a news segment producer, finding stories, pitching them to the showrunner, researching what to shoot and why, finding experts to interview, then telling the correspondent what the story was about and the crew what to shoot.

            Didn’t get paid, but HOLY COW, for a 20 year old kid to be handed the reins like that? Amazing.

  4. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I think you are wrong and I think this is particularly bad advice for anybody wanting to enter the science, technology, engineering or math fields. In 20 years time it will still be large companies that provide the bulk of employment in the US and they are still going to be looking for the majority of their hires to have a relevant degree. Sure, you’ll still find individual stories of unconventional paths but it’s mistake to extrapolate from those stories because the vast majority of people are conventional (which doesn’t mean that their lives are any less interesting).

    Can a college education be cheaper? Absolutely. There’s no reason why undergraduates should be expected to subsidize pure research conducted by universities or for 7 figure salaries paid to sports coaches. But there will continue to be no substitute for the breadth of basic knowledge and proof of personal motivation that a college degree conveys to a busy hiring manager in a single line of text on a resume.

    • Raymond Duke
      Raymond Duke says:

      I am sorry, but you are wrong. It is not large companies that are supplying the bulk of employment in the USA – it is smaller startup companies.


      The major highlight from the study:

      • The study reveals that, both on average and for all but seven years between 1977 and 2005, existing firms (i.e., large companies) are net job destroyers, losing 1 million jobs net combined per year. By contrast, in their first year, new firms add an average of 3 million jobs. In 2005, 3.5 million jobs were created from startups, while 1 million jobs were lost from existing firms.

      Existing companies are shedding jobs in every way possible because they are suffering from a failure to innovate. It is the newer companies (startups that are 1-3 years old) that are hiring. While I agree that STEM is important, committing yourself to a college degree (and the debt associated with it) is not the end up be all answer anymore. You are better off pursuing your interests on your own – away from the curriculum and other burdens of academia.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        the size of the company does not reflect the expertise, knowledge or technical knowledge you need to work there.

    • GB506
      GB506 says:

      Andrew said: “But there will continue to be no substitute for the breadth of basic knowledge and proof of personal motivation that a college degree conveys to a busy hiring manager in a single line of text on a resume.”

      Even though I have 19 years of award-winning experience in my area (digital marketing), this week I’ve twice been prevented from having my resume presented to hiring managers due to the fact that I lack a college degree. The person responsible for hiring doesn’t even know I exist due to the fact that I failed to complete my degree 20 years ago. My competence and motivation is plainly evident based on my professional accomplishments.

      If I had a degree in nursing (or insert superfluous discipline here) these two people would have seen my credentials, yet nursing has nothing to do with digital marketing whatsoever, and the accomplishment of having earned a degree would clearly be eclipsed by what I’ve produced over the past two decades.

      So I’m torn about Penelope’s advice. On one hand, I want to believe it’s possible to bypass the mess that is higher ed today. On the other hand, there are a lot of individuals and organizations that are running on auto pilot (or maybe simply displaying elitism) as it pertains to the degree requirement.

    • signal7
      signal7 says:

      I pretty much agree with your comment. The evidence chosen for this article points to a relatively small number of people who got lucky by not going to a college. When I look at the job board where I work, most positions *require* an appropriate degree. Furthermore, the pay grade associated with those positions is directly correlated with the requisite degree.

      I’ve personally known people without a degree and they’re stuck making a lot less money than me. It doesn’t matter how smart or capable they are. The stigma is that if you didn’t go to college, you didn’t work hard enough to deserve the additional pay. That stigma isn’t going away.

  5. Paul Hassing
    Paul Hassing says:

    Hi, P. I agree with much of what you say. In my ten-year human resources career, I placed hundreds of young people in myriad roles. Whether it was the 15-year-old work experience schoolboy in the office or the 21-year-old uni graduate in her first factory engineering role, I saw a very strong correlation between prior real-world experience and subsequent success in the job. A corollary of this was that students with ‘cheaper’ university degrees that involved workplace experience totally ran rings around their contemporaries from expensive, blue-blooded institutions whose curricula were class-based only.

  6. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    I can relate to this post because I had an internship during my senior year of high school. I was able to leverage that internship experience to differentiate myself in the college admissions process, get additional internships during my freshman and sophomore years when everyone else was waiting until junior year to get them. An internship in high school is extremely valuable and can set you up for success later. I’m the product of getting as much internship experience as early in your career as possible. I graduated with 8 internships and my own small business into a full-time job and eventually became an entrepreneur. The skills I developed in high school I still use today. Great post Penelope!

  7. Marie
    Marie says:

    Eh, maybe in America, maybe in careers other than engineering/law/medicine, and even then only where the parents are sufficiently well-educated to educate their kids.

    In my country, with 30% unemployment and another 30% of people performing unskilled jobs, it has been generally recognised that decent high school and college is people’s only ticket out of poverty. Only 5% of those with tertiary qualifications are unemployed.

  8. Jane T.
    Jane T. says:

    Why, then, are you planning to have your kids spend a year studying for the SAT?

    Why do you say that being Latino and playing instruments and living in a rural area will help them get into college or get a scholarship?

    Is it a question of do as you say, not as you do?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      First of all, I think education in this country is moving way too fast for any parent to be consistent in their views, unless they are doing nothing but sending their kid to public school.

      Here is my post about how it’s impossible to be consistent if you refuse to buy into the myth that kids need school:

      Also, though, I am all for going to college if you absolutely need to – for a some STEM careers, some music careers, etc. And school seems like a decent choice if you get into a top-ten college on a full scholarship because it’s a good credential. It’s just that so few kids can get in that it’s not worth discussing.


      • JT
        JT says:

        Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me:

        1. If your kids don’t get into a “top ten” school, it sounds like you’ll recommend they skip college. Does this mean they’ll pass on Georgetown, Haverford, or Stanford even if they have something your child really wants–like a stellar cello program?

        2. If college is a waste a time, why waste four years to get a credential? I thought that internships and work experience were the best way to go.

        3. Honestly, I don’t think it’s about consistency. I think it’s about saying one thing, and doing another.

        4. Top ten colleges have plenty of kids with perfect SATs. They don’t choose the kids with virtually no transcript–no AP biology, math, english or language, for example, because they can choose kids with both.

  9. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    We need school so parents can work and not take care of their kids!? So parents should not work and simply take care of their kids? Sign me up, will you buy me food, meds and health insurance? I read your article on marrying a breadwinner, some don’t what now?

    • Michelle
      Michelle says:

      Now you punt.

      Determine whether your local public schools are just warehouses for children, or environments crafted to give your kids room to explore, learn, and grow. The early years are vital. You are free to squander them, or do what it takes to make the most of these years for your unique children.

      There’s no benefit to killing the messenger just because the news is bad and the reality is daunting.

      • Andy
        Andy says:

        Not sure what you mean by “now you punt”. But I hope you didnt mean me, her husband. Not all of us can marry a meal ticket and live on a farm. That doesnt mean we are doing a bad job of raising our children. Don’t shoot the messenger!

        • Michelle
          Michelle says:

          The problem Penelope points out is near universal in the U.S. The solutions however need to be tailored to your particular circumstances, and each reader is in the best position to determine what those are – the circumstances (childrens’ needs, interests and goals; personal and other resources; and time frames) the priorities, and therefore the solutions. That’s what I mean by “now you punt.”

  10. rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel
    rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel says:

    i have mixed feelings about this. I am not a brilliant entrepreneur. Four years of high school are a waste for sure, I should have left in three. I was done by the fourth year. I do believe I needed college to help me get jobs. I also have worked since I was 16 and worked very hard to get a good internship in my last year of college which was the gateway to a great job. “Back in the day” state college in California cost only a couple hundred a semester. The books were more. I had friends who went to private universities, and I know for a fact, I have done absolutely fine without spending giant dollars. And, finally, I committed the ultimate Penelope mistake… I went to graduate school. BUT, I did it at night, while working, and it was an MBA and a BRAND name expensive school… and I didn’t do it with debit either. The brand name school has opened doors and made a difference in my life. I have a son and I really want him to go to college without debt and I want him to work while he is doing it at internships or whatever … but I want him to get a degree in something he is interested in because the four years are a grind, and if you aren’t somewhat intrigued by the material in general, it will be pretty awful. But I worry that college will suck the life out of him so I hope he doesn’t try to hard for good grades. C’s and B’s are fine.

  11. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Starting a career is one thing but I think it’s also important to understand how you approach finding a great job within a company you already work for or just started working for. Too often people get stuck in entry level jobs and don’t have the career development strategies or plans to move forward! That’s something most colleges don’t cover with you!

  12. Jane
    Jane says:

    It’s great that these children learned to use their ipads so fast without a teacher. I wonder how much more quickly and thoroughly they may have learned it *with* teacher.

    In the same way your son learns cello. Why should he have a teacher to speed his learning but not them?

    • Carole
      Carole says:

      It’s great that these children learned to use their ipads so fast without a teacher. I wonder how much more quickly and thoroughly they may have learned it *with* teacher.

      Yes, because 58-year-old Edna McGillicuddy in homeroom is just SO ASTUTE at new technology. She’s just SO much more hip to Snapchat and app-building than her 16-year-old class. How EVER would those kids manage new technology without her?

      • JT
        JT says:

        Why would she be teaching such a class? At our school, computer professionals (straight out of industry) are hired to teach the children and the teachers. It’s amazing what my kids know about technology.

        Plus, teachers get constant–constant– professional development about technology.

      • JT
        JT says:

        Actually, I was talking about the Ethiopian children. They have never had a teacher, and P’s post says they don’t ever need one (they can learn on their own).

        At the same time, she drives long hours so her kids can have the best teachers available.

        I don’t understand the contradiction, or why we should ask desperately poor Ethiopian children to just “wing it” and assume (conveniently) that this is the best way for them (though not our kids, of course)

  13. Alan
    Alan says:

    Well, college ruined my life too. But even after college some people are illiterate, and we do have to teach people to read and write and stuff. Unless we want the country to be ruled by people that actors and musicians tell the mob to vote for.

    All posts like these are relevant to kinds who are geniuses, but you’d be surprised how many kids aren’t geniuses.

  14. me
    me says:

    Junior High was like a concentration camp for me, and high school barely better.

    At 52, I feel I’m only now barely recovering from the trauma.

    Our education system is INSANE. It’s essentially CHILD ABUSE.

    • Jennifer Busick
      Jennifer Busick says:

      Amen to this. Just yesterday, I said something in passing about the last time I ever rode the school bus, and then had to tell my (homeschooled, never been on a school bus) daughter the whole story — about girls being molested by the boys on the bus while the bus driver pretended not to see. Just one more incident of violence that no one cared to do anything about. I am so glad I am out of that gulag. I am so glad my girls have never been in it.

    • A
      A says:

      Yep! I totally agree! Even if blatant abuse isn’t suffered, the public schooling system makes dull the minds of children and creates droves of coddled people who can’t think or act independently. To get internships at a young age a child must have that independent confidence that usually only children who have had to “make it on their own,” from a young age have. How do we instill this independent confidence to a wider range of children, regardless of privilege level or other factors?

  15. Amy
    Amy says:

    I have a college degree, but it’s not in my chosen field. My husband has an undergraduate in Fine Arts but works as an IT business analyst/web programmer. We really didn’t need either of those degrees to get where we are today.

    We’re also self-employed and homeschooling. Our little girl just turned seven and knows more than I ever will about animals–identification, habits, geographical origins, care (she has a book on how to feed, care and treat orphaned, abandoned or injured animals–geared toward adults–that she likes to read in bed most nights).

    She wants to run a wildlife rehabilitation facility when she grows up, and I’m fairly certain she is further along in developing this interest and achieving her goals than she would be in a public school first grade class…

    I think a traditional education leading to a traditional career and a conventional lifestyle is fine for those who want it, but I’d rather work from home and be with my kids, travel and just generally live life on my own terms.

    I love that you encourage people to think outside the box and decide for themselves what works best. Even if it’s not the “normal” way of doing things.

  16. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    Hi Penelope,

    The Ethiopia example is brilliant but the best bit is whereyou recommend leaning out and finding your own path. People think it’s safer and easier to follow the herd but it’s not. Doing your own thing will mke you stand out in a good way.

  17. Maia
    Maia says:

    I wish I knew this before I wasted loads of time and money in college!
    I do believe that college is important if you’re doing something specialised like medicine, law or engineering. But most people in the West do humanities subjects that really they don’t need to have in the fields they want to work in and where having the work experience instead would have been better for them.
    Although in my country – Czech Reoublic, having a degree still give you some sort of social status and people love using titles there in front of their names. But now living in London, this is not the case at all, and I think this will also be the case elsewhere soon enough.

  18. Paris
    Paris says:

    As a 20 something I’ve never liked Linkedin. I’m not alone in this, many people agree that it caters more to the experienced people with 5-10 years of experience and CEOs. I’m currently in the process of changing careers without going through any formal education (still paying the undergrad loans) and I had to delete all my previous professional experience. I didn’t like Linkedin even before I changed my career. Granted, I had less than 1 year of experience in my past profession but now it is almost completely empty. That being said, a Linkedin presence is a must these days so what I’ll do is put a huge application to show my portfolio (I’m in the design profession), after that I’ll list my skills and seek endorsements for those, add a couple of recommendations from clients since I don’t have a boss or coworkers and push the experience section down further. College education will be at the very bottom since it proved to be completely useless and now irrelevant. I’m really intimidated by others’ Linkedin profiles and whenever I browse people’s profiles I get depressed and feel worthless. I hate it. Hopefully my personal website and blog will get more attention than my Linkedin profile.

    • Michelle
      Michelle says:

      Thanks for this advice. I’m in a similar position and was unsure of how to handle the bind about LinkedIn. I have a non-linear work history with nothing that looks like a long term commitment to a single employer, a lot of accolades, accomplishments, and a strong and broad skill base. Your advice gives me an idea of how to approach LinkedIn when I next sit down to clean up the mess that is my profile.

      • Paris
        Paris says:

        You’re welcome.

        “I have a non-linear work history with nothing that looks like a long term commitment to a single employer”
        I’m in the exact same situation. It is not because I can’t commit to an employer, it is in fact the opposite but so far I couldn’t find an employer I’m compatible with both in terms of job requirements and office culture. I’ll make an in depth search about employers from now on instead jumping at the first opportunity presented to me. Actually the main reason I decided to put up a blog is show my personality and communication style. Not everyone who will read my blog will like my thoughts but I can form a stronger bond with those who like them.

        Good luck with your job search.

        • A
          A says:

          I’ve had two or three jobs that were great on paper but have left them to fulfill a personal dream, partially because I also struggle with finding any sort of compatible fit when it comes to office culture. I’m from a closed-off midwestern state where everyone stays at their job, keeps their head down, works hard, and never asks questions. If you aren’t a mediocre yes-man you’re screwed. When I came back to my state this last time I realized that due to the unconventional choices I’ve made there is no place for me here anymore, and that the corporate world doesn’t value my non-traditional experience, even though I’ve clearly proven myself capable of getting the type of corporate gigs people deem desirable. Luckily I’ve just been admitted to business school at a top university, an endeavor I know Penelope is against, but I’m hoping that gets me to where I need to be. Anyway, I relate to basically not fitting in anywhere – that’s what I’m trying to say.

          • MLW
            MLW says:

            I’m in the same boat – too much time in a Midwestern, former steel town, where the culture in the big employers is a cross between Madmen and The Twilight Zone. The jobs I’ve kept have been low paying with crappy titles, because that’s largely what the town’s economy and culture had available. Which is ultimately why I left, but I should have left 15 years earlier (and would have, if not for my marriage). f I had known then what I know now, I would have taken one of the many opportunities I had to leave, instead of thinking there was something I could do to find a good fit there. If I put that tenure on my résumé, I look like an admin assistant with a law degree. If I don’t, if I organize my resume by projects and accomplishments, I run the risk of looking like I have no staying power. So how do I frame my many accomplishments on diverse small projects as a coherent story of someone who gets the job done with “resiliance and grit.” The people who know me and work with me are willing to refer me to their networks, but I still find it challenging to craft my résumé as a succinct and coherent story and feel bottlenecked at that part of the process.

  19. Mitesh
    Mitesh says:


    I am desperate to change careers as I left high school without any good grades and all my life I have fleeted from one job to the next, never thinking about the future. Now that I am 33 in serious need to change my jobs, I work as a cleaner and a cashier to make ends meet. Life is a struggle for me, any advice on how I can change this late in life

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The answer is the same for you as for most people who are stuck: you have to do two jobs at one time. Do a job you hate that pays you enough to survive, and do a job for free that will give you experience you need to get a job you like. When people ask you what you do, you tell them the job you are doing for free, not the job you are doing for pay. Just that moment, where you tell people what you do, starts to change how you think about yourself and you start believing that things will change.


      • Marie
        Marie says:

        I think this is the best advice you can give, Penelope, that you are what you say and believe yourself to be. This profound shift occurred for me day two of your “Dream Job” seminar. It’s changed my view of everything including what I thought was a dead-end job.

        Coincidentally, it was in the chat room after Melissa looked at my resume and suggest I change my title and wham! Now I see the advantages of my skill set and the wonderful, mentoring manager I have in a different light. This has moved me three steps from my dream job, rather than the kazillion was thinking including another degree.

        Proof of this occurred last week at a tech conference I wasn’t planning on attending but your seminar gave me crazy swagger so I went. During the network session instead of hiding in the bathroom, I approached a few of the panelist whose talk I enjoyed. They were so nice and gave me good advice on breaking into their field.

        Curiously, they all had Twitter accounts and suggest I contact them there. Thus proving again how ahead of the curve you are…email is dead people!

        Thanks Penelope!

        Money well spent and paying dividends.

  20. tia
    tia says:

    I am going to start a business! Your blog has been just the continuous nudge I need to break away form the I hate my job and I can’t find aother one cycle. I have been in the collee educated working jobs that dot feed my passion trap for years and finding this blog peaked my interest in looking back at my highest form of my self. While I have been making excuse after excuse of what need more of I am committed to getting started. Thank you so much and hopefully soon I can afford a session with you to get some coaching and more tailored info.
    Until then, thank you for your insight and shameless refusal to compromise your position.

  21. Mark
    Mark says:

    Many things, such as the fact that so many going to college looking for post-college jobs is modern and difficult for a society to absorb, that even two students getting an A are not the same, some approach school and work it the same as they pursue a job and internships, extended adolescents is a modern invention – all are parts of a larger transformation. Society itself is on a freefall into the future. There is no one answer, but for many, Penelope’s point is valid and maybe not something they’ve yet considered.

  22. Carole
    Carole says:

    Yes, kids who want to be doctors will need college.

    They will also need anti-depressants to keep from killing themselves when they discover what it’s actually like to practice medicine in 21st century America.

  23. E'Tramiane Zenckehardt
    E'Tramiane Zenckehardt says:

    Penelope brings up great points and I’m glad she’s speaking up on this topic. I’ve been railing on about some of them for a while. However, I don’t 100% agree with her or some of the commenters.

    Those saying they had to study things they didn’t want to in high school or college need to step back a bit — if you weren’t made to take certain subjects, you might never get any exposure to them. That could hinder you in two ways: 1) less breadth of knowledge and 2) might be missing out on something you’d end up liking.

    Dealing with the second point first, as an undergrad I was adamant I would never study business. I later grew to like it and took graduate level classes in it. Just because you don’t like something now doesn’t mean you won’t later. No learning is useless. However, I do concede that school isn’t the only way to acquire knowledge. Still, for many jobs and even entrepreneurial opportunities a degree, certification, etc. quantifies what knowledge you gained.

    I didn’t really like my marketing classes. However, it’s still good to have some exposure to the concepts.

    I think college can be great for the social aspects, the opportunity to network with other students and teachers, to get inside tracks on internships, and for being exposed to new ideas. It does fail on many levels though, such as actual job skill prep (but should it do that or leave that to trade schools anyway?), job placement and career services, and life skill education.

    Worse, college can be crippling in costs.

    I think the key is not to be overly worried about grades while there, network as much as you can while there, and go to an affordable school. AND DON’T GO TO COLLEGE UNLESS YOU WANT TO! If you don’t, get jobs, go to a trade school (much less of a time commitment — see this article about certification ), try to start your own business, etc. But don’t go just to postpone responsibility or to please others. That’s where Penelope is right. Also, don’t go to grad school unless you really need to (as in a doctor must go to med school) or are absolutely sure you want to. It’s a waste of time and money otherwise and in the zero sum game you’re missing out on experience and income while there.

    The paradigms are changing with the Internet. Old walls are falling and new opportunities arising. It’s the virtual equivalent of the old American western frontier: tons of open land and opportunity awaits those bold enough to venture out and take the risk. Don’t listen to those who don’t fully understand current circumstances and instead expect you to stick to the linear education and career paths of the past!

  24. Nico
    Nico says:

    I agree with this. I got a lot out of college (which I did not finish) but not out of *class*. I learned from things lying about and then made a fabulous career out of it. The value of college then was the opportunity to see things I wouldn’t have at home. That was in the early days of the web. Imagine now!

  25. Ari
    Ari says:

    FYI, the story about selling dividends in future earnings (Sarah Hanson) has been exposed as a hoax…not that it is relevant to the overall thrust of your post.

    Check out Teen 2.0 by Robert Epstein…it is thoroughly researched backing for the unschooling take on adolescence…in some sense the practical elaboration of my favorite book by John Holt, “Escape from Childhood”, which basically calls for society to stop using age as a proxy for competence, and instead use…(shocking idea)…demonstrated competence as a measure of competence…

  26. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Thanks for this! I’m a recent liberal arts college grad and while I think it was useful in many ways, I definitely benefited from internships as much as classes.

    Penelope, you should look into the Startup Institute. They are an eight week long boot-camp-like classes for a shift into the startup world. They really embrace this hands-on learning stuff.

  27. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    Ms Trunk: You crazy blasphemous bitch! ( i mean this with all do respect). Are you ever afraid that the Higher Education Industry is ever going to show up and get you. I’m 60 i went to college on the G.I. bill. It seemed like a good idea at the time and i did it on the cheap. I now run into young people who regret college. One such person works at the place i get coffee I told them I felt the same way but with a different view. It wasn’t just the money,it was the time. You won’t get the four years back. You can have many adventures in that time and make some bucks too.

    • Denys
      Denys says:

      Looking back on history, I think the GI bill wasn’t about job training – although we certainly needed a lot of bodies to run the new military complex we set up – but more about transitioning a generation of young men back into society. PTSD isn’t unique to our times; we just have a name for it now. There was no organized effort for returning soldiers after WWI and the effect on families was harsh.

  28. Dave
    Dave says:

    College classrooms are full of bored kids surfing facebook to kill time waiting for the semester to be over so they can take the exam. Imagine instead colleges required you to satisfy the first two years requirements on your own before entering a 2-year bachelors program with a 6-12 month “practicum.” In that world, you might have young people doing much of what you recommend on their own, while they learn what they need at their own pace, then go take some exam that admits them to what is now the junior year of college.

    I don’t think the completely do-it-yourself approach is going to work for everyone. Most people do not want to be entrepreneurs; they want a path, they want predictability, they want stability. Perhaps the current system is totally broken and stability is illusory, but it does not automatically mean the alternatives you advocate are any better.

  29. Minni
    Minni says:

    Great post! I had my last exam in my first year of college today, & I am already at $16,000 in debt. By the time I finish a four year degree, I will be $71,000 with interest. the $25,000 that I’d pay in interest could pay for many vacations, or even a downpayment on my own home. Which is more important to me than pursuing a college degree in HOPES of getting a good job. Plus, out 8 months of full-time study, I haven’t learned anything that is valuable, besides what I read in textbooks that I can purchase on my own. If I was going to school for maths/sciences, I could see the student debt paying itself off, however I am human services (pays about 50,000 in Canada, so not too bad), however the debt won’t pay off in this field. I’d rather be working and gain practical experience that burying my head in a book only to regurgitate information for an exam that I will never remember again. It’s worthless. Now, on to convincing potential employers of this!

  30. Titi
    Titi says:

    When I volunteer with students, my goal is to help them develop critical thinking skills for some of the many points P is making here.

    It does not matter how many facts a student can simply regurgitate for a test and simply forget a day later. What matters is that we teach students how to seek answers to the questions they are asking, and how to think critically and digest the information they received to come to their own conclusions.

    These skills are needed regardless of your social economic status.

    While I’m not 100% about telling students to skip college (undergrad at least), I agree that hands-on work experience has proven to be more valuable than the curriculum we are currently offering students in high school and in college.

    Perhaps if we do major educational reform to focus more gaining and enhancing the skills students will need to excel in today’s world (critical thinking, personal marketing, money management, ect ) in addition to including internships as a way to gain hands on experience, we will start to make some progressive strides in our education system.

  31. My Department Plan, business budgeting software
    My Department Plan, business budgeting software says:

    Penelope, I’m a newcomer to your blog, and I’m struck by your ability to hone in on our society’s fixation with traditional avenues of success in life. We’ve come to see high school and college as the utmost means to the end: a career, only to have students spit out on the other end of their long educational journey with few professional skills and little to no direction after being governed by syllabi for so long.

    I’m not quite so skeptical as you on the benefits of the traditional path, although I completely see the point – I recently graduated from a liberal arts institution this December. Thankfully I finished my courseload a semester early to save in tuition and was also awarded a National Merit Scholarship, which helped tuition to be less. During college I had two internships (journalism and marketing-focused) and various work experiences on-campus that gave me a foundation for further career exploration. Now I am working an entry-level marketing job and am excited to explore all the paths ahead.

    I do not regret going to high school or college one bit. The benefits of education go beyond simply preparing yourself for a career – they prepare you for life. I developed intellect, career skills, writing skills, and thinking skills in college, but I also grew spiritually, developed lifelong friendships, learned how to manage my student career, and learned how to take advantage of my school’s resources and opportunities.

    I still think traditional paths can be used to your advantage, provided the student doesn’t blindly follow the educational path and expect a job will be waiting on the other side.

    Thanks for this post!

  32. Priscilla
    Priscilla says:

    This is more in response to the comments, not the post. Where did everyone else go to school? Everyone is bragging how they could’ve finished school sooner since it was crud to them, I guess they’re the lucky few that information is understood so quickly (man I wish I had that skill). While I do think middle school was a but of a waste, in high school I had a few great teachers that were inspiring and taught me to work creatively with students. I was with smart kids too in cerain classes and their abilities pushed me to always work hard to hopefully be at their level. In college I had a few professors that I really enjoyed hearing their lectures and I even started to see a push for more realistic curricul when I took a class utilizing technology (English major here, can’t do much with supposedly). Now that I’m out I wish I had pursued something different so that it fits with a career I’d want, but I wouldn’t take back the experience I got from college and high school. As an introvert, I’m not about traveling around the world and gaining experience in an unconventional way. If at this time jobs require you have a degree and had x amount of experience, I’m glad I at least have one thing under my belt. I need safety nets and reassurance, I need the world to change first before I travel a path unfamiliar to the rest of the workforce. I might be getting a low salary, but I’m getting what I’m getting because I have a degree. Pardon any typos, replied on my phone.

  33. Tara
    Tara says:

    >Young people are selling stock in themselves – paying out dividends for decades at a time.

    Finding someone to sponsor and take care of you so you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, isn’t a particular new idea in my experience. Is there a high price to be paid in return? Let’s see how this turns out!

  34. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    A couple of thoughts.
    1) This post applies to only a few kids. Penelope presumes that teens and young adults have the wherewithal, focus and drive to actually do anything but be totally narcissistic and pleasure-seeking. To be fair I was one of those focused kids, born primarily of necessity (Dad had no $$). So I started working at 14,I got work study in my major and pay jobs in the service sector which was great training ground for the “real world”. Then I started a little consultancy while I looked for more stable work. But upwards of 80% of my peers put not one thought into such things until we were graduating college. I was definitely 3 standard deviations off the norm (most kids don’t even know what the hell that means). So was Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or anyone else who built something on their own. In other words, deep into “rare” territory.
    2) What the above implies is that the family of origin has a significant role in fostering work ethic, coping skills and focus required to execute on the “alternative path.” How depends on the kid and their interests, but discipline can be fostered by design or inadvertently. And discipline is the most critical element in the methods that Penelope suggests.
    3) HR professionals are still gatekeepers to a lot of jobs, particularly in corporate. And corporate is not really going anywhere, meaning that the whol structure of industry will continue to evolve but not devolve into some deconstructed free-for-all. As long as economies of skills exist and profit is king, corps will have a place. This matters because, as gatekeepers to the corporate job, HR professionals tend to be risk-adverse, looking for “exact” fits. The traditional resume still matters a lot, as evidenced by the proliferation of resume-writing services and all the focus we are advised to place on them.
    4) School (yes, the general, painful sausage-making, soul-destroying kind) is enormously important in teaching us how to prevail against stupidities that will be emulated in every area of one’s life as an adult. Not everything is going to be as we want it, and school is a good place to learn that while maintaining your creativity and individuality. It is a “boot camp”, yes, but life is not easy.
    5) Career satisfaction is totally overrated. I spent 20 years chasing career ideals. I have no regrets and I moved pretty high up the food chain (c-suite by age 40), but I am jettisoning the whole thing now because I realize that my true currencies are not money, but freedom and time. Money is a means to get there, and a career can be good enough, meaning, fitting well within other priorities and concerns. Fitting well enough without being a burden, too demanding, etc. You can simply like your job “enough” and fill your life with many other more important things of value. I think it is a sign of personal development and maturity when people consider this balance. And I don’t mean jobs that fit into a “lifestyle” (Millennials, read this closely). I mean jobs that are regular jobs that people need done, within the normal constraints, that you like well enough but not too well to be consumed. Well enough that you can be focused on other features of your life that money will permit. The problem is that too often people try to merge the two, making all kinds of unrealistic demands for a pleasurable work experience. If it was always pleasurable, they’d call it something other than work. A fair workplace is different–fair meaning humane–appropriate wages, leave for life necessities and so on. A fun workplace is sometimes possible, sometimes not, and it is incumbent on the individual to strike that balance.

    More relevant than anything listed in the blog in terms of career success are the following abilities: –a very specific, specialized set of skills, i.e., the sciences, where traditional academia really applies AND/OR –an ability to present oneself well verbally, written and in person AND the ability to network. This yields the most opportunities.

    • Jennifer Busick
      Jennifer Busick says:

      I suppose I ought to stop being surprised when people say things like this, but I still just can’t fathom this attitude:

      “School (yes, the general, painful sausage-making, soul-destroying kind) is enormously important in teaching us how to prevail against stupidities that will be emulated in every area of one’s life as an adult. Not everything is going to be as we want it, and school is a good place to learn that while maintaining your creativity and individuality. It is a “boot camp”, yes, but life is not easy.”

      Of course I was told while I was in school, over and over again, that being subjected to constant harassment, made to do pointless busywork, and even being regularly assaulted was “good for me.” Folks, enduring prolonged grinding abuse is not analogous to eating your vegetables! It’s not good for anybody!

  35. Mike
    Mike says:

    Sorry, but this is a bull article. Now that I’m part of the hiring process, if we have a candidate that:

    – doesn’t offer education in needed field AND
    – only has entry level internship experience AND
    – can only show some startup failed projects for their background AND
    – refuses to show their qualifications in linear and concise way

    their resume/CV will go directly in the trash. Their uniqueness and smug sense of self worth can pay their bills.

  36. Swim with the Dolphin Man
    Swim with the Dolphin Man says:

    I have to admit my college experience did prepare me to start my own business. I graduated with a hospitality degree from FIU in South Florida and it was a positive experience. The one thing I think everyone should serve our country before making the college decision, either military or non- military (peace corp)

  37. Christy
    Christy says:

    Did you know Rush talked about this article on his show today. It was cool. I like your article, thanks for sharing your opinion.

  38. Karen
    Karen says:

    I really enjoyed this article, but the hard part for me is how it operates once you get outside of employment in the business world or into professions with licensing credentials (which seems like everything from doctors to carpenters, etc. these days). It seems that the same government which wants us to send our kids to their compliance factories (I.e. schools), also has a vested interest in setting and keeping degree and formal training requirements in the licensing of many professions. The easy answer is “just don’t pick those careers,” but there are plenty of people for which licensed careers are a good match. Do you have suggestions for people who want to go I
    into to those sorts of careers?

    Also, after having worked in government for several years, I can confidently say that much of the hiring there, below the executive level, still relies on linear progression. Enter at this job, move to this one, etc., all while having the right degree. Career bureaucracy at its finest. I find it totally suffocating, but many people that I work with don’t seem to mind it at all. Still, some people’s career interests lie in areas where the government is the primary or best source of employment. (Public safety jobs come to mind, for instance.) Are there ways for people to follow those career interests and still be able to follow some of your advice?

    One interesting thing about these government jobs: once you get into executive level government positions (Executive agency leaders, etc.), the rules all change and look more like what you are talking about – your experience can be nonlinear; you just need to know the right people. There are occasional “inexperience scandals” (remember the guy who was running FEMA during Hurricane Katrina?), but otherwise people who aren’t specialized in the area of have the right background are able to get and hold theses positions without total disaster occurring.

  39. Randy Bennett
    Randy Bennett says:

    I, too, heard about you from listening to Rush Limbaugh today and was glad he talked about you and your ideas. I’m retired military, taught high school for almost two years and then became HR Manager for retail business.

    Your thinking is right on que! What I believe is missing from high schools is trade classes. Technical Schools are excellent options and good starting in less time it take for 4yr colleges.

    Yes, some still may have “shop” or “auto repair” classes but the school system needs to start their own business by opening up a real auto repair shop or small construction business.

    May sound far fetched, but these could be “feeder schools” straight to corporate America or to technical schools for specialized degrees.

    Bottom line, our high schools have all but forgotten the trade school route.

  40. JOB
    JOB says:

    Great blog!

    Some people talk of HR as if they are the HOLY GRAIL for finding great candidates! Puh-lease! I’ve witnessed HR hiring practices, and while qualified applicants may look good on paper, these goons miss it completely when it comes to a person’s character, integrity, etc., etc.! It’s amazing how many drunks, psycho’s, con artists, and the unheallthy get hired for top jobs! Not to mention, and including, those who don’t show up regularly for work, or are late, or worse, they waste company money by playing games on the internet!

    • GB506
      GB506 says:

      JOB said: “It’s amazing how many drunks, psycho’s, con artists, and the unheallthy get hired for top jobs! Not to mention, and including, those who don’t show up regularly for work, or are late, or worse, they waste company money by playing games on the internet!”

      They learn how to be drunks, psychos and internet fiddlers while in college! LOL!

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