What the f*** should I do with my career? Develop unique, marketable skills

On December 9, 2012 by Andy Bandy Man

“Should I become a baseball player? Join the Army? No, maybe I’ll become a pirate”


Many of my friends have recently left their jobs to try to “figure out what they really want to do.” I applaud them for having the guts to quit a job they dislike / hate / grew out of. Most of us will be stuck working for another 40+ years, so may as well find something we enjoy.

But how can you find that elusive dream job? I think an important part of finding career happiness and financial security comes from developing unique, marketable skills. Here’s why:

  • Being good at what you do is a huge factor in job happiness. According to Cal Newport: ”The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up.”
  • With a marketable skill, you can easily quit a job because you are “recession proof” – you can either freelance, or find another job where you will immediately be a valuable contributor to the team. Even though it sounds romantic to quit your job to travel the world or write a screenplay, it may be tough to jump back into the job market 12 months down the line… unless you have a marketable skill to help you get back in (I know this is a parent-like thing to say, but it’s usually true).


What are unique, marketable skills?

Charlie Hoehn says it well: “If your skill set on your resume consists of ‘Proficient in Microsoft Office,’ then you have no marketable skills. You need to have actual skills that are both in high demand (in your desired industry) and slightly difficult to learn.” Yep… being a “strong communicator” or “strategic thinker” doesn’t really cut it anymore.

Here are a few examples of unique, marketable skills:

  • Design – knowing the Adobe Creative Suite / Illustrator / Photoshop inside and out and having a portfolio of design work
  • Computer programming – fluency in a relevant language or web framework like Ruby on Rails or Django / Python. One of my entrepreneurial friends never has to worry about finding a steady job because he can make great money doing projects on elance.com or vWorker.com while he tries to get his ideas off the ground
  • Cooking - familiarity with all major cooking techniques, a repertoire of original recipes, and experience catering for a large party, wedding, or event (volunteer to do it at cost for your friends, just to gain the experience)
  • Internet Marketing – if you don’t have technical skills, there are still tons of opportunities to display unique skills – for example, it is becoming increasingly important for organizations to figure out how to get their voice heard on the Internet. Maybe you have proven experience in building an online audience (e.g., driving website traffic with targeted ads, using Google Analytics and other tools to identify the content and services your audience wants, building relationships with online “influencers”)


Developing marketable skills takes time!

Cal Newport writes: “Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: ‘Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?’ This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.”

I know many people that hop from job to job, project to project, undergrad to grad school, without developing any kind of unique, marketable skill. That is just poor planning! Most of the time, you will need at LEAST 2-3 years (sometimes 10) before you develop a skill to a point where you can get freelance work or be able to parlay your skill into a great job or entrepreneurial opportunity. Think ahead about what skills you’d enjoy and be good at, and then be deliberate in what you choose to spend your time on in school and at work.


How to acquire unique and marketable skills in your field of interest:

Clearly, the best place to pick up unique and marketable skills is at school or at your job. However, you can also learn the basics of pretty much anything for FREE or LOW COST on the Internet. The No Excuse List has compiled a solid directory of (mostly free) academic courses, computer language tutorials, etc. Alternatively, sites like Udemy, Lynda, and Skillshare offer courses at a cost.

If you are trying to break into a new field and don’t know where you start, here are some other ideas:
  • Build your personal brand with a blog: If you don’t have a lot of experience in your field of interest, a great way to help break into the field is to start a blog. By writing about things you are passionate about, you can get to know other people that care about the same things… and it’s a great way to show potential employers or clients your expertise and interest.
  • Contact masters in your field and offer to work on a specific project – for free: I recommend quickly flipping through Charlie Hoehn’s “The Recession Proof Graduate.” The main insight is to identify 10 or 15 people that could be inspirational mentors in your field of interest, and offer to work for them on a concrete project FOR FREE. Work your network to get an intro to them, or just send them a cold e-mail telling them about your relevant experience (or a link to your blog). Working for free gives you the opportunity to 1) learn a lot about a cool industry, 2) maybe get a paying job offer, and / or 3) if they don’t offer you a job, they can likely help recommend you to people that are doing the type of work you want to be doing.

NOTE ON WORKING FOR FREE: Generally, if you are working or interning for a regular old company, you should ALWAYS ask for payment. ALWAYS. It will help ensure that you get meaty and interesting things to work on (otherwise, they will ask you to clean the toilet). But, if you are really trying to  break into a new industry where you have no experience, Charlie is right – offer to do one specific project for free just to get your foot in the door… but demand payment after you’ve proven yourself (or quit immediately if it’s not right for you).



Maybe it’s obvious that developing unique, marketable skills is a wise thing to do. But when I was in college and a few years out of school, I thought that getting good grades and good performance reviews at work was all I needed to do, and eventually I would land my “dream job” (or become a CEO, or maybe a billionaire… or a chef. Or a musician).

The truth is, most people I know that are satisfied and happy in their careers in their 30′s are the ones that specialized and chose a unique, marketable skill.  They became good at their work, and as a result enjoy their jobs. This is not to say that if you decided to be an accountant at age 20, you are stuck doing it for life; there are many opportunities to change specializations over the course of your career. But, I do believe that keeping the end goal in mind – developing a unique, marketable skill - will allow you to make more informed decisions when picking college classes, jobs, projects, graduate programs, and deciding how to efficiently spend your time.



Special thanks to @charliehoehn and Cal Newport – I borrowed heavily from them in writing this post.

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