office buildings under a blue sky . . . where you could get a job

I have gotten almost every job I’ve ever held in the standard way. First, I would submit a cover letter and resume. Next, I would wait to be invited to an interview. After the interview, I would send a thank-you note. Finally, I would wait for a phone call. At various key points in my life, I was fortunate enough to actually receive that phone call with a job offer. But this is not the only way to get a job! I was gobsmacked by the unconventional talents in job acquisition that Kurt Eichenwald displayed over his long career. Let’s examine how to get a job by using some nonstandard, Eichenwald-inspired techniques.

Background on Kurt Eichenwald

Kurt Eichenwald’s memoir A Mind Unraveled, published in 2018, chronicles his struggles with epilepsy. His story is much broader than just a discussion of a medical problem, though. He faces almost unsurmountable difficulties in navigating the health care industry, getting a college education, and launching the career he wants. These difficulties arise from not just the epilepsy and the medications for the epilepsy, but also the misunderstandings, negligence, and hostility of others. Through astounding persistence and ingenuity, Eichenwald is able to achieve his education and career goals.

For us readers, his memoir is a series of lessons on how to do things in boldly unconventional ways—either because life has thrown us a curveball and we have no options left, or because that’s just who we are.

Employment Strategy #1: Do a 2-Week Task in 5 Minutes

At an unpaid summer internship, Eichenwald is assigned a task that no one else wants to do. It’s a tedious task of locating a tiny scrap of information by placing a bunch of random phone calls. (This was before the days of the Internet.) Eichenwald invented what he thought might be an easier way to obtain the information. His strategy worked, and his supervisors were amazed. As a result, the supervisors assigned Eichenwald a complex, demanding project that gave him invaluable experience, not to mention fodder for his resume, which would help him get the paid job he wanted in the future.

Takeaway unconventional technique:

Don’t assume that you have to do an assignment in the way you were told to do it. And don’t ask permission to do something in an unconventional way; your supervisors will likely say no. As long as you’re not breaking any laws or important rules, just do it, and see if it works. If it doesn’t, you can always switch back to the conventional way.

Employment Strategy #2: Turn a Low-Level Volunteer Gig Into a High-Level One

Not yet having the credentials to get a paying job in the field he wanted, Eichenwald volunteered for a nonprofit. He applied for a particular volunteer position because it seemed vaguely related to what he wanted to get paid to do. The position, however, was at a low level; he would not obtain the experience he sought by staying in that role. But he realized that, once he got the position, he would have the chance to prove himself worthy of a high-level volunteer job. He did this by showing up uninvited to a meeting, presenting an interesting and workable proposal, and offering to do the work himself. His offer was accepted, and suddenly he was building skills and a powerful resume, by doing the job he wanted to get paid to do. Soon he would have the chops to apply for a paying job in that field.

Takeaway unconventional technique:

First, identify volunteer opportunities that are somewhat close to what you want to do. Next, get to know the paid staff, and let them know they can trust you. Then, instead of waiting to be invited to move up, make a bold proposal. Your proposal must be well thought out, and you must come across as highly competent to get the job done. Then get the job done.

Employment Strategy #3: Don’t Tell Them What They Don’t Need to Know

Eichenwald learned that it’s essential to tell the truth, but that the whole truth is not always conducive to achieving your career goals. For example, while working as a volunteer, while he still did not have a college degree, Eichenwald (as part of the high-level assignment he had talked himself into) needed to put pressure on people in government. He decided not to disclose the fact that he was an unpaid volunteer and a college student. While never telling a lie, he persuaded officials that he was a big enough deal that they should be frightened. As a result, he not only achieved his objective, but also received an offer from the mayor to join a new task force.

Later, when Eichenwald was applying for paid employment, he discovered that it was better not to disclose his epilepsy to hiring staff. If and when he got a job, he would let his supervisor know on the first day of work. This significantly increased the chances that he would be able to find a job. In some cases, telling his supervisor resulted in the employer trying to force him out. But even in those instances, he was able to work and receive pay for a short time, while resuming his job search. Plus, working somewhere, even for a short time, bulked up his resume.

Takeaway unconventional technique:

While never telling outright lies, strive to make people believe you are strong. Because you are. Maybe you have a health issue. Or maybe you don’t have a degree in the field in which you seek employment. Or maybe people jump to conclusions about who you are because of your age, a physical trait, or another characteristic. None of those things matter. If you know you can do the job, try to hide anything that might make someone turn you away.

On the other hand, if you know something will be an issue, disclose it . . . but wait to do so until it’s absolutely necessary.

Employment Strategy #4: Show Up and Start Working

Upon graduating from college, Eichenwald didn’t land an internship in his dream industry. So he took an internship for an organization in the same building as one of the organizations that had rejected him. At lunchtime one day, he wandered into the offices of the organization that had rejected him and asked someone if he needed help with a stack of papers. The person did not inquire whether Eichenwald actually worked there, but was glad for the assistance. And so Eichenwald began helping out before his internship began in the morning, during lunch break, and after his internship ended in the evening. When the boss finally noticed, weeks later, that Eichenwald was working without an internship, he got angry . . . but didn’t kick him out. Eichenwald had made himself too valuable. So he was allowed to stay on as an intern.

Takeaway unconventional technique:

When someone tells you no, push back. Find a way to make yourself valuable to the organization. Don’t ask permission, just do something helpful.

Employment Strategy #5: Reach Out and Be Available

When Eichenwald wanted to change jobs, he asked his colleagues for ideas on who might be hiring. He eventually acquired the name of a prominent person and gave him a call. The person told Eichenwald that he had no open jobs, but would be glad to meet him, the next time he happened to be in New York City. Eichenwald could have thanked him and hung up; instead, he told the person that he was scheduled to be in NYC the day after tomorrow! Two seconds prior to that, Eichenwald had not been scheduled to be in NYC on that day. But, at that point, of course, Eichenwald was scheduled to be in NYC on that day. Once they had arranged a meeting time and place and hung up, Eichenwald scrambled to come up with the money he needed to get himself to NYC by the day after tomorrow.

Takeaway unconventional technique:

Network like crazy—and with a goal in mind. Continually project competence and confidence to the people around you, and help them in any way you can. Then, when you seek a tip yourself, your network will be glad to help you. When you finally get in touch with someone with the power to hire you to your goal job, make things easy on that person—even if that makes things extremely difficult on you.

Employment Strategy #6: Enlist Others to Advocate for You

Eichenwald was in the running for a promotion: from coffee bringer, etc., to something much bigger. Things were looking promising, but then he heard a rumor that he was not going to get the promotion. Astonishingly, he had had the foresight to prepare a list of names and phone numbers, in case this happened. When it happened, he used it:

“I telephoned everyone at the Times who knew me or who owed me favors. . . . I asked each of them to call on my behalf to the boss of the editor about to hand down the bad news.”

The next day, an assistant managing editor called Eichenwald into his office:

“‘Congratulations,’ he said. . . . ‘You’re a reporter trainee for The New York Times.'”

Takeaway unconventional technique:

First, get yourself hired at the organization you want to work for, even if it’s the lowliest position there is. Next, meet everyone you can, and do them as many favors as possible. Finally, when it’s needed, call in those favors.

A Caveat on Getting a Job the Unconventional Way

The strategies listed in this article are risky! Each of them could have easily backfired. You need mad social skills, intellect, and confidence to pull them off. But there’s good news: social skills, intellect, and confidence are all teachable and learnable skills. If you possess these skills already, take them and run with them! If you don’t, I promise, you can learn them. It might take some time and dedication, but you can learn them. And, who knows? Acquiring these skills and putting them to use in unconventional ways might help you land your dream job one day.

Additional Resources on Being Bold and Unconventional

Read the memoir for the full, fascinating story: A Mind Unraveled by Kurt Eichenwald.

Check out my other blog posts on the memoir: my blog posts on A Mind Unraveled.

See also my blog posts on Dare to Lead, a book that provides research-based guidelines on how to be courageous in the business world: my blog posts on Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.

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