My strategy for finding the work you want to do.
ASTORIA, NYC- “You never look for work,” my wife scolded me one day. “You just sit around waiting for someone to realize how great you are and give you a job.”
I thought about it for a moment and she was, again, pretty spot on. I don’t look for work. I don’t look for work because I know that the kinds of jobs that I want are not those that you can apply for. I also don’t look for work because … I’ve never really had to.
I was invited to write my first book.
I was invited to write for the SCMP.
I was invited to write for Reuters.
I was invited to write for Forbes.
I was invited to write for the Guardian.
I was invited to write for Bloomberg.
I was invited to write for multiple academic journals.
I was invited to be a ghost writer for CEOs who placed
my the stories in big media.
I was invited to work on the big documentary film projects that I was a part of.
I was invited to film an aspiring politician on the campaign trail as he ran for office in NYC.
I was invited to be the production manager / camera operator of the Newsmax show that I film.
I don’t send in applications. I don’t show up on doorsteps. I don’t hustle. At least I haven’t for the past ten years …
It may seem like I’ve just sat back and allowed serendipity to do it’s thing. However, serendipity doesn’t run on its own fuel. There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes which drives what appears to be the chance encounters and invitations that lead you along your path.
There is a method here:
Fuel your own serendipity engine
All the time. Everyday. Publish. Publish. Publish. Imagine that you are an assembly line cranking out content … and keep doing it. This is essential. If you want to be a writer, blog daily. If you want to be a filmmaker, publish videos on YouTube and Rumble at least weekly. If you want to be an author, then write books and self-publish them. If you want to make online courses, then make them. Do things your way, experiment, GET GOOD, frolic in your independence, and create what you want to consume. Aim to make money going it on your own, and if someone reaches out wanting to pay you, even better
The gatekeepers have turned into elevator operators. The internet blew the doors off the gates of outreach and anybody now has the potential to play for large audiences. You don’t NEED to be part of a big publication to scoop the news and publish articles that millions will read. You don’t NEED to work for a big film company to make a documentary that will be shown in theaters around the world. You don’t NEED a publishing company to write books. However, these entities still play a powerful role in disseminating art and information, and can elevate you up the echelons of your profession, give you access to a larger audience, and, of course, pay you more than you can make otherwise.
However, you need to get their attention. Each blog post, video, etc is its own business card. Allow your work to network for you. Put it out there. All the time. Everyday. Fuel your own serendipity engine.
Master the fundamentals
Learn how to do whatever it is you want to do inside and out. Realize that you never know anything and start from the ground up. All too often, people who just start getting into something greatly overestimate what they know and underestimate how much there is to learn. Don’t think that you can come up with short cuts. Don’t think that you’re smarter than everybody else that has gone before you.
If you want to film then learn everything there is to know about cameras, optics, and light. If you want to be an editor, then master multiple editing programs. If you want to be a writer, then learn the nuances of grammar and delivery and develop your own style.
Take courses, read books, find teachers, make friends with a similar interest, and practice, practice, practice. Without a mastery of the fundamentals there is no fuel for the serendipity engine.
Buy the gear
Once you’re putting out content regularly, have built up a following, and are confident that you have mastered the fundamentals, buy the gear. By “the gear” I don’t just mean the equivalent of a pair of yard sale skis, I mean a good set of modern, professional equipment. The simple fact of the matter is that the gear gets you jobs. Who are you going to hire? Someone who invested in high-end gear and has it available to use or someone who hasn’t?
Having a high(ish) end set of gear also — ideally — allows you to produce higher quality work and gives you experience using what the pros use. Honestly, it also raises your profile and can make you look better or more experienced than what you really are.
Investment in gear is one that tends to pay off in the long run. The amount of jobs that I’ve gotten just because I’ve had the gear is kind of remarkable. Around a year and a half ago I dropped $6,000 on a camera. This seems like a lot until we recognize that that camera has made me over $50,000. In NYC, there are legions of camera operators … but not many who have the skills plus a full studio of gear. (This also makes me a cheaper hire as the employer doesn’t need to provide anything in this department.)
Of course it needs to be said that it doesn’t matter how good or expensive your gear is if you don’t know how to use it.
Once you have these three things in place it’s time to try to find work beyond what you’re doing independently — if you want and / or need to. Publishing voluminously is a big part of networking, but another part is … networking. Go out in person or even join online groups and forums and make friends. Go to industry conferences. Go to listen to talks given by people in your chosen field. Join clubs. Don’t aim for connections, aim for real friends. By real friends, I mean people that you’d enjoy spending time with even if it never leads to a professional opportunity.
Tell people what you do. Everyone that you meet tell them about what you’re working on, what you’re good at, and where to find your work. Name drop. Spread around business cards. Be honest but don’t be modest. You want as many people as possible to know what you can do because you never know where it may lead. This isn’t to impress them but because at some point they may need a writer / camera operator / editor or know someone who does. People like to hire people they know. Many of my jobs have been generated by just talking about what I do in simple conversation.
Do people favors. When I look back on how the opportunities I’ve had originated, I see favors being the catalyst multiple times. Here’s one example:
I was writing for the opinion section of Reuters and one of my editor’s co-workers sends me an email asking me to do a little presentation and Q and A about China’s ghost cities with this group of investors. She didn’t offer any money. I knew that it would be a huge hassle — I was on a research trip in Central China and had a booked schedule — but I did it anyway. A few months later this same lady took a job as an editor at Forbes and invited me to come write for them. That’s how that started.
Like I said in the beginning of this post, the jobs that I’m interested in are not really ones that you apply for. They come from being noticed or connected to people. Who would you rather hire? Someone who is only a bold type face name on a word doc or someone whose work you’re familiar with who you know personally? Something like 70% of jobs are never listed, and the hidden job market is often the place where the cool jobs are. Serendipity is ultimately about people — so go meet them.
Anyone who has ever gotten any job where there was more than one candidate has stood out in some way. Different is often better than better — especially in the creative professions. When I look through the deluge of travel blogs out there only one thing really stands out: the fact that they’re virtually all the same. They could be written by the same person, feature photos from the same photographer, and be designed by the same coder. They simply regurgitate each other’s stories as though they are chained together on some kind of force march behind that one dude who actually made money blogging. There is nothing that stands out about what they are doing and they mostly go unnoticed. Be the ripple in the pond, march on your own path, do your own thing in your own way … at the very least you will stand out, and that’s a big step towards really getting somewhere.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
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