A story that I read in 2014 on Salon.com recently popped up in my newsfeed again, and I was as baffled by it this time as I was the first time.
The article is called “I Never Should Have Followed My Dreams,” and it’s about a man who quit his job in a social policy research organization to become a freelance copywriter.
The gist of what happened is that he took an advertising class, put together a spec portfolio, and then had no luck finding any jobs.
Let me give a quick caveat before I go on: I don’t know this man. I don’t know his specific story; I only know what he’s chosen to tell us. So everything from here on is based solely on that.
There’s a saying that goes, “Jump and the net will appear.” I’ve also heard a variation: “Jump and build your parachute on the way down.”
As someone who has a mortgage and various other financial responsibilities, as well as someone who trains people about how to change careers, let me just say: Following either of those two axioms is insane.
If you get pushed, then you absolutely may have to build your parachute on the way down. But the better plan would be “Build a completely solid, 100% reliable parachute before you jump.” Or, even better, “Don’t jump—go find a ladder or a bridge.”
Yes, the author of this article did take an “advertising class.” But if this advertising class didn’t teach him how to find clients (and the vast majority don’t), it was misguided to think he could immediately graduate from this class with no experience and get enough work to support himself full-time.
As my students know, I encourage them to be enthusiastic about their new career-to-be, but also realistic. If they have good jobs—or even just jobs they can bear staying in—while they learn and while they build their portfolio and start amassing their first clients, they should stay there.
It’s a brand new career. It’s going to take anyone time to get a foothold—and it’s going to take much more time if you don’t even know how to find clients.
And furthermore, shame on this “advertising class” for not making that a key topic of learning. Any copywriting or advertising class or course that doesn’t make “how to find clients” and “how to build experience” major focuses of what they teach is setting their students up for failure.
A bright smile and a book full of spec ads aren’t going to get you an ad agency job.
As I’ve said before, the three keys to changing careers are 1) Get training, 2) Get experience, and 3) Get a job. And most people don’t succeed because they try to skip #1, #2, or both.
I don’t know the context in which a recruiter told the author, “No one will hire you with a spec portfolio. You’ll have to work for free,” but I have a guess. I’m certain what he’s saying is that no ad or internal agency will hire you with just a spec portfolio; you have to have some experience first. Yes! That is true.
A spec portfolio is a crucial tool for new copywriters, but so is experience. That’s why I strongly recommend that they start with local, small business clients, before moving on to solopreneurs, design agencies/shops, and then, eventually, ad agencies or internal agencies.
And please don’t think that I don’t have sympathy for this man; I absolutely do. Being in a bad job is an awful, dispiriting place to be. But that also means you’re especially susceptible to bad advice like, “Jump and the net will appear.”
“Follow your dreams” is an inaccurate phrase. It sounds like skipping through a prairie after a bouncing red balloon. That’s not how it works. Dreams won’t be followed—they need to be pursued. You need to have a plan. And not just a plan for how to pursue your dreams, but also a plan for how to provide for yourself along the way.
“I’m just going to apply for jobs with no experience” isn’t a plan that’s going to work. That’s like saying, “I have a plan, and that plan is to win the lottery.”
It’s not easy to change careers. But it’s not supposed to be easy. Nothing—nothing—that’s worth anything is easy. But that’s okay! It can still be a rewarding, fulfilling experience without being easy. You can still enjoy the process and benefit from learning to overcome self-doubt without it being easy.
And it doesn’t even take that much to successfully transition to a new career. It takes a willingness to learn, a willingness to self-evaluate, and a willingness to put in some work and persistence. These elements are what make successful people successful in every area of life—from careers, to parenting, to relationships, to art.
I’m very, very sorry that this author feels like his dream let him down, or that it was the wrong choice to try to change careers. And I’m sorry especially because it sounds like (and, again, I’m just working with what’s in the article) it was just the way he went about it that set him up for challenges.
Becoming a copywriter is completely possible. I mean, think about it: Of course it is! Nobody ever sighs and says, “Oh, it’s impossible to become a computer programmer” or “It’s impossible to break into orthopedic surgery.”
Copywriting is just like any other job, except the difference is that most people try to get into it in the wrong way.
I became a copywriter, and our students are doing it every day. And it doesn’t have to be a slog, or a dispiriting experience. Sure, it can be a challenge, but knowing how to do it, step by step, certainly makes that challenge a lot easier to surmount.
Your turn! What are your thoughts? Are there any points I missed? Let us know in the comments below!