Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

Chapter Five The Personal Portfolio

How to build a compelling body of work in school that reinforces your Personal Image.

If you put the book down right now and chose only to use your Personal Image, you would be pretty successful. After all, we all have examples of coworkers or kids in school who are powerful, popular or well-respected based almost entirely off of their image. I’m sure if you did a solid job of creating your image, you could have the same kind of shallow success that these people have experienced.

However, I’m going to assume that you want more. You’re not just looking to get into the door, or to be a socialite who doesn’t do anything. These days, people become superstars based on the work they did, not simply whether they wear a power suit or not.

A powerful Personal Image is a terrific thing to have, but you need to back it up. To have long-term security, success, prestige, or credibility, you must develop a compelling portfolio of work that reinforces your image.

A Bright Red Package is about being passionate about something. Just like my friend was passionate about finding his friends the perfect gift, you should have the same dedication and excitement for whatever you do. You also must take the time to become terrific at it.

In the last section, you asked yourself what you could be the best in the world at. Now it’s time to work on becoming great.

Learning: The Key to the Personal Portfolio

Most students would say that they are in school to learn valuable job skills (some students would say that they are in school to drink in ridiculously large quantities of alcohol. We’re not going to focus on them in this book.)

What most students don’t realize about their degree isn’t enough. In today’s economy, what worked in the past is not necessarily a solid indicator of what will work in the future. Sure, there are certain timeless truths that should be adhered to (such as try to make a profit, don’t use advertising to market your drug-dealing business, etc.) But most executives would agree that today’s business world is changing too rapidly to rely solely on the past.

Students can’t rely on their school education alone to get a terrific job. When your resume talks about your relevant coursework, remember that everyone else applying for that position has taken the same classes as you!

If what you’ve learned in classes is old news and simply puts you in the running for a position, how can you use your knowledge to demonstrate that you’re a superstar?

The best way is to read, constantly. Spend time talking with people, learning about what books are regarded as important in the industry. There’s a good chance there will be a few dozen, so make a list. Try to systematically read each of these books, taking notes on points or ideas that stand out to you.

I had a habit of going to Barnes & Noble once a week while in school and spending time reading interesting business books. Sure, there are some questionable issues with intellectual property involved there, but I figured they had those nice comfortable couches for a reason. Besides, I racked up a pretty hefty coffee bill in the process, so I figured it evened out.

The process of going to the bookstore regularly was one of my biggest competitive advantages when I left school. Whether sitting in an interview or simply talking with an executive at a networking event, I was casually able to mention interesting books I had just read, often leading to discussions with people reading the same books I was.

A lot of students raise the argument that they don’t have the time to spend reading anything but their textbooks, which is a valid point. My response is to spend some of your free time reading other books that can help you in your career. It may not sound like a ton of fun, but it can help you tremendously. In fact, you’ll probably find that these books aren’t nearly as dry and boring as your college textbooks; many are pretty actually enjoyable.

You don’t have to limit yourself to books in your chosen field. In fact, some students I know made a habit of spending time reading books and magazines in completely unrelated fields. They felt it made them better conversationalists and well-rounded individuals. Consider reading one new magazine a month.

Every student I know who has made knowledge a priority has put themselves in a terrific position. It helps build their Personal Image, it assists them with their Personal Portfolio, and is tremendous in cultivating a strong Personal Rolodex. If you’re uncomfortable reading at the bookstore, visit the library. If you honestly have no time, try to find abstracts and reviews of important books on the Internet and at least learn what people are thinking and talking about in your chosen field. The time you spend will pay dividends many times over.

School Projects: The Goldmine of the Bright Red Package

It’s unlikely that you will escape school without having to work on a large individual or group project. Most of us have been forced to complete a half dozen or more. And most of us hated them.

You know the process. You get the syllabus at the beginning of the year, along with the guidelines for the semester project. It’s given to you at the beginning because it’s sup¬posed to take the whole semester to complete.

The whole semester? You scoff at the idea, and place the guidelines in the back of your notebook, fully planning to forget about it until the last month of the year. When you finally pull the info out, you read the guidelines and get to work. After an intense three hours of work, you have a mediocre semester project ready to hand in.

It’s not that you don’t care about your grade – you do. But you know that everyone else is going to be doing the same thing, so why put in a ton of effort to get the same grade as everyone else?

It’s a valid argument. But you aren’t just working on projects to get a good grade. You’re hoping that the work is going to help you in your ultimate goal of finding a great job.

Think about the past projects you’ve worked on. Is that six-page report you put together the night before something you’d want to bring to a job interview? Is it something you’d want to include in a portfolio of work that you’re extremely proud of? Unless the position you’re applying for is Vice President of Procrastination, probably not.

School projects represent the most overlooked opportunity for creating an extremely powerful, extremely credible Personal Position. When done well, a school project can not only secure a terrific grade, but also earn the respect of your professors and classmates.

So how do you turn a boring school project into a fascinating, resume-enhancing piece of work? The following represents the process I used. It takes more work than you usually would put in, but the extra work is well worth it.

Become Curious:

Curiosity is by far your most important asset in creating great work. Curiosity causes us to look for new ideas in unusual places. It has been said that imagination is simply the ability to take two separate ideas and put them together in a new way. But you can never do that unless you have a steady stream of ideas coming into your head in the first place.

The bookstore and library are obviously your most important places to go to satisfy your curiosity. With hundreds of thousands of books at your disposal, you have an inexhaustible supply of ideas ready for the taking.

When you buy books, take a page from Tim Sanders, Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo! and author of Love is the Killer App. He only buys hardcover books and uses the inside covers to write down interesting points along with the page number for quick reference. I would sometimes go one step further and place small sticky note on each interesting page (I had a color coded system. I was enormously dorky.)

For projects, don’t just read books related to your discipline. There are always brilliant ideas being used in other industries than the one you’re looking at. By taking a strategy that works in another field and applying it to your problem in an imaginative way, you signal to any professor that you’re someone special.

You don’t have to limit yourself to books, either. One of the best resources you can possibly find for projects is an online database called Lexus-Nexis. It compiles articles from hundreds of magazines, scholarly journals and trade publications, and makes them all available to you with the click of a mouse. And best of all, this resource is free through most college libraries. I continue to use this resource whenever I secure a new client and need ideas or information.

Curiosity is a secret weapon in your arsenal, but it won’t make much of a difference if you can’t organize all the information in a logical way. Spend a few bucks on a nice leather journal, and use it to record any observations from books you read. Write down anything that sticks out to you as particularly clever or interesting. Include a reference to where you got it from – this is helpful for putting together the oft-dreaded bibliography. Also use this journal to write down anything interesting you see in the world around you. Train yourself to become a sponge that soaks up information. And write it all down!

Another strategy is to buy a pack of 3×5 note cards whenever you start a new project. Anything interesting you find should be placed on its own index card. Make it a goal to use the entire deck. They cost $1.29 – I think you can spring for it. When it comes time to work on the project itself, you’ll have a stack of cards that can easily be shuffled around and categorized to suit your needs. If I were you, I’d color code them. But that’s just me.

Idea Explosion:

Tom Peters talks about taking every company project that’s assigned and “reframing it” into something much larger. It applies in the corporate setting, and it applies to your simple group project.

Whenever I was assigned a project in school, I liked to pretend I was working for Proctor & Gamble, or some other large company where ideas are cherished. I’d ask myself how I could take the project and turn it into something that would merit a promotion or raise in my imaginary job. It was from that frame of mind that I was able to do some of my best work.

“Reframing” a project is simply the ability to take what’s given and make it bigger and better. It requires the ability to identify new ways of looking at the problem, and the courage to take a few risks. But the payoff can be tremendous, both in terms of your grade and your future marketability.

My favorite way to transform a project into something grand was through what I called an “idea explosion.” Though I sometimes did this by myself, I would do this with my other team members if I thought they were as excited as I was about the project.

The idea explosion process involves taking all the research and facts that were gathered during the curiosity phase and trying to form new ideas out of them. It uses the ideas in Doug Hall’s book Jump Start Your Brain, whose process helped create hundreds of wildly successful new products for Fortune 500 companies across the world. Not a bad model to follow.

When it came time to go through the idea explosion, I would schedule a conference room in the school or local library. I would grab about a dozen image-heavy magazines to serve as visual stimuli and bring them in along with the research I had done. I would also bring plenty of soda (caffeine works wonders for this process.)

The first step of the idea explosion was to get all of the simple ideas out of my head. I would take 15 minutes and write down all initial thoughts and perceptions about the problem at hand, as well as any of the glaring or easy observations accumulated during the research phase of the project. This helped to quickly get the boring or unoriginal concepts out, allowing us to reach new ideas and connections.

Once the initial thoughts were down, we would look through magazines and play free association. Anything that sparked an idea or concept, no matter how absurd, got written down. After about 45 minutes, each team member had time to look through each magazine and create their respective list of connections.

The second hour was spent going through our lists and playing a game of piggyback. We’d write an idea on a white board and spend a minute trying to make it bigger and grander. It didn’t matter whether the idea was realistic or not – negative or critical comments were banned from the discussion. As the white board got filled with ideas, team members would make new connections between two ideas already written on the board. At the end of an hour, we had a ridiculous amount of creativity up on the whiteboard.

The third hour was where we got practical. Using a pre-defined list of criteria relevant to the specific project, we would go through each idea and rip it to shreds. The ones that stood up were our winners. The ideas that survived the process most often were those that were simple, effective, and brilliantly original. At the end of the process you should have about a dozen great ideas, each of which will impress your professor and blow away the other groups who spent fifteen minutes coming up with a mediocre solution.

The idea explosion takes a little more time, but usually is done in three hours. At then end of the exercise you feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, knowing that you’ve used your creative faculties to their maximum. This process is especially useful in projects where you must explain the process you used to arrive at a solution. Showing the process will impress your professors, many of whom must come up with ideas for their own research projects.

You can use any brainstorming activities you want, or none at all. The important thing is that you take the time to transform your project into something original and exciting. When professors read the same boring papers and listen to the same boring presentations over and over again, they find it extremely refreshing when a group or individual comes up with an idea that demonstrates creativity and thoughtfulness.

Go the Extra Mile:

You’ve done great research and have an unbelievable idea thanks to your idea explosion. You have an opportunity to make a project that you’ll be extremely proud of. Now it’s time to follow through.

Most projects are an exercise in mediocrity, and no place is this more the case than in the legwork. If the assignment calls for surveying people, the group will hastily write a survey and give it to 10 of their friends. If the assignment calls for expert interviews, the group will call someone’s dad.

While such practices are harmful to the quality of the final product you present to your professor, it also does a tremendous disservice to your future career. If you spend four years slacking off, doing the minimum amount of work possible on every project, you run the very dangerous risk of carrying that habit into your career. Even if you do a moderate amount of work in your job, it’s no longer enough. People are looking for superstars who produce superstar work. Why not get started now?

There are many ways to make your project special. One student I know became friends with a film studies major. Whenever a project came up, he would “hire” this kid to make him a professional-quality video presentation. He did video focus groups, video dramatizations, anything he could think of. For the price of a few dinners and some drinks, this student was able to have his own production company working on his projects with him.

Another student would try to work a genuine expert inter¬view into her reports. She would write down a list of ten people who would be high-profile enough to pique the professor’s interest. Then she’d spent ten minutes every few days calling these people, leaving dozens of voice mail messages. The persistence would invariably pay off, as at least one of these individuals would call her back and grant her an interview over the phone. Writing a report on the tea industry and including an interview with the CEO of Celestial Seasonings is a pretty good way to show your tenacity and drive.

A student majoring in business and engineering found ways to regularly use his engineering skills on his business projects. He would take the time to design and build working prototypes of suggested products, and would present them during presentations. His group’s competitive advantage was ridiculous – no one else in the class could produce any¬thing of that caliber.

On multiple occasions, I was in a group project with the objective of bringing a new product to market. I had purchased a couple copies of a book Called Jumpstart Your Business Brain, also by Doug Hall. Each book included a coupon for conducting a Merwyn analysis, which provided a detailed report on the likelihood of the product’s success, along with recommendations from experts on how to improve it. This resource single-handedly earned a stellar grade on multiple occasions. In fact, my product strategy professor still uses it as an example in her classes.

There are literally hundreds of ways to make your project special. Be willing to take some risks and go outside project guidelines. If you’re afraid, ask your professor if it’s okay to do what you’re planning.

Pay Attention to Design:

We’ve discussed why design is the most important tool for competitive advantage in today’s ultra-competitive business landscape. It also can help you take a project and make it phenomenal.

There’s no excuse for not learning something about design these days. With the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of graphic design software, literally anyone can become reasonably well-versed in the elements of good design. Simply being able to identify what makes for good design can help you considerably.

Most project guidelines include instructions for the paper. They’ll have instructions for paper size, font size, margins, etc. They say that if you don’t follow the directions you’ll get a bad grade.

Break them. Religiously. One of my favorite things to do in school projects was to take the final paper and put it into a graphic design program. I’d turn the paper into a full-color, professional looking piece of work that the group was proud to hand in. The report would have beautiful tables, nice photos and graphics, sidebars and other design elements. The final product looked very much like company annual reports, and was printed and bound at Kinkos.

Senior year, a friendly competition with a fellow student also versed in graphic design. Having the added incentive made my work even more original. I’d print the report on tabloid paper, fold it in half and have it bound on the edges. I’d create covers out of matte board. I’d use odd paper sizes and fold them in interesting ways. Each class was another chance to try to one-up the other guy, and it made both of our projects even better.

The final products were different than anything that had been handed in by other groups, and broke every rule the professor had put in the guidelines. But the reports were done in a professional way, and demonstrated our group’s obsession with doing terrific work. As a result, the professor would always accept the papers and give them great grades. Sometimes they would ask if they could keep the report for use in future semesters.

There’s definitely a learning curve involved in a new piece of software. But becoming skilled at design is an amazing resume builder and virtually guarantees solid grades on every assignment you do. You can buy educational versions of the software up at your school bookstore and save a ton of money.

If you don’t want to take the time to learn how to use graphic design software, become buddies with a student majoring in graphic design. Just like a film student, they’re looking for opportunities to build their own portfolios and will often be willing to help you make a beautiful project for nothing more than some pizza and beer.

If your professor seems particularly strict, go ahead and include a simple copy to hand in along with your punched-up version. They’ll respect your adhering to guidelines, and in all but the rarest of cases will be blown away by your willingness to go the extra mile.

A word of caution: great design doesn’t give you the freedom to neglect the details. Pretty pictures don’t make up for shoddy writing. After reading the Personal Image section of the book, you should know that writing is an extremely important tool in your arsenal. Make sure your writing is top-notch and the paper is error-free. Most universities offer a free editing service, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t take advantage of it.

A report that’s beautifully designed, clearly written and backed up by great research will land you a solid grade every single time, and will be something you’ll be happy to show potential employers upon graduation.

Presentations:

It’s amazing how many students are completely devoid of communication skills. We’ve all had to sit through dozens of presentations on boring topics by boring people who show boring slides. There’s a reason why professors make presentation days mandatory to attend – because they know we’d rather be hit by a bus than sit through a dozen of our peer’s presentations. They’re just that bad.

What an opportunity for you. As a Bright Red Package, you’re becoming quite a gifted communicator. You’ve joined Toastmasters and have eliminated all the “ums” and “ahs” from your speech. You’ve learned to vary the tone of your voice to keep people interested in what you have to say. And you’ve learned to write reports that are interesting in the first place.

Now comes time to polish everything off with a stellar presentation. The good news is that this will be the easiest part of your project. In fact, there is a simple process you can go through that virtually ensures a terrific grade.

PowerPoint presentations are the most commonly used tool when giving presentations in front of the class. PowerPoint is an extremely useful program, when done well. Unfortunately, most students use PowerPoint the same way everyone else does. And we now know that doing the same thing as everyone else is a one-way ticket to mediocrity.

The standard student PowerPoint involves using the templates that come with the program, all of which are supremely ugly. Each slide is crammed with a minimum of five bullet points and a few hundred words. And whenever possible, students try to use industry jargon and buzzwords, thinking this will make them look smarter in front of the professor. They stand in front of the class speaking in a monotone voice, reading the slide to the rest of the class word for word. If that doesn’t scream “boring,” I don’t know what would. Bright Red Packages don’t do any of this.

A Bright Red Package creates presentations that are enjoyable. Each slide is made just like before, but on a simple white background. The slides are printed out, and everyone gets a copy. These are the notes for the presenters to use. Once this is done, the presentation is saved in case someone loses their copy.

Now each slide is summarized in a single sentence. You want it to be concise, and something that piques the interest of your audience. I often suggest using a joke of some sort, but if humor isn’t your strong suit avoid it. No humor is better than really bad humor.

You should now have a set of slides with one sentence each, all on a white background. Now comes the fun part. Look at the slide and try to think of a visual metaphor that represents what you’re talking about. Use image sites on the Internet like Google’s image search to find pictures that fit the metaphor you have in mind. If you have a little dough to throw around you can get a subscription to an image company like Corbis.com or Photos.com, or you can buy a compilation CD of images from a local Best Buy.

Using a visual metaphor as the dominant aspect of your page engages your audience on an emotion level. It can make them laugh, cry, or think. At the very least, it causes them to pay attention and listen to what you have to say. Visual metaphors aren’t that difficult to come up with, either. If your slide is describing freedom, include a picture of Braveheart. If your slide is about your research, include a picture of a detective. Get creative. And make sure the image takes up most of the screen (the cropping and resizing tools in PowerPoint will become your best friends. Learn how to use them.)

Once you’ve got a visual metaphor for each slide, go back to your sentences and see if you can think of a more creative way of phrasing them. I’ve found that the images often serve as terrific sparkplugs for ideas. Some of your best slides come after I’ve found the right image.

Once you’re done, you’ll have a PowerPoint presentation that keeps everyone in the room interested. After sitting through the presentations of your peers, they’ll appreciate a group that can present information in a clever, entertaining way. You’ll also find that creating your presentations in this manner takes a huge crutch away from your group – they can no longer read the slides verbatim, and have to really know what they’re talking about. This makes them more engaging to listen to, and makes your presentation even better. And if they are particularly boring or nervous, the students laughter from the slides will help calm their nerves. A win for every¬one!

For those of you with a particularly evil professor, remember that you’re not being foolish with the presentation – the words you use are completely serious, and your professor in all likelihood has already seen your dedication to the class after seeing your reports. The presentations are simply an opportunity to express your creativity and demonstrate your ability to take risks. Don’t worry about trying to be funny in your presentation – let the slides do the work for you.

Again, this might be more work than you’re accustomed to doing for a project, but just like everything else the payoff is worth the extra effort. Multiple students have used this method and received glowing recommendations from their professors in regards to their communication skills (which as we’ve said is the most important thing executives look for these days.)

Dealing With Group Members:

It’s extremely likely that every aspect of this process is different than what you’ve done in the past. But as a Bright Red Package in training you hopefully see the value in it, both for your current class and your future career.

But what about your group members who haven’t read this book and think you’re nuts? One of the biggest gripes that people have about groups is that they end up getting stuck with people they can’t stand to work with. It is inevitable that some of your group members aren’t going to agree with your ideas and your new process. So how do you handle them?

There are two types of group members that might be problematic. The first are those who just don’t do anything, and leave their group members to pick up the slack. These folks are actually easier to deal with – just don’t. The process I’ve described will make it easy for you to get a solid grade no matter how many people are working on the project with you. And you won’t hear them complaining about your work, because they didn’t do any themselves.

The second group is thornier. These are overachievers, like yourself, who feel that they have to do everything by the book. They think your ideas are too out there and are worried that the professor will look down on any originality.

The first step to working with folks like this might be to send them a copy of this book and direct them to the section you’re reading right now. Show them that it really does work if they do it right, and will help them put together a terrific portfolio of work that future employers will love. Besides, the donations from the book go to a good cause.

A strategy I’ve heard students use is to volunteer to do the final layout of the report and/or PowerPoint presentation. They’re willing to give up some of the control on the research or strategy portions of the presentation in order to be in control of the look and quality of the final product. You can still do some of the research methods described earlier and send them to the other group members as an “FYI.” But you need to be willing to accept what might be a less spectacular idea than you might otherwise get by using the idea explosion method.

If you’re faced with a particularly stubborn individual or group, my best advice would be to simply stand your ground. You have just as much of a right to your ideas as they do to theirs. Offer to take the final report and “punch it up” a bit, and let the group choose which version they prefer. It’s very likely that your final product will be impressive enough for them to change their mind.

You’ll find that the first couple of projects using this process will be more difficult in terms of getting group member buy-in. Most students who’ve used this process find that they develop something of a reputation for doing great, creative work. As a result, they find that the other talented students try to get in groups with them, which makes their lives extremely easy. Having a group of Bright Red Packages working together would be quite a site to behold.

By the end of your school career, you could potentially have 10-12 amazing group projects under your belt. This body of work will rival anyone you compete with, and will immediately signal to employers that you’re the real deal.

Student Groups: Volunteer for Greatness

Student groups provide a terrific compliment to your school projects. Just like projects, most student groups aren’t what they could be. But they have the members and often the money to do some pretty phenomenal things. If only they had a leader…

Bright Red Packages, almost without exception, take on leadership roles in student groups. They recognize that leadership skills are vital to their future career success, and embrace every opportunity to hone their own leadership talents. They also recognize that student groups represent great testing grounds for creative projects that would build their Personal Portfolio, and offer considerable opportunity to meet members of the business community and expand their Personal Rolodex (more on that in the next chapter.)

You might already be in a student group, and might feel like you’re not getting much out of it. After all, most student groups do little more than recruit members, get together to eat pizza or drink, and occasionally bring in a speaker so everyone can ask for their business card and send them a resume.

If that’s what your student group is like, I understand why you think it’s useless. But rather than leave the group, why not put yourself in a position to improve it? Why not run for one of the officer positions and help make the student group something special?

When I was in school, I was part of a group called the American Marketing Association. My first year as an officer wasn’t very productive because the President of the club was happy doing what they’d always done. But after bringing in some other students whom I knew were talented and driven, we managed to take control of the group.

The year that followed was a ton of fun. We started a statewide mentorship program that placed 25 students with a member of the business community. We put together a flag football tournament against other student groups for Thanksgiving, and followed it up with a big pot luck dinner. We managed to boost membership from 20 to 75 in the course of the year. And we got to go to New Orleans for the national conference where we won a bunch of awards for the chapter and got to take in the terrific cultural experience that Bourbon Street has to offer.

Not everything we did was successful. In fact, most of the things we tried worked. We started a non-profit advertising agency that flopped. We put together a comedy contest that brought together the ten best comedians in the state – and lost the club $1000. But the failures were just as useful as the successes. We learned a lot about business, marketing and special events, and managed to do so without spending our own money!

Just like group projects, the opportunities to mold a student group into something full of excitement and fun are endless. All it takes is a little imagination and the willingness to work a little bit.

Start a non-profit organization. Hold a conference on campus featuring famous speakers related to your discipline. Start a business on campus. Take trips to luncheons. Provide the members with opportunities to build their resumes in tangible ways. Don’t be content with pizza and boring speakers!

You might find that your membership dwindles a bit when you first begin transforming the student group. Some students aren’t interested in doing extra work, and were just a part of the group so they could add it to their resume. Let them go; you want people who are willing to work hard, who are passionate about their lives and their work. Besides, you’ll likely find that the drop-off is only temporary. As students hear about the awards you win and the cool things you do, you’ll start to attract other students who want to become Bright Red Packages themselves.

There are times, however, when you can go too far in the interest of doing something creative and original. I was in charge of another student group called the Collegiate Entrepreneur’s Organization. The officers and I thought it would be awesome to start a real business that would carry on after we left. The ideas were plentiful, but the resources were not. Most of the other members were interested in learning about entrepreneurship for the future. They didn’t think they could realistically start a business on their own with their current education, and didn’t want to risk failure. The harder we pushed for it, the more people left. They just weren’t ready.

The lesson? Don’t be afraid to take chances, but make sure that your ideas are realistic given the attitudes and energy of your members. Involve the members in the process of discovering exciting opportunities, and focus on a small enough number of projects to ensure a good result on each. If your students really don’t want to commit to a project, don’t force it down their throats. Remember, a leader is only a leader if people are willing to follow them.

Student groups provide the perfect avenue for trying cool projects and meeting interesting people. Don’t let such an opportunity go to waste.

Internships

I talked earlier in the book about how internships don’t mean as much as they used to. This might be true, but they are still extremely vital in completing your college experience. As I said earlier, everyone lands at least one internship while in school. This means that internships are the price of entry; they aren’t enough to land a job by themselves, but the lack of one can hurt your chances tremendously.

Just like the previous two portfolio builders, internships are rarely used to their full potential. While some internship opportunities offer the student everything they could want, most student internships are designed to be little more than busywork and administrative tasks. The theory is that by simply being around the business the student can gain valuable insights they might otherwise not be able to get.

Most students accept this fact and spend their three months bringing people coffee. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By applying the same concepts that you’ve picked up and used for school projects and student groups, you can transform an internship into an extremely valuable experience.

Each task you are handed provides a chance to do something amazing. By never accepting a project as it’s handed out to you and choosing to transform it, you can rack up a series of wins for yourself. It’s unlikely that you’ll help a company experience double-digit growth, but doing the legwork to complete a customer survey that wasn’t in their budget or helping the office become more efficient and organized will surely be things your superiors will remember.

This requires a bit of imagination and a lot of tenacity, but it also requires a certain amount of positive thinking. Just as there are a few superstars surrounded by a big blob of mediocre students in high school and college, you’ll be amazed to see how many of your new co-workers will be less than ideal employees. They’ll take a dozen smoke breaks, take their time finishing tasks, and will talk about the company and their work with a tremendous amount of cynicism and negativity.

One student was telling me about an internship he had at an advertising agency. He had made a resolution to work his tail off whenever he was assigned a task, making sure to get it done to specifications or better while handing it in before the deadline. Interestingly enough, his co-worker chastised him for it. He told the student that turning work in early would make people think that he wasn’t giving 100%, and that doing more than what they asked for would make the executives think that he was a suck-up. Thankfully he didn’t listen, and at the end of the internship his employer gave him a glowing recommendation.

Cynicism is particularly pervasive in government agencies and large companies. These organizations operate largely off of budgets, and do things based on what’s worked in the past. This means that helping them figure out a way to save money won’t matter much, since they’ll want to spend the money anyway to avoid having their budget trimmed the following year. It also means that any new or clever ideas you come up with will be met with a great deal of negativity (big business executives often live in a perpetual state of fear about taking risks and losing their jobs.)

If your goal is to become a corporate big-wig, you might want to take fewer risks. But that doesn’t mean that the work you do should be anything less than exceptional. It also means that the time you save by not sticking your neck out should be used wisely, watching people and picking up clues about office politics and corporate culture. In many large companies the people who get the promotions aren’t Bright Red Packages at all, but rather are the people who are the safest (i.e. the most paralyzed by fear.) I personally don’t want a life like that, but if you do it makes sense to sacrifice on your Personal Portfolio a bit to bolster your Personal Rolodex and networking skills.

So you know what to do once you’re working at an internship and are assigned tasks. How do you go about getting an internship in the first place? The opportunities for internships are all over the place if you’re willing to take the time to look.

Your career center can be extremely helpful in this arena. They are routinely contacted by companies looking for interns, and can give you a thorough list of local companies to apply to.

If you’re hoping to work for a specific well-known company, visit their corporate website for details. The selection process is pretty tough, so it pays to have all your ducks in a row. It also helps to contact them early in the year, as they often fill their available spots up to six months in advance.

An interesting alternative, and one that’s extremely attractive for the student looking for more responsibility, is to target small companies. These folks are always in need of talented people to help them, and will often be willing to throw you more interesting and important tasks. One student I know was handed so many tasks that he essentially created his own job position. When he went back to school they didn’t know what to do! But they knew who to call when graduation time came around.

A method a number of students have used has been to call the company and simply ask them if they have an internship program. In many cases the answer is no. So you ask them if they’d like to start one! You’d be amazed how well this works. Most companies would be nuts to turn down cheap (or free,) talented labor such as yourself. And they respect and appreciate the tenacity and passion that compelled you to call them out of the blue.

As for specific strategies once you’ve found where you want to work, take a look at the final section of the book on preparing your Personal Marketing campaign. Many of the strategies used for finding a job are just as effective when pursuing an internship.

Internships, when approached with the right mindset, can be powerful additions to your Personal Portfolio. At the very least they give you a glimpse into the real world of business and put you in front of some people who have the power to hire you.

Entrepreneurship: The Ultimate Centerpiece

While student groups and projects and internships are all terrific pieces of your Personal Portfolio and contribute to the making of a powerful Bright Red Package, there is nothing like the experience you gain from starting your own business. Doing so shows that you really love what you do, that you have the work ethic to be successful later in life, and that you are willing to take risks. A business puts you in very selective company – very few students have the courage to take the plunge, even on a very small scale.

I started and failed at two businesses while in school. The first was a painting company that caused me to rack up a hefty credit card bill and fire all of my closest friends. The second was an online business that didn’t work because I was great at advertising the product but horrible at actually making the product. The result was a bunch of refunds to angry customers and another large credit card bill.

The experience I gained from these two tiny businesses was priceless. But I also found that whenever I sat down in a job interview, the conversation immediately gravitated to these two little companies. Even though neither of them made a profit and basically broke every rule of good business imaginable, employers were amazed that I had the guts to even try. It said something about me that the other candidates simply couldn’t claim, and put me at a tremendous advantage.

With rare exception, anyone can turn what they’re learning into a business opportunity. Don’t worry about whether you make much money, or whether the business is even successful at all. What matters is that you try. You’ll gain experience you could never pick up any other way. You’ll become more confident as you learn to sell yourself and your services. And who knows? You could be the next Michael Dell and get to buy a yacht.

A word of caution. After taking a stab at entrepreneurship you get hooked. I couldn’t get the bug out of my system, and after spending a brief period of time in someone else’s employ I made the decision to jump ship and go off on my own. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. It’s just something you should be aware of.

Strategies on starting your own small business are definitely beyond the scope of this book. If you’re interested in learning how to become an entrepreneur, there are many fine books on the subject. So don’t ask me – I’m still learning myself.

If you spend your college years accumulating stellar school projects, leading student groups, finding internships and starting businesses, I guarantee your resume will be the envy of every single one of your classmates. Your Personal Portfolio will provide considerable proof that your Personal Position is the real deal.

All you have to do now is let the right people know.

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