Wednesday, October 13, 2010

OJT: Want an education? Get a job.

I sat with a group of waitresses the other night who were all working their way through university - one in business, another in marketing and so on and they were all going to private universities that were very small and had virtually no foreign professors, save for the English department and it brought me to think about the following question: What do you do if you've graduated from a fairly average university and still want to excel in your chosen field?

That's the question I was faced with just months out of school. Armed with my fairly average portfolio of reasonably outdated technique from a not famous at all design program, I realized that the people who were getting the really good jobs had gone to really good schools - The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Pratt, The School of Visual Arts, Parson's and the like. How could I compete with them? Or perhaps the better question was, how could I learn from them?

And so I set about studying and imitating and asking questions about the ideas behind the designs and rather than treat the competition like competition I regarded them more like professors. And I radically re-worked my portfolio for my three-year quest to get a job at the best advertising agency in town. I spent a summer vacation to fly to L.A. and visit the Art Center in Pasadena. I spoke with a counselor, looked at the more than impressive work and toured the beautiful campus high above the Rose Bowl on a small mountain. It was exhilarating - and expensive. $18,000 a year - in 1980. As much as I figured, even living with my uncle and trying to obtain California residency for a lower tuition, there would be no way I could ever afford that. And the program would be 2 years at $18k plus living expenses. In one instance I was inspired and in another despondent. It just wasn't possible. What to do?

So on my return to Dallas, I went back to work on my portfolio. And back to interviewing for a better job. I had an average job and probably a pretty good one for starters but nobody was doing the calibre work there that would make them, or me, world-class. And I wanted that.

Enter OJT - 'On the Job Training'. This is a term in the US that nobody in Asia seemed to understand when I used it with my staff in Korea. I put a producer on a plane and sent him to California to assist on some Kellogg's commercials so he could learn what a real Hollywood shoot was like. I took the whole creative team, writer, art director and producer to Chicago to film and they came back with an education that went far outside the dark studio we worked in all day. These exercises cost the company little (clients pay for production travel) and provided a real-world education to the staff on real business. OJT for sure.

Our producer from that job took a year off to work in Korean restaurant in L.A. so he could teach himself English. He then returned to production as a director for Korea's top film production house. I used to call him 'Tarantino' because he taught himself directing and editing by watching videos all day long.

Wanting to work in the graphic arts in some way, at 16 I worked for sign companies. I loaded trucks, mixed paint and learned how to paint signs from a man who had learned it in the Army. Next I drove a truck for a printing company. I delivered the final products - but I spent every extra moment upstairs in the design department talking to the creative director and designers. I'm sure they thought I was a terrible pest, but it was my job. It was my job to learn as much as I possibly could instead of flipping burgers or being a waiter, the other jobs on offer at the time - and it's not any different at all today for any other student.

I can't count the number of posts I see on LinkedIn, Facebook or Xing from people who want to know how to break "in" to a business. To be a stockbroker, a realtor, a writer, whatever. And the answer is never any different. Everybody has to start somewhere - so if you want to be a marketer, market a church event, or a school event. Want to write? Start a blog. Stock-broking for you? Start day-trading penny stocks today - plenty of housewives are doing it. Whatever it is you want to do, you have to make it your job before anybody else will ever make it your job for you.

Even at one point as a teenager, I wanted to improve my penmanship, so I bought an expensive German rapidiograph pen that would train me in respect for the craft of the written word, every single day I used it - and then I used it every day - as I still do today. The point being, that if you want to do something very well, better than others, you have to immerse yourself in that subject or craft as much or more than they do and make it not just a class, not just a job, but an integral part of your life - a part of your being.

How many guys want to be computer programmers but don't think of even programming the website for the restaurant they work for? The point here is that much of our education is waiting for all of us, outside in the real world - every single day. Why wait for somebody to start Facebook, become successful, write a book about it, and then have 1000 real genius college professors write books and lessons on that just so that they can 'teach' you something? That process takes 10 years, minimum, and by the time you get the education, the information is already old.

My plan was to pick the best and the brightest who were working in my business at the time, (and they were not working for universities) and then let them be my teachers. And that plan worked - to the amazement of almost everyone who knew me. Almost overnight I went from being a somewhat cute and funny guy who worked for pretty unspectacular companies to being some creative wunderkind who had charmed his way past the line of graduates waiting to get into the most award-wining company in town.

So that's how I got into design. How I published my first novel is another story entirely - one I'm still writing today. Just don't let me say 'I toldja so'.
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