You’ve Got Five Years of Experience. Now What?

Five years ago, I wrote a piece titled Skip the Five Year Plan – Try These Two Avenues to Success Instead. That article questioned the wisdom of pressuring novices to map out a career before they’ve been on the road long enough to know the lay of the land. To support my argument, I guided the reader through the wanderings of my previous five years: First, I wasn’t going back to school. Then I wasn’t going to law school. Then I was going to law school and I was going to be a public defender. Then I opened a law firm.

Running my own business was a pre-law school dream. I prepared for years. I earned a finance degree. I worked in management and sales positions. I was simply waiting for the right opportunity to come along, and as law school progressed, I realized more and more that opening a law firm was going to be it. So in my last year, I started planning. I was ready for everything. Except that I would hate everything about it.

My plan was stained with inexperience and ignorance. Earning startup funds from short-term jobs as an independent contractor? Mind-numbing. Learning from other lawyers by doing small jobs for them? Blemished by technology. Taking on my own cases? Tarnished by clients who vanished, leaving nothing but dust and unpaid bills. I should’ve listened to my own advice.

Looking back, hating my creation was predictable. I had easily identifiable holes in my plan. I never considered what I enjoyed doing. My mom told me I wouldn’t like doing mindless work for a year. I brushed it off. I never asked any lawyers whether they needed the services I was offering. A few phone calls and I’d have known the answer was “no.” I was, however, prepared for the fact that some of my clients would try not to pay. Intellectually.

I was prepared to run a business, but I wasn’t prepared to run a law firm. I didn’t know what to expect. I needed time to learn what I didn’t know and couldn’t anticipate. Just a few years of experience would have dramatically increased my chances of success. Planning before I gained this knowledge was a mistake.

Were I to rewrite the article today, I’d make the same argument I did then – novices need to learn everything they can. Every other plan can wait.

However, my classmates and I now have five years of experience. Some realized they didn’t want to be lawyers long ago. Some love what they do. Some are writing blogs you should definitely tell your friends about. But it seems most are asking, “What next?”

This is understandable. Humans adapt to almost anything. We like novelty. Forty hours a week times 50 weeks a year times 5 years equals 10,000 hours of doing the same tasks. It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something. But even without the intense focus and mentorship of deliberate practice, someone who has worked at a job for five years knows most, if not all of what there is to know about that job.

So many of my friends, along with a lot of other fifth year folks, are looking for something new. But what, and how?

Situation #1

Let’s start with the most dramatic shift possible – a career change. You hate the job. You hate every variation of the job. It sounded like a good idea, but it’s just not a good fit. So you’re ready to find something else. A good way to start is by taking a career test. That’s how I became a lawyer. I took the test at a few years back. It’s a pretty simple setup – you answer a series of questions for about half an hour and they rank 900 jobs in order of what your answers suggest you might like. It was $20 when I took the test, but their pricing has changed. With that in mind, you may wish to consult your alma mater’s career center and see if they have a version of the test you can take for free.

Your results are a prediction of what you might like based on what you told the computer you do like. So, you’ll see some things you might be interested in, some things you’re definitely interested in, and some things that you don’t know anything about. When that happens, you can read up on those jobs in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. The information in the OOH will give you a good idea of what you might like, how much you’ll earn, and what steps you need to get there.

Situation #2

In contrast to the first example, let’s say you like your job. You don’t want to leave, but it could be better. In that case, you may want to try customizing your job, or job crafting.

The term job crafting describes the steps people take to customize their jobs to better fit their motives, strengths, and passions. For example, many organizations have an “event planning person,” who organizes birthday parties and other celebrations. This is usually a role someone takes on, but not part of anyone’s formal duties.

People redesign their jobs by taking on more roles, but they may also take on fewer roles, change their interactions with people, or change the way they think of a job. We even customize our jobs where there is little room for change. People working in call centers are glued to their desk, often repeating prepared scripts for hours a day. In this situation, one may start to view each call as a performance, trying out different characters to make the day go by faster.

A more detailed guide to the theories behind job crafting is here. It discusses the benefits and challenges associated with job crafting, and encourages employers to recognize that people naturally shape their jobs to suit their needs. Some of this customization is useful to the company. Employers are encouraged to utilize what works well rather than limiting employees to the formal duties set out for them.

Situation #3

Of course, you might not be looking to change industries or increase your satisfaction at your current job. You might be looking for your next step, regardless of what that is. This is where mentors and headhunters come in.

The issue, of course, is that you’re a person, not a list of bullet points. Résumés tell a potential employer what you’ve done in the past, and suggest what you might be good at. It doesn’t necessarily tell you or an employer whether you’re a good fit for a new role. But we often don’t know the answer to that question ourselves.

This is the advantage of speaking to someone with more experience than us. A mentor can inform you about the road ahead, suggest organizations for you to join, and make introductions. A headhunter gets paid to size up peoples’ résumés and personalities and choose persons who are a good fit for a particular job. In either case, this outside voice can point you in a direction you may not anticipate, but is a better fit than what you pictured for yourself.

If you don’t have a mentor and can’t get a headhunter to speak to you (this happens and I haven’t figured out why), you can always ask for informational interviews from people who are doing a job you’re considering. How do you get an informational interview? Just send an email. Seriously. Let them know who you are, where you’re at in your career, and what kind of information you’re looking for. I’ve emailed a lot of people for various reasons, and most are nice enough to share information or speak with you if you ask. I’ve even made a few genuine connections after speaking with people in person or via email. It’s a great tool if you have no or few connections in an industry.

Regardless of where you are when you start, you’ll eventually make a decision. When you do, I suggest taking advice from the Ask the Headhunter website. I’ve read Nick Corcodilos’ posts on the PBS Newshour website and I’ve become a fan. Among other things, he (and others) notes that most people find jobs through personal connections. Some of those personal connections are friends or classmates, but often, they’re people in the same industry as you.

Where do you meet these folks? Conferences, industry events, places like that. “Network?” Oh, no. Making connections takes time. I have a stack of unused business cards from people I’ve met at networking meetings who I’ve never contacted and who have never contacted me. In the meantime, I got my last two jobs because friends thought of me when someone asked if they knew anyone who might be a good fit for the job. You make connections the same way you did when you were a kid – you see people a few times in different contexts and start talking to them. Friendships form on their own from mutual interests, mutual jokes, and mutual friends. In the meantime, develop a good reputation for the quality of your work. Friendship and a good reputation trump networking.

For the most part, these situations do not require a five-year plan. If you want to attend law school, for example, your next five years are already planned for you (Taking the LSAT, applying, and waiting for first day of school is one year, law school is three years, and then you have to wait to be licensed, even if you’ve secured a job). Building many strong connections so that people think of you when a job comes up might take five years, but I’d say “probably less” for most of us. But some plans do.

I started working on my speaking career back in 2016. I spent a year working with a speaking coach (I anticipated two years). I spent the last two years writing this blog, working on my writing skills and my writing voice (I thought this would take one year). I anticipate another year or two of trying to publish magazine articles to build my audience. And I have goals further down the line. While it may look like a five-plan, it’s really been me taking yearlong steps and at each step asking, “what’s the next thing I need to do to reach my goal?” I have my eyes on a long-term goal, but each goal is a goal in itself, and I do my best to keep my mind on where I am and what I’m doing. And because things change along the way, I reevaluate at each step. Sometimes the “final” goal changes, sometimes it stays the same.

With five years of law and three years of public speaking preparation behind me, I find myself still against five-year plans. I am, however, a fan of long-term goals without artificial time pressures. Part of the reason for this comes from a story I heard from an interview of a screenwriter on YouTube. He was asked, “What’s the best advice you received but didn’t take?”

He said that after he sold his first script, an agent told him that studios would start asking him to write other movies, and that his choice would determine the path of his career. One the one hand, he could take whatever came and be known as a guy who writes for money. On the other hand, he could wait as long as it took to find an idea he really wanted to write about. If he held back and waited for this script, he’d be able to write whatever he wanted. The agent advised him to wait.

He succeeded, for a while. But eventually, one company offered him more dollar signs than he had ever seen. He took the money. He still had a lucrative career, but not the career he could have if he waited for the right project. If you create a five-year goal for yourself, you may rush into something that’s not right for you because your plan demanded it. On the other hand, you might spend years waiting to do something you’re already capable of or simply hate. It’s better to remove the time element. Instead, figure out what you want. Is that more responsibility or an entirely new career? Then, figure out what you need to accomplish before you can start working on this primary goal. Reevaluate after completing each sub-goal to see if the long-term goal is still something you want. If you find yourself no longer interested in a particular goal, you can start the process over before you feel like you’ve gone too far. After all, things change. And your more informed decision is likely to be the better one.

How to Calm Your Fears

Fear has a bad reputation. It’s a negative emotion. It’s a weakness. It’s a path to the dark side of the Force. It’s a character flaw. Our fictional heroes rarely show fear, and when they do, it’s for five minutes in the second act of the second movie in the trilogy.

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The Bottom Line

I was in my suit, sitting in a chair that looked more comfortable than it was, waiting for my would-be employer to break the silence. The interview was going well, if you call correctly answering a set of standard questions “going well.” I passed the time by looking for useful information on the office walls – she might shift the conversation and one of the hanging mementos might be important.

I hadn’t found anything interesting yet when she turned back to me and said, “I’m looking for loyalty.”

“Loyalty” was the wrong word. She meant “an unpaid after-hours administrative assistant.” I know because I sometimes ran into the person who abandoned the position I was interviewing for on the way home, hours after the workday ended. She was coming from work; I was coming from hanging out. I never met her replacement, who lasted nine months – just long enough for me to forget why my acquaintance quit. Without access to that memory, I was stuck contemplating something she said about not giving me too much extra work, wondering whether I could trust her.

True loyalty is most often earned over time, through multiple interactions with another person. Through these interactions, followers infer what kind of people their leaders are. When followers conclude that leaders are stable, trustworthy, and care about them as a person, they are more likely to work hard to help leaders achieve their goals. However, leaders can also fabricate loyalty through fear:

A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?

[After an 11-minute ovation, the first man to stop clapping was sentenced to 10 years in prison on made up charges.]

– Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago

or reward:

[After sneaking into Liberian President William Tolbert’s house to learn why he and other members of the Liberian army had not been paid, Sergeant Samuel Doe found Tolbert sleeping and killed him.] In short order, he proceeded to replace virtually everyone who had been in the government or the army with members of his own small Krahn tribe, which made up only about 4 percent of the population. He increased the pay of army privates from $85 to $250 per month. He purged everyone he did not trust. Following secret trials, he had no fewer than fifty of his original collaborators executed. Doe funded his government, as his predecessors had, with revenues from Firestone, which leased large tracts of land for rubber; from the Liberian Iron Mining Company, which exported iron ore; and by registering more than 2,500 ocean-going ships without requiring safety inspections. Further, he received direct financial backing from the United States government. The United States gave Doe’s government $500 million over ten years. In exchange the United States received basing rights and made Liberia a center for US intelligence and propaganda. It is believed that Doe and his cronies personally amassed $300 million.

– Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith
The Dictator’s Handbook

but those who follow for these reasons are more likely to slack off when the leader is out of sight or fade soon after they sense the blade dulling or the vault emptying. Finally, some people sincerely believe that authority shouldn’t be questioned. When these people are followers, they tend to comply more easily and ask fewer questions of leadership than others.

This was my first interaction with my would-be employer, and since my salary would be based strictly on experience, she had no power to punish or reward me. I considered pointing out that she should be more concerned with my skills, but I wasn’t there to debate philosophy. I was there to get a job. She hadn’t quite asked me a question, so I didn’t quite give her an answer. I said, “Uh…okay,” and let her keep talking.

When I got home, I vented for an hour calmly considered the situation. The concept of loyalty was as out of place in the context of the job I was interviewing for as it would be if I applied for a job chucking rocks into a black hole. It might make sense if she had just taken over a large organization. There, she might be looking to fire people so she could reward those who helped her get the job with lucrative positions. But this was a five-person office. All she needed was someone capable of doing the work. Unless she was referring to after-hours work…

A few days later, I got the good news – a second interview! I prepared to impress with stories of my legendary work ethic. I sat down, opened my mouth, and out popped stories of my love of finishing my work quickly so I can leave work and enjoy my life.

I didn’t get the job. A few days later I remembered why my acquaintance quit.

Works Referenced

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We are What we Repeatedly Learn

“I can’t do it,” he said. So, he didn’t try.

“With his disadvantages, he couldn’t possibly catch up,” they said. So, no one encouraged him.

When I was younger, I kept hearing people say, “I can’t.” This wasn’t true. I had known these people my entire life. We had built elaborate clubhouses together, without tools, using just the things we found around the neighborhood. The idea that they couldn’t do a math problem was nonsense. I’d respond, “If I can do it, so can you.” They would rebut, “Yeah, but you’re smart.” Boy, ten-year old brains are quick.

I had run into an iceberga deeply-held belief that influences how a person sees the world. These beliefs can be incorrect, inaccurate, or completely right. In this case, my friends had mistakenly determined that intelligence was the sole cause of academic success. The truth was more complex. We went to different schools. My math class was ahead of theirs. People tend to get good at things they enjoy doing, I liked solving puzzles, and math problems were all little puzzles. Flashes of this more nuanced explanation sometimes emerged – for example, everyone knew I went to a different school – but faded quickly. After all, I had only been transferred in the first place because I was a “smart kid.” The easier explanation, laced with the iceberg, stuck.

We acquire many of our beliefs through cultural transmission – teaching, repetition, imitation, and other ways of learning. This process helps to ensure that we behave in ways acceptable to the groups we belong to. We learn throughout our lives. This allows us to adapt to new situations and multiple group norms. However, beliefs that are useful in one context may not be in another. Here, my friends likely learned “smart kids do well in school” from everyone – parents, neighbors, teachers, TV, etc. And it’s a reasonable explanation as to why I knew the math I did. But, it wasn’t a good explanation as to why they thought they couldn’t do the same. Without correction, explanation, or personal experience, my friends could have applied this idea to a variety of situations, accidentally dampening their successes in the process.

I had heard variations on “I can’t [plus why]” my entire life. It confused teenage me. It annoyed 20-year old me. (Conveniently, I ignored all the times I said this myself.) But it surprised me to hear it in law school. After all, one does not simply walk into law school without good college grades. Despite this, during those three years, I listened to many people predict their chances of success on anything other than a valid assessment of their own preparation. I sat through presentations where people discussed why we might fail rather than how we can succeed. And, not being immune to the effects of cultural transmission, for a short time I wondered whether I’d fail the bar exam simply because of the color of my skin.

This question came up against my own iceberg – I can do anything I want if I work at it. My mom told me this. Teachers told me this. I got cursed out by people when they felt didn’t I believe this. And I had experience to back it up. The conflicting ideas gave me headaches, to the point that I withdrew from conversations where friends predicted their own failure. Eventually, my long-held belief won out over my new insecurities. I put them aside, got to work, and passed the bar on the first try.

But we don’t all have the weight of expectations or the benefit of experience to help us sidestep inaccurate beliefs. This can be especially those of us who are the first in our families to get to college. I can do it myself because I’ve always done it myself can give someone a lot of a confidence. However, that person may not be comfortable asking for help if they need to learn skills they don’t currently have or if they just need to talk to someone. What happens to that person when they don’t do well as they’d like and learn from everyone around them that they should expect to fail? My guess is that most will do just that – fail, unless something circumvents that expectation.

This is what happened at several New York law schools in 2013. That year, 94% of the students from my school who took the bar exam passed. But in 2012 and 2014, approximately 85% of the students passed. The same spike occurred across the state. These three classes started with similar academic profiles, so it was reasonable to assume they would wind up with similar bar exam pass rates. But they didn’t. Something was different.

What happened was that in 2013 U.S. News and World Report changed the methodology of its law school rankings. This change shuffled the rankings. My school dropped 17 places. Students took these rankings seriously, and at my school, there was panic. Students were afraid that they wouldn’t get jobs because of our new position in the rankings. Fear can focus attention, and my classmates were more focused on the idea that they wouldn’t find a job if they failed than they were that they would fail because of any other reason. With I’m not failing this test in mind, they proceeded to do just that.

2013’s huge shock was 2014’s new normal. The fear that motivated my class was gone. But 2013 showed that normal isn’t optimal. Some portion of the law student body is capable of passing the bar exam on the first try but typically does not. If these students, like me, repeatedly heard that they were more likely to fail because of things outside their control (e.g. skin color, class ranking), it may have negatively affected their work.

Compare this to what I experienced at an event at NYU Law the other night: a panel of law firm partners consistently answered questions about how African-American lawyers can be successful with variations of “work hard” and “ask for help.” Their direct experience mirrors the results of research on the subject [auto download]. They also told the audience that they expected good work from the people who work for them. I also experienced this kind of encouragement in my master’s program at Penn, where the theme of the program was “what can you do with what you’re learning now?” Imagine what deeply held beliefs you might develop after three years of expectation and encouragement versus three years of being told you might fail.

In good news, we are capable of updating our beliefs based on new information. In better news, these updates influence our thinking, which influences how we respond, which influences people we are connected to. It takes, of course, more effort than reading a blog post, but depending on what you’re trying to do, it may well be worth it to put in the work so you can eventually challenge someone and hear them respond, “I can.”

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How to be Lazy

“How are you so organized,” my friend asked me, wondering how I always seem to have time to myself despite a full-time job and several outside projects. “It’s simple,” I answered. “My life comes before my work. The more organized I am, the faster I get my work done, the more time I have for myself.” Here’s how I do it:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 4.06.44 PM
Graphic created on

You can add in extra boxes if you like, but this flowchart generally gets me back to playing basketball in the shortest possible time. Speaking of which…

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3 Ways Cognitive Science can Help Diversity Efforts Succeed

These days, many schools, businesses, and associations make efforts to recruit and retain women and minorities. Yet, much of the press surrounding these efforts focuses on the various failures of these programs. Behind the scenes, discussions can also center on failures, rather than making plans to succeed. Finally, many of the approaches used by organizations seeking diverse candidates overstate their message, leading to disaffection of the recruited candidate.

There are a number of ways these efforts can be improved, leading to more diverse student bodies and workforces. In this post, I explore how organizations can use findings from cognitive science (primarily psychology) to improve the results of their efforts.

  1. Reframe your themes

In psychology, the framing effect refers to our tendency to make decisions based on how information is presented to us, rather than on an analysis of the content. This occurs because our brains naturally take context into account, rather than analyzing information in isolation. A study conducted in 1981 demonstrated this tendency. Participants were asked to choose one of two treatments for a deadly disease affecting 600 people. The first treatment would produce a certain outcome: 200 people would live and 400 people would die. The second treatment would produce a less certain outcome: there was a 33% chance that everyone would live and a 66% chance that everyone would die.

Here’s how the options were presented to the participants:

Positive Frame: Treatment A – will save 200 lives. Treatment B –  a 33% chance of saving all 600 people, and a 66% chance of saving no one.

Negative Frame: Treatment A – 400 people will die. Treatment B – 33% chance that no people will die, and a 66% probability that all 600 will die.

Here’s what happened:

Although the choices are identical, how the choice was framed significantly impacted what decision participants made.

By now, you may have figured where I’m going with this, and you’re right – your own language can sabotage your efforts to reach your goals. When you are looking for ideas on, say, how to add more light to a room but your event title is “Why Lawyers Can’t Screw in Lightbulbs,” you can be sure that more time will be spent talking about how lawyers aren’t handy than will be spent preparing to buy extra lamps. At diversity improvement meetings, this often translates into a discussion of obstacles instead of ideas. Furthermore, repetition helps to cement ideas in our mind. This can cause us to carry a frame forward into the next conversation about the same topic.

There are three small things you can do to help keep your diversity meetings on topic:

Watch your words. Frames are created by the words you choose to express an idea. When it comes to a meeting, they help participants know what to expect. Therefore, choosing words in your program title and agenda that help set the tone you want is essential. If you want to discuss how bad something is, words like “problem” and “crisis” may be appropriate. If you want participants to discuss ideas to improve your efforts, words like “issue” and “opportunity” may help keep participants on track.

Save time to discuss the negative. The best laid plans consider how things can go wrong. Even if the potential issues considered by the team never happen, the exercise helps prepare your team to handle the unexpected things that always happen.

Though it can be useful to bring up some negative aspects during the course of a meeting (for example, if the suggested idea is impossible or illegal), it is also useful to evaluate fully formed ideas. However, it is not useful to get stuck discussing potential issues when you’re still trying to form ideas. Therefore, I suggest setting aside specific portions of time to discuss what could go wrong, and make sure (1) that the idea is ultimately feasible and (2) that you’ve thought ahead about potential realistic obstacles.

With respect to potential obstacles, the team leader should ask the group for a list of potential obstacles. Once this list is in the air or on the board, the team should then figure out what they will do if these specific issues happen. The team will not come up with everything that could happen, but when something does, the team will be prepared to effectively work through it.

Create a penalty system. One way that groups enforce behavioral norms is through punishment. Humans have created many forms of punishment, from teasing to gossip to jail. Each of these serves the purpose of keeping individuals in line with group norms. For example, you are likely with familiar swear jars, where group members put money into a jar each time they swear. This helps to promote the norm of not swearing. Paying money into the jar reinforces the idea that one is not supposed to swear.

If you want to create a group norm of not getting bogged down in the discussion of obstacles, first, everyone in the group must clearly understand that this is expected behavior in the group. Second, the punishment should be something the group considers fair (I also like funny, but that’s just me). Finally, if the undesirable behavior occurs, the punishment rule should be enforced. If it is not, then the rule is likely to fall by the wayside.

  1. Aim high, but stay grounded

In law school, I organized events for the Black Law Students Association. The job description didn’t contain a set of goals, so I created one – fill the room to capacity. I immediately figured out a way to make this happen – get President Obama as a speaker. So, I called the White House and asked what the procedures were to request the President as a speaker. They sent a list, and I followed it to the letter.

Here’s the thing – Presidents get lots of speaking requests. We were definitely having the event, but the White House would probably tell us he wasn’t available. So we requested other high profile black lawyers, all with the same expectation that they might be unavailable. Ultimately, President Obama wasn’t available. We expected that. We were still able to come up with a great concept, find notable and interesting speakers, and draw a healthy sized crowd.

Similarly, diversity efforts often begin with someone saying, “We need more ______ in [our office, this field, etc.]!” This is commendable, but as an example, let’s imagine that every law office wants a proportional amount of African-American attorneys, today:

Proportion of African-Americans

Clearly, that’s impossible. Sure, you could poach students from master’s programs in ethnic, gender, and cultural studies and Ph.D. programs in education , where African-Americans and other minorities are overrepresented. However, these programs don’t have enough students to result in a proportional share of law students, let alone creating equal proportions in every industry. Considering these facts, here’s what you can do:

Be realistic. Realistic goals have the best chance of success, and encourage people to try harder tasks. In my example, I attempted to get President Obama as a speaker. This was realistic because the White House had a dedicated set of procedures to request his time. However, it was also unlikely because of the demands on his time. Therefore, I had to accept both the small possibility that he might say yes and the large possibility that he might not be available. Based on that analysis, it made sense to try and recruit other speakers.

Likewise, your diversity effort may be aimed at making your organization reflect the demographic makeup of the United States, but at present this is also unlikely. To compensate, your organization can create two goals: (1) to get as close to parity as possible, and (2) if that is not possible, at least have the organization reflect the current demographic makeup of the field. Adjusting your goals as things change can help keep your organization on track.

Shoot for the stars anyway. I knew from the start that booking President Obama to speak was unlikely, but I still went for it. After all, booking the President wasn’t my main goal – filling the room to capacity was. Therefore, it was worthwhile to spend time asking, because this exercise allowed me to consider approaching people I might not have otherwise considered.

Like many others, I value being recruited for what I bring to the table. I have little interest in being recruited just so that someone check off a box or two on a list. Ultimately, the value in diverse candidates lies in the varying perspectives of people with different backgrounds. So, by all means, even if a prospect may have a good enough résumé to garner offers from every organization in your industry, go for him or her. Try to get the demographics of the company the way you want them. Not because you want to check off a box, but because these people bring value to your company. If you can shoot for this star, surely you’ll land on a cloud.

Be flexible. Let’s say you’re realistic. You shot for the stars. And then all of your top prospects took offers at other organizations. What do you do then? Think of something else.

Flexibility is simply the ability to change course when needed. In this context, there are actions that are now considered traditional recruiting methods. But you also can take actions that are truly traditional recruiting methods – developing your own talent.

One variation on this idea is the apprenticeship. In theory, an organization can hire a diversityperson who has entry-level skill and an interest in the work of the company. The prospect could be hired on contract – he or she would work for the organization for a set number of years while pursuing the necessary credentials to take on certain jobs in the organization. This way, an organization doesn’t have to fight for the same prospects as its competition. The prospect gains valuable skills. Finally, this type of program helps to avoid worker/intern situations that provide no value for the intern or the company.

This is only one possible example of flexibility. There are surely more ways to work around the current lack of diverse candidates in a field. Organizations could use a variety of flexible approaches to diversify their workforce.

  1. Help increase the supply

Okay, I fibbed a bit in the title – this tip is economics, not cognitive science. But it’s important.

Economic theory holds that if there is a demand for a product or service, the market (individuals acting on their own or through entities such as corporations) will add supplies to fill that demand. Today, there is a strong demand for diverse candidates in many fields, but there are not enough candidates to fill those seats. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, but that’s a subject for another post.

For now, let’s focus on one idea – the best way to increase your chance of finding diverse candidates is to increase the size of the pool of diverse candidates. There is, of course, an obstacle to making this happen – the candidates themselves. Consider this: a potential candidate must (1) know that a job, school, or program exists; (2) obtain the necessary skills and credentials to gain entry; (3) believe in their skills and credentials enough to apply; and (4) obtain the position. This is a lot of work for one person, which is why schools have career counselors, companies have created test preparation programs, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics created the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Because there is so much information, and because people tend to follow the lead of others in their group, organizations and industries seeking diverse candidates should find ways of making things easier for their candidates. Ideally, this effort should be taken up by organizations, schools, parents, students, and other stakeholders. However, until this type of coordination happens, let’s think about how the organization can contribute to increasing the size of the pool.

Be present. If you want people to know you exist and that you’re looking specifically from them, it pays to be where they are. Sure, plenty of organizations attend job fairs, school fairs, etc., but consider the recruiting tactics of the military, credit card companies, and bar exam review companies.

In the past, credit card companies were criticized for their on-campus recruiting efforts. Generally, these organizations would set up a table in the school or on its property once or twice a month. Students would pass by, talk to the recruiter or salesperson, and some would sign up to join the military or for a credit card.

Organizations seeking diverse candidates can do the same thing. Have someone come by, set up a table, tell students about the industry, the company, what kind of jobs they hire for, and the type of skills the candidate needs to develop to achieve that goal. The representative need not take résumés – just obtaining the correct information can help an aspiring candidate perform better and keep them striving toward a goal.

Alternatively, consider training diverse employees to teach introductory classes at colleges. A 2013 study found that many students choose a major based on the quality of their introductory class. Compelling professors can spark interest in a field, while mind-numbing professors can cause a student to lose interest entirely. Diverse students may be more comfortable addressing certain concerns about the field to someone of the same race, ethnicity, or gender. The professor can help allay these concerns by giving them detailed, specific information about the environment in the field.

No matter how it’s done, having someone with knowledge who can explain to prospective candidates and those who haven’t made up their mind can greatly benefit the organization’s efforts. It can also help students to choose between fields based on their strengths, rather than because everyone else is doing the same thing.

Inform. Specific information is always more useful than general information. Say, for example, you want to be a lawyer. You ask someone how to get into law school. They say, “you have to get a good score on the LSAT.” That’s a useful piece of information, but imagine if your advisor also explained what subjects the LSAT tested, how the scoring works, what’s considered a good score, and why law schools use the LSAT to begin with. This specific information is far more useful than the general information in the first example. It allows a person to make goals, something you can’t do if you don’t have specific information.

Your organization can help make this type of information available to groups they wish to hire. The table idea above is a good way to disseminate this kind of information, but so are pamphlets, websites, commercials, and appearances. All of this communication can help a prospective candidate to see that they are the kind of person you’re looking for, not just based on diversity, but based on their skills and interests. And this knowledge can start them on the path to finding your organization.

Normalize. People are influenced by persons who they perceive to be members of their group. If it is normal for group members to seek out a particular career, you may start to see overrepresentation of a group in a field. If there are no members, your potential candidates may think that your organization is “not for them.”

Using the above example as a starting point, be sure to have representatives on hand who are members of the group you wish to recruit. Actually speaking to someone who can address a candidate’s concerns is more effective than any stock photo.


Cognitive science can give diversity officers and committees a variety of tools to use in their efforts. Often, we mistakenly begin these efforts with a discussion of what makes a person of another gender or culture different. Instead, we should look first to the processes all humans have in common, the same way that illusionists have been for thousands of years. Understanding these fundamental processes can help organizations do a better job of finding and retaining the currently available talent. It is also a first step at increasing the total pool of talent. While this post is not even close to a complete rundown on the aspects of humanity that organizations can consider, hopefully it can be a starting point for including cognitive science in your efforts.

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