One of the things I hated while I was a student in high school and college is that the only things people ever cared to know about me were what I was studying and my college plans. My parents, their employees, their friends, relatives, strangers in the coffees shop, Uber drivers, flight attendants — you get it — the only thing people wanted to know about was my schooling.
When I finally dropped out of college, I realized quickly how limiting the “student” label can be. I technically was no more skilled, no more knowledgeable, and no more confident, but as soon as I started telling people that I was a “marketer,” they started treating me differently. Doing this allowed me to get clients, travel opportunities, speaking invites, and more.
This lends itself to an interesting conclusion: stop identifying as a student. Taylor King, a college dropout I met for the first time a couple years ago in Charleston when he was finishing high school put it nicely today on Facebook:
Don’t tell anybody you’re in school.
I’ve been blessed to talk to a lot of people in the last year in all stages of life. Many of which are either about to start school, currently studying, or have just gotten out.
Personally, if you’re in school and want to run in the ranks of professionals, you should focus on talking about your skillset and your business. I got into events, met with business owners, and networked heavily without any mention of my school. I believe it tremendously improved people’s perception of me as I came to them as a passionate individual dedicated to their craft.
The perception of a student in college is not “bad”, but rather “not ready”, which you can imagine is not appealing to someone you want to pay you.
Show them you’re ready by putting school in the background when dealing with business in the real world.
Taylor’s advice is not just empty words. Over the last year I’ve watched him grow from a relatively uncertain dropout to an employee at a successful startup in New York City to an in-demand creative videographer who recently did a shoot for GQ. He knows from experience how positioning yourself as a professional, even if you don’t feel like you’re ready yet, can make a huge difference in the kinds of opportunities that come your way and your ability to make an income doing things you love.
As I’ve written before, my general philosophy on college is this: don’t let your degree and education status be the most interesting thing about you. Taylor’s advice, and his success as a young person who dropped out of college, is built on this principle. You will be taken seriously if you position yourself seriously. If you position yourself as a student, expect “student-like” results and treatment from others.
Note that there is a difference between what Taylor is telling you to do and what someone like the character of George Constanza in Seinfeld does when he claims:
I work in the building. I’m an architect. Have you seen the new addition to the Gugenheim? It didn’t take me that long either.
George is a liar and a buffoon who can’t follow through on anything. He might be able to fake it in the short term but he will always be discovered.
Taylor had the minimum skill he needed to get started as a professional and had already done some work here and there. All he needed was to stop telling people he was a student and start telling them he was a creative. He just needed to give himself permission to be who he already was in front of other people.
And here’s one more example of Taylor’s principle in action, but in an area entirely unrelated to students. My girlfriend and I saw Fifty Shades Freed the other day at the movies and there is a scene in which an attractive architect is hitting on Christian Gray in front of the main character, his new wife Ana. When she addresses Ana as Ana in a clear power move, she responds “you may call me Mrs. Gray.” The power dynamic was entirely reversed and the woman backed down. It is an odd example I know, but the principle remains the same: how you identify yourself will determine how people treat you.
To bring it all back to students, I’ve met hundreds of students around the world on my travels speaking at conferences and universities and they all want to know how they can start getting professional opportunities. The first step is as Taylor says, to stop identifying as a student. Start telling people that you’re “an X.” Do something interesting in that category, take on a project, start blogging about a topic you care about, and show your work publicly.
You will find opportunties that were previously closed begin to unlock and that people no longer look at you as the unprepared, “unready” student you once were. You’ll also notice a mindset shift happen within you that helps you get more done professionally. I’ve written a few times on the preparation mindset and I think consciously removing “student” from the way you describe yourself is a good first step in overcoming it:
Telling ourselves that we’re a “student” becomes a convenient way of postponing the responsibility of actually building something while still allowing ourselves to feel like we’re working towards an end goal.
In my own case, calling myself a marketer not only reframed the expectations others had of me, but it reframed the expectations I had of myself too. It created a psychological pressure to work that wasn’t there as strongly while I was a student. I can’t imagine going back.