I talk to friends and colleagues all the time about rock stars. Not the 1980's hair band rock stars (though we could all take some cues from them on how to be phenomenal). I'm talking about those people you work with who just get it. They seem to excel at everything they do, people enjoy spending time with them, most people know and respect them, and their employers never want to let them go. They are the people everyone wants to work for and with…and like real-life, one of a kind rock stars, they are a rare breed. Are you thinking of a specific person who fits this mold? I know I am.
The Rock Star Backstory
So why am I writing about rock stars? It's because times are tough and beginning to etching out a career in education abroad (or any industry, for that matter) is cut-throat competitive. And all of us need to start "rocking it" if we're going to make it. I get emails, daily, from people wanting advice on getting a job in study abroad. These are some pretty amazing people with experiences and skills that anyone would envy. Yet, they are still struggling to get their career started or advanced in education abroad.
Last spring, I was invited to sit on a web chat panel of international ed professionals to answer questions about "Breaking Into the Field." (You can read the full transcript of the web chat and learn all about my awesome co-presenters here.) It was about a two-hour web chat and roughly 500 people logged on throughout the session to see what advice we had on becoming an education abroad pro. It was a fun and ridiculously challenging experience for me because it's much easier said than done to describe how to get a job in our field. At one point during the chat, a participant told the panel that she (not really sure if it was a woman, but just play along) had done everything we'd said - gone to conferences, done informational interviews, had professionals review her application materials, networked like crazy, read the professional documents of our field, interned for free in offices, was working on a master's degree - yet she wasn't getting anywhere with her job search. "What other advice do you have for me? What am I not trying?" she asked. It's heartbreaking to hear stories like this because she was doing everything anyone in our field would suggest. So what next? Me being the jokester/snarky bugger that I am said only half seriously, "Be a rock star." The panel kind of chuckled, because like me, they knew it was a real thing but probably impossible to describe. And like clock work, the woman writing in followed up my response with: "Could you describe what it means to be a rock star?"
Cue my jaw hitting the floor. I was stumped. I didn't know what to tell her other than you have to be exceptional, be unique in some way, figure out your story and tell it well. But I knew inside that that wasn't really the answer she was looking for. We wrapped up the web chat, said our goodbyes, and went on with our day jobs.
A couple of weeks later, the NAFSA staff contacted me and asked me if I'd give a presentation at the national conference in Houston called "How to be a Rock Star in International Education" in the Career Center as part of their professional development workshops. I immediately said yes, hung up the phone, and thought: "Hmmm…what the heck am I going to say?!"
Rock Star vs Good Enough - Why *Not* Being A Rock Star Is Okay
The session at NAFSA in Houston was small but went pretty well. And based on the feedback I got from the participants, I decided to try out this session at a couple of NAFSA regional conferences this fall (holla Region II and IV!). In my prep, I started delving even deeper into the professionalization of education abroad, thought leaders in the career coaching and business worlds, and reflecting on my own career journey. And one thing kept coming up over and over again that is VERY important to discuss.
While this post (and the series of posts to follow) are all about being exceptional, being a ROCK STAR, it is absolutely okay to NOT be a rock star. What do I mean? Well, first, you have to realize that being a rock star isn't always easy; it's not necessarily going to come naturally to a lot of people; it's going to be hard work. You'll have to make a big effort. You'll have to actively showcase yourself, your talents, your skills, your abilities - and for some people that does not sound fun. Secondly, some people want to simply be good at their jobs, happy in their position, and satisfied with who they are professionally. And that is a wonderful place to be. Some people a lot of people just want to be Good Enough, to be employees, to make a student's day, and to earn a living promoting something they love. Being a rock star isn't for everyone; but being good enough can be for anyone. Make no mistake, to get a foot in the door or to get to that next rung on the ladder, you'll have to reconsider your willingness to be a rock star. But for those of you who are perfectly content where you are and with what you're doing, keep on rocking it. Being good enough is... well…good enough.
However, for those trying to break into the education abroad club or catapult their career to the next level, you're going to have to start thinking beyond "good enough" and start thinking knock-their-socks-off-impressive to take the next step professionally.
Why Being A Rock Star *Should* Matter - The Jobs That Don't Exist
The amazing thing about rock stars is that they can excel in ANY field. Rock stars are smart and, for the most part, they can learn the content needed to succeed in any industry. Of course, there are big exceptions to this. Highly specialized professions like medicine, law, engineering require a considerable amount of specific training and education, I get that. However, most content areas/industries can be learned. And rock stars shift from area to area because they can make things happen. If they need to learn the ins and outs of faculty-led programs, they'll do it. If they need to learn all about pharmaceutical sales, they'll rock it. My point is that being a rock star is typically independent of the content you're surrounded with - rock star characteristics transcend industry.
And that's really good news because, believe it or not, your job and your field are not safe. (Oh boy, now I sound like an alarmist!). Don't freak out - just pay attention. The world is changing at a rapid pace primarily due to technology. And we all have to come to terms with the fact that a job that exists today, may not be necessary in ten years. And a job that wasn't even a thing ten years ago, is indespensible today. The beauty of being a rock star is that you'll be ready for the shift, you'll be ready to step into that job that didn't even exist "when you were a kid." Just think about how we are slowly moving to more and more online learning in higher education. Will college and university campuses be relevant in 10 or 20 years? Will most student learning and advising move online? I don't know - but I do know that we all need to be ready for the changing nature of higher education. I read an article in Forbes recently that outlined ten jobs today that didn't exist ten years ago. A few highlights: Online Data Mining, Chief Listening Officer, and User Experience Designer. If you don't know what any of these are, you better learn. A rock star has to stay ahead of the curve.
So What Is A Rock Star?
So what does it mean to be a rock star? Seriously. How would you describe a rock star? It's not easy. Because being a rock star is often about having an X-factor, that unidentifiable, je ne sais quoi, just-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue quality that's hard to pin point but you know it when you see it. I have my own ideas on some characteristics of rock stars, but I've also enlisted some leaders in our field and others to help me round out the list. In preparation for my sessions at NAFSA, I talked with CEOs, office directors, advisors, and road warriors to find out what characteristics they would use to describe a rock star. Of course, I also read - a lot - of what executives and thought leaders from the business world had to say on the topic. My hope is that we can all emulate these characteristics in our own careers. Over the next several months I'll be writing a series of posts on what it takes to be a rock star. However, don't be fooled. Just because I'm attempting to create a tangible rock star tool-kit, it doesn't mean that 1) I've mastered or executed any of these myself or 2) That everyone will agree with my take on this. So with that little disclaimer out of the way, let's rock it.