Networking F-ups and Missed Opportunities

Slipping through his fingers
Koen Cobbaert

Today I read a great post by Jeffrey A. Tucker called Work for Free.  He has a great message which can be summed up thusly:  work for free, get paid. I wish I would have had that advice a few years ago.

He discusses several examples of people taking the initiative, bending over backwards to finish a project, fix a problem, and just overall get things done – for free.

Now, there are plenty of articles telling you not to work for free, and to make sure you get paid for what you’re worth, but unless you’re a contractor with a body of work to show, or an experienced pro with a stellar resume, those articles probably don’t apply to you.  Resumes tell people you are valuable (through your past experience) but at this stage in your career you might not have that luxury.  The fact is, on paper, you might not be valuable.  That just means you have to show them you are valuable, and that’s where working for free comes into play.

In Tucker’s example, a worker performed excellent, challenging work under a time-crunch and did so for free (let’s forget that the worker in question certainly benefited from practicing his craft under such circumstances).  Then, Tucker was contacted a few months later by someone considering this worker for a job.  Obviously, Tucker went nuts praising this kid – not just boilerplate stuff, but genuine enthusiasm for the person’s work and work ethic.  You can’t buy that kind of endorsement.

This example makes me embarrassed for myself.

I think of all the times I had the PERFECT opportunity to make an impression and didn’t.  I don’t know if it was a sense of laziness or entitlement or what, but I just didn’t and I wish I could go back and pummel Past Tim for not being more proactive.  Here’s an example:

My first job in Washington, DC was actually an internship at a Defense Think Tank. (Yes, it’s just what you think – an empty swimming pool full of martial artists and linebackers)  I was in the missile defense and space security departments as a research assistant, and for the latter department I was working under the director of the whole think tank.  She was a very nice, extremely smart woman who was the leading voice in her field.  I was more interested in the missile defense side, and there was plenty to do there, so I didn’t end up doing much work for the Director.  But that didn’t stop me from asking her for an endorsement later on.

I had applied for a job at another think tank in DC, a prestigious one where I knew the competition would be tough.  My company wasn’t hiring, meaning no conflict of interest, so I asked the Director if she would send an email to the hiring manager at said firm.  She politely agreed and I have no doubt she sent a nice email recommending me or at least asking that I be considered for the position.  What a missed opportunity.

I did not get the job.

Was it her fault I didn’t get the job? Please. Her email no doubt made me more competitive that a lot of other applicants.  I was lucky she didn’t flat out say, “No, why would I recommend you?  I only put my name behind people who are extraordinary and that, Past Tim, you are not.”

But do you see the difference between the type of recommendation Tucker gave, and the type I got?  Tucker was blown away by this worker because of all the initiative he showed, and probably couldn’t contain his enthusiasm when endorsing the worker. I got a polite email, which was probably more than I deserved.

Sidebar:  I used to work as a server at a fine dining seafood restaurant in Denver.  We had this lobster sandwich that was only available at lunch.  It was one of the baddest-ass sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.  It was kind of pricey at $16, but it was like a pound of claw and knuckle meat, lightly dressed – amazing.  The damn thing still haunts me to this day. It’s so good I’ve devoted a totally non sequitur paragraph of my blog to how awesome it was.

Getting to the point, from time to time people would ask me about other items on our menu, and we really served good food, so making recommendations was easy.  Sometimes people took my advice, sometimes not.  But when they asked about that sandwich, and I would get tears in my eyes telling them how awesome it was, and how it was worth every penny, and how they would NOT be disappointed – I sold that freaking sandwich 100% of the time.  100%.  Stupid example, maybe, but a genuine endorsement is pretty obvious, and it’s tough to turn down.


What I should have done is gone out of my way to help people at my internship, including the Director, but everyone else too.  I did hustle on certain things, go above and beyond on a few projects, and I never shirked responsibility.  But that does not make you stand out – that might keep you out of the “he’s a lazy-ass” bucket, but it is not remarkable.

Think how different the Director’s email would have been if I had constantly said, “Look, I know you are busy and there is work I can take off your plate so you have time to focus on the bigger issues.  Can I do something you’ve been putting off?” or “I noticed this article I thought you should see – I went ahead and summarized it, highlighting the key points up front.” or “I noticed there are a few gaps in our company’s research areas.  Here’s a list of subjects that could use some research papers, and I’d love to be the one to write them.” (this last one I actually did, after not getting the aforementioned job, and it led to an extension of the internship – something I desperately needed at the time.

Back to working for free.  I know this is a difficult thing to do, but it can be a critical move.  A) it might be your only chance to show someone you’re valuable and B) it is a rare opportunity to get someone really excited about you and what you do.  Maybe don’t look at it as working for free, maybe just look at it as working for free to eventually get paid.

Here’s a great specific case study of how working for free pays. If you’re wondering who they’re talking about, it’s this guy – Charlie Hoehn – and he outlines a great how-to strategy here.

What opportunities am I missing out on now?  What are YOU missing out on now?  I’d love to hear your comments below.

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Tim Murphy is the founder of - the first free web app to help you track school and job applications.

  • TxAnakonda

    Wow, I just discovered your site and love it. This is very helpful and interesting info! I was researching how to go about applying for my dream job that I know I’m not qualified for, my only qualification is my passion for the work. Now I need to figure out what to put on my cover letter without sounding desperate. Should I add the part about volunteering on the cover letter? I have so many questions.

  • Stees

    Interesting post and motivating message. Can’t say I’ve really ever seen firsthand someone operate at this level “for free.” It makes sense but not only is there no immediate tangible incentive ($) for my time but there’s no guarantee the receiving party will really “go to bat” for you or go above and beyond an e-mail on your behalf.

    I’m craving lobster sandwich now…

    • Hey Stees,

      Thanks for the message. You’re definitely right that there is no guarantee in this approach. But you’ll never find a “sure thing” when it comes to networking or job hunting (as I’m sure you know). All you can do is optimize your chances , and going above and beyond for someone (especially without any monetary benefit) is a great way to make an impression. You might only get an email (which is still useful), but you might just make an impression that will get you more. Thanks again for reading and for the thoughtful comment. I wish you could try that sandwich…

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