How to Get Past the Experience Catch-22

You can’t get a job because you have no experience. Does that sound familiar? I’ve been there; we’ve all been in that catch-22. I’ve also found a way to get out of it!

Here are reasons why it’s a pain in the ass to get a job without experience, and what you can do about it.

Your Hand Was Held

You went to school, took the course, studied books, articles, and papers, and feel you are the most intelligent being on the planet!

You’re ready to change the world!

Then I say, “Your education isn’t good enough.”

You fall flat on your face in disappointment.

In school you’re allowed to make mistakes, and try again. A teacher held your hand along the way, guiding you to the answers. Hell, the answers were in the book you were reading.

In the real world, nobody holds your hand, especially the person paying you to do the job. You don’t hold the waiter’s hand as he returns to the kitchen with your order, do you?

I hope not, that might be unsanitary. Also, don’t invite me to lunch if this is what you do.

Show You’re Capable

Showing you’re capable of doing the job so the employer can assess the risk they take to hire you.

The distinction between someone who is capable and not capable is their level of confidence.

Example: You learned how to handle sexual harassment complaints from a book, but you don’t feel confident you can handle such a sensitive issue.

How do you get confident?

Simple: do what you don’t feel confident in until you feel confident about it.

It really is that simple.

You did this when learning to walk and talk. It’s no different an approach than anything else. Unless that anything else is a robbing a bank, in which case you shouldn’t do it in first place.

Do Spec Work / Volunteer

As corny as it sounds, it helps tremendously.

Spec, or volunteer work, is work performed without a contract or agreement of payment or hiring. Basically, no promise that you’ll get the job. It may lead to the job, or it may not.

Artists, architects, and anyone in a creative field knows that spec work is the best way to get your foot in the door.

If you’re in a non-creative field, such as management, where there are laws, regulations, and the ever present factor of other humans, then volunteering. Your ‘spec work’ will be references from people involved.

(Note: If you’re doing spec work with other people’s trademarks / logos, then you must put ‘spec work’ or ‘ad-spec work’ on the piece, so people know it’s not from the company.)

Getting Experience Without a Job

Do the following things to create experience for yourself.


Create a portfolio of your spec work (or several portfolios if they’re not related). This shows you are capable of organizing yourself, which means you’re capable of organizing an employer’s or client’s project.


You also need to present that portfolio. If it’s possible, put it online; even in a place that is free, such as Make sure the presentation is easy to access, use, and understand: this in turn shows you are capable of doing the same for your employer.

Don’t send USB or Flash drives, email attachments, or printed copies, of your portfolio, unless requested. (I’ve done this before to Sony, and was promptly ignored.)

Work Without Supervision

Your school teacher supervised you while you learned. In the real world, you’ll receive little supervision from the person hiring you because they expect to pay you to do the job without guidance.

When you’ve put the portfolio together, and presented it well, you’ve shown that you can work without supervision. You did put it together yourself, right?

Accept Criticism

Criticism on your portfolio is a chance to learn what the client wants. It’s valuable insight, and it may even land you the job.

It’s excellent to show you’re willing to take direction away from what you believe is best, and accept what others believe is best for them. This is essential to success, either as a freelancer, employee, or business leader.

Put it Together, and You Have Experience

When you’ve created the portfolio, without supervision, presented it, and accepted criticism from others, you’ve taken the crucial steps to gaining experience.

By the way, these are the same steps every business owner takes when creating a product, with the first additional, all important step:

  1. Find what customers want and why they want it.
  2. Organize: Design and produce what they want.
  3. Present: Make it available for the to buy it.
  4. Accept Criticism: Make changes so the product becomes and stays what customers want.

That’s invaluable experience.

My Real Life Examples:

  • I have a web page design that’s still in use since 1999.
  • My first job was a paper route, which was being an unsupervised 12-year old.
  • I do graphic design, for fun!
  • I create ad copy, for fun!
  • This blog is a portfolio of my writing, for fun and for you!

What is your experience and advice getting over the catch-22?