GUY RAZ, HOST:
Well, most Millennials in their 20s had to do that right in the middle of the biggest economic collapse in 80 years.
CHARLIE HOEHN: I was actually in New York the day that that happened. I walked in front of Lehman Brothers and there were all these cameras and these people walking out in suits and the cameras were swarming them. And my dad and I walked by and we were like what is going on?
RAZ: That's the jumping off point for Charlie's Hoehn's story. He told it on the TEDx stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HOEHN: My entire life, I've done what everyone told me I should do. From kindergarten to my senior year of college, I had a high GPA. I volunteered. I played sports. I was in groups, extracurricular activities, student council. I did all that stuff. I was checking off the boxes in order to become a successful American. So by the time I graduated in 2008, after 12 weeks of applying for jobs to dozens of companies - maybe even a hundred - I had been turned down by every single one of them with the exception of two. One was a staging company whose only job requirements were have a pulse and be a chain smoker. And the other company was a pyramid scheme, so thank you CareerBuilder.com. And my friends were all going through the same thing. It wasn't just me.
And I remember coming across a buddy of mine. And they were so excited because everyone had been saying, you've got to take what you can get in this market. And they had just landed a sales rep position at Verizon Wireless. And they thought within a year, maybe they could make middle manager. And I was like, what? Did we really do spend the last four years - no, the last 17 years pursuing this stuff that other people told us to do and this is where it's going to take us? Verizon Wireless, selling crappy cell phones. I hate Verizon. I didn't want that at all.
And that's what brought me here, the bathroom floor where I laid on the ground for an hour one night, just like pulling my hair out in frustration being, like, that advice that I took for my whole life, it was a lie. It was a scam. The stuff that my friends were telling me were, dude, you got to keep shotgun blasting your resume out to these websites man - CareerBuilder, Monster.com. That's where it's at. No, it's not. These sites are terrible. These sites are like city bars. They're where mediocrity thrives because there's only going to be two hot offers in the bar and the rest are going to be one ugly mediocre.
RAZ: So you basically decided that you were going to figure something else out. And what? One day, you just say screw this and you came up with a strategy.
HOEHN: I just decided I'm just going to do work that I want to do, and if I don't get paid for it, so be it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HOEHN: And that is free work. And some of you might be sitting there thinking, oh, I know what free work is, it's an internship. That's nothing new, guy. An internship is actually very different from free work. An internship, you're applying for like it's a regular job. And then if you get that internship, you're going to be given menial work from 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. And at the end, there are no guarantees.
You might do this for 3 to 6 months and the door's going to close. They'll tell you to hit the bricks. With free work it's different. You can work with anyone in the world and you can reach out to them virtually. And there are no dead ends. If you do this correctly, if you work for a bunch of people, then something will pan out.
My strategy was to find people that I wanted to be like, who were doing things that I thought were really interesting or meaningful or cool. And then I approached them and I said, hey, I'm a huge fan of your work. I think that you could improve in these particular areas and I would like to solve this problem for you.
RAZ: For free?
RAZ: OK, so what'd you do?
HOEHN: The first guy I wrote to is a guy named Ramit Sethi. He writes a website called "I Will Teach You to Be Rich."
RAZ: OK, so Charlie says to Ramit, it looks like you could use some help with video editing. And so they start to work together.
HOEHN: Oh, so this was another thing I was doing simultaneously, so Seth Godin...
RAZ: Seth Godin, he's the author and marketing expert.
HOEHN: ...I was just basically helping him build out Squidoo.com.
RAZ: And Charlie was doing all of this on his computer, in his parents' basement, for free.
HOEHN: And every now and then, I would get temporary paid jobs. I was...
RAZ: So at some point, he starts doing free work for the author Tim Ferriss.
HOEHN: And then he asked me if I wanted to help them write his next book "The 4-Hour Body." I said absolutely.
RAZ: This time for real money.
HOEHN: And it required me to move out to San Francisco to help him full-time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HOEHN: America is in a tough time. It is a tough market for us. But there's good news. And the good news is as long as there are problems that need to be solved, there will always be work. And I'm here today to ask you guys to try free work because I want you to chase after the things that interest you and make you happy.
RAZ: Do you feel like that is a luxury your generation has or it's a necessity?
HOEHN: You can call it either, it's just - I think that's just the way it is. And I think, mostly, it is a necessity. If you look at it like a luxury, it makes it sound like, oh, you know, all the other people suffered before you. Why shouldn't you have to suffer?
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HOEHN: You need to stop acting like you have a set path in life. You don't, no one does. And so when I ask you to try this free work concept, I want you to ask yourself the same question I asked myself on the bathroom floor three years ago - what is the worst that could happen.
RAZ: OK. So at this point, you might be thinking great, Charlie, worked out for you. But he actually got burned out. And one day, he quit. He just quit his job.
HOEHN: I took a few months off to kind of just figure out what I wanted to do next, and I had no idea. I ended up trying to found an app company with a friend of mine for a few months. And realized that wasn't what I wanted to do either. I mean, figuring out who I was and what I wanted to work on, you know, it gave me a lot of inner turmoil.
RAZ: Wow. I mean, a lot of people were like, you made it, Charlie, like, you got out of this. And inside you were like, I'm freaking out.
HOEHN: Yeah. There was a great Bob Dylan quote when he made "Like a Rolling Stone," he talked about how the music he was making before that, he just didn't really like, but he had everyone telling him how great he was. And he said it's very tiring hearing people tell you how much they dig you, when you yourself don't dig you. And that's exactly how I felt.
RAZ: You know what's crazy, to me, about being in your 20s now is that everybody was on Facebook, like, for as long as you can remember. And that's a highlight reel, right? Like, people aren't going to say, oh, today, I got fired and I'm a loser and put that on Facebook. Like, they're going to say, oh, look at me hanging out with Ben Affleck in Hollywood. And, like, that's pressure, man.
HOEHN: Totally. We only want to show the good side to other people, but really where you make the deepest connections is when you let your guard down and show some of the ugly side and the vulnerabilities and the insecurities. And that's the beautiful part because we all have that.
RAZ: That's Charlie Hoehn. He's 27 now with a new plan. He's writing a book on how to get out of college and stay out of your parents' basement. More Millennials in a moment. I'm Guy Raz. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.