This month, I’d like to highlight a real life success story from someone who followed the exact same steps that I encourage all of my students to follow, and it will give him a $2,200,000 a year salary for the next five years.
For those you not from San Diego, or who aren’t NFL fans, the Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith just recently signed a 5 year contract worth $11 million dollars. But what’s interesting about this isn’t the salary, since pro-football pays its’ players, coaches and managers very well; it’s how A.J. ended up in the NFL in the first place that’s fascinating.
A.J. Smith was a health and physical education teacher in Rhode Island twenty two years ago when he left to join pro football full time with the Chargers. When he first decided to get started in the NFL, though, he had no pro football experience. It didn’t matter to him, though.
Here’s what he did: he wrote letters to a number of NFL teams asking for one thing only: the opportunity to work for free. Most ignored him, but one team said yes, and that’s all it took. Jim Trimble, the late personnel director of the New York Giants was intrigued enough to contact him back and see what he had to say. Here’s what Smith explained, ‘What I’d like to do is come work for nothing. I’m not asking for pay, I’m asking for experience; so that the following year, if I’m any good, then at least I could have a letter of recommendation.’
He spent a year with the Giants as a volunteer scout, then moved on to New England (at Trimble’s recommendation) as a part time film-grader for $3 an hour. He barely made any money, and it apparently cost him money to do the job by the time he had paid his car’s gas, but he got his foot in the door. His wife Sue was quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune recently as saying “We never got into this business for him to be a general manager. He was getting into this business to be in something he loved. He would have taken being a janitor. He would have taken any position to get his foot in the door.”
And now, he’s being paid millions to do something he loves.
So, what’s the lesson for you? First, he did exactly what I’ve been encouraging my students to do for years: take the initiative to contact people in the business or field that you are interested in and offer to work for free, requesting only a letter or recommendation if you perform well just like for A.J. Smith did. Many employers will ignore you or say no…but you only need one to say yes. Then, when you get your opportunity, treat it like you were getting paid. It was reported that Smith clocked in and out on time like a factory worker, even when he was volunteering. If you find that you hate something after a little while, that’s great. Now you don’t have to waste any more time on that field or career, and you can move on to the next item on the list.
On the other hand, if you find it’s something you love, you never know what that first job might turn into. In Smith’s case, it was his first ‘boss’-the guy he worked for free for—that set up the second job for him; only this time, he was getting paid. And, it led to him becoming the Charger’s general manager in 2003 when Bill Butler (the GM before him) died.
Also, I’d say to not begrudge being a rookie. Everybody has to start at the bottom of the totem pole and wage scale. So, don’t feel like you’re being taken advantage of by working for free. You’re not because you’re gaining something very valuable to you experience.
Finally, since you’re going to work for decades anyways, you might as well find something that you’re passionate about. It’s often been quoted that you should ‘find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life’; well, this is partially true, you should find work you enjoy, but you have to find something that pays decently as well. Who knows, maybe like A.J. Smith of the Chargers, you’ll find something that will ultimately pay you millions for what you would do for free.