Ask Annie

Why new college grads should aim high

April 19, 2012: 1:26 PM ET

Getting your dream job may be a more realistic goal than you think, says an author. He's speaking from experience.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'm graduating from college in a few weeks, with a major in English and minor in film. I grew up in southern California and have always wanted to work in the movie business, eventually producing and maybe directing, and I've written a couple of screenplays that my screenwriting professors (who are also movie industry veterans) have said are good. I've also done a couple of internships at production companies, so I have some hands-on experience.

My question is, how practical is it to pursue a film career? I know I'd have to start at the bottom and work my way up, but my parents keep telling me that show business is hyper-competitive (which I know), success depends too much on luck and timing (ditto), and I should get a teaching certificate and a "real job" and just keep writing screenplays in my spare time as a hobby. I'm afraid if I do that, I'll never get the career I really want. What do you think? — Lost in La Jolla

Dear L.L.J.: Far be it from me to contradict your parents, who are only trying to spare you what could be a painful struggle in a notoriously tough business. But before you decide to settle for second best, you (and they) might want to check out a new book called I Got My Dream Job and So Can You: 7 Steps to Creating Your Ideal Career After College. It's a practical, down-to-earth guide to going after a career you can get excited about -- and incidentally, most of the tips and insights in it apply equally to any job seeker, not just those with newly minted diplomas.

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Says author Pete Leibman, "Most people give up far too easily on getting the job they really want." His advice, and his current work as a career coach, is based on his own experience. As a senior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2003, Leibman wanted to work for a professional sports franchise. At the time, unemployment was the highest it had been in 10 years, and "there were plenty of naysayers telling me to forget about it and go after something less competitive," he recalls.

Leibman ignored them. That spring, he heard about a career workshop where a senior executive from a sporting goods company was scheduled to speak, and signed up for it with the goal of meeting him and asking for advice on breaking into sports marketing. Of the many students who approached the speaker with questions, Leibman was the only one who followed up by staying in touch when the workshop was over.

That was smart. The executive introduced Leibman to several industry insiders -- one of whom alerted him to an opening in marketing with the NBA's Washington Wizards. He applied for the job, got it, and about 18 months later, at age 23, was promoted into management.

In his book, Leibman lays out a detailed strategy for following in his footsteps. A few of the essentials:

Don't chase someone else's dream. "You won't find your dream job by chasing a 'hot' field," Leibman says. "You have to be honest about what you really want. The answer is inside you, not somewhere outside."

The economy doesn't matter. "How many jobs do you need to get? Not 100, not 25, not even 3, just one," he says. "The economy is only a problem if you think it's a problem" and stop trying.

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A back-up plan is actually a plan for failure. By having a Plan B, Leibman says, "you're telling yourself you might not succeed at your real search, which is exactly what you shouldn't be thinking. Hold nothing back, and you will get what you want."

It's easier to get your dream job than most other jobs. Why? Because you're genuinely passionate about it. "One reason I got a front-office job in the NBA at such a young age, while being turned down for other openings where there was less competition, is because of how badly I wanted that NBA job," Leibman says. Counterintuitive as it may seem, he believes that "you're more likely to succeed when you aim high."

The best way to get the job you want is to stop looking for jobs and look for people. Because so many openings are never advertised anywhere, and are filled through personal contacts and recommendations, "the only way to crack the 'hidden job market' is to talk to people working in the industry where you want to get hired," Leibman notes. In your case, why not start with the people you already know from your past internships?

Networking is not "all about who you know." This is one point where Leibman says the conventional wisdom falls short. "Networking is really about who likes you and who respects you," he explains. "Before referring you to someone else or letting you in on an opportunity, a contact is consciously or unconsciously deciding, 'Do I like and respect this person enough to put my reputation on the line by introducing him or her to my inner circle?'

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"If the answer is no, networking will get you nowhere. However, if the answer is yes, you can usually get almost anyone to open his Rolodex." This is yet another reason why you'd be wise to begin your search with people who liked your work at the companies where you interned, and the industry contacts your professors may have.

Two more thoughts about pursuing a dream job: First, nothing is perfect, so keep your expectations in line with reality. "No job will ever be exciting and free from frustrations and drawbacks 100% of the time," Leibman notes.

And second, he adds, "Don't put too much pressure on yourself." If you end up working in the movie business and at some point decide that it isn't what you hoped, "remember, a job is not a life sentence. You can change directions at any time -- and in fact, most people change jobs, and even careers, a number of times throughout their lives."

Good luck.

Talkback: How did you get your first job out of school? Was it in the same field where you work now, or did you later change direction? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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