Earlier this week, I was meeting with a coworker to review some of the work I’ve been doing the past few months at my job. He was brought in a few weeks ago as a senior member of the project team, and will be working closely with me on a few things.
At the end of our meeting, he said to me something that I didn’t quite understand. After wrapping everything up, he looked back at me and said: “You know what they call you? A purple squirrel.”
I was perplexed. I had never heard the phrase purple squirrel before and I didn’t know what it meant. Off to Google/Wikipedia I went!
Purple squirrel is a term used by employment recruiters to describe a job candidate with precisely the right education, set of experience, and range of qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s requirements. The implication is that over-specification of the requirements makes a perfect candidate as hard to find as purple squirrel.
What a great complement! Let’s break down what it really means to be a purple squirrel.
Purple Squirrel Requirement 1: Education
The first requirement pertains to education. It’s not just any education – it’s precisely the right education.
The work I am currently doing isn’t anything I went to school for. I learned it on the job in my first and second roles I held after graduation. My education for this work was the right education, but it wasn’t traditional schooling: it was on the job training.
I think that’s normal. Think about what you went to school for and what you learned. How different is the job you have now – even if it’s roughly in the same field? With a few exceptions, I believe that the value school provides is teaching you to learn. Many employers don’t particularly care what your degree is in, so long as you have a college degree.
The reason for this is twofold: first, it shows that you can stick with something for an extended period of time on your own accord.
Second, it shows that you can learn.
If you’re teachable and persistent, you can do anything you set your mind to.
Purple Squirrel Requirement 2: Experience
Experience is a weird paradox. When looking for jobs, it’s not uncommon to try to find an “entry level” job that still wants you to have 1-2 years of experience. What?!
This is where starting young and getting an internship set me up fantastically. I started an internship at a local company working in their IT support team. I was there for about a year, and trained someone seven years my senior by the time I left. Over that year, I took every opportunity I could to learn, and I got a stellar recommendation as a result.
If you’re already past this point, chances are that you don’t have this option. So how do you find the best experience? Here are a few pointers based on my own experience:
Seriously make an effort to expand your network – a lot. I admittedly am not as good at this as some of my (former) coworkers, but experience comes from not only your experience, but also leveraging the experience of others. Networking can let you learn from people’s mistakes, and while their experiences aren’t necessarily your own, it can help you avoid bad situations they may have found themselves in.
Don’t Be Intimidated
Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that “require” more experience than you have. I was hired over another candidate for my current role despite having 30 years less experience. Let that sink in: This guy had been doing this type of work for as long as I’ve been alive. Yet, they hired me. We were going through a contracting company, and the rate was the same – so I knew it wasn’t that.
Why did they choose me? I had the right experience, and I was a great fit for the company culture. My experience, though limited by comparison, was a better fit for the role, even though on paper it didn’t appear that way.
Learn Your ABC’s
Remember your ABC’s. The ‘ABC’ of sales is ‘Always Be Closing’. My take on it? Always Be Considering. Constantly challenge your own experience and position, and consider other options. If you want to grow in your career, you must take risks and you must make changes, one way or another.
This may mean taking on more responsibility in the same role, shifting to other roles within the same organization, or leaving your company altogether for greener pastures. It may mean quitting the corporate life and switching to consulting, or opening your own business.
Experience, naturally, takes the longest to build up. Everyone starts somewhere – most of us at the ‘bottom’ – but if you’re persist, take on new challenges, and push yourself to do better, you’ll get there.
A quick note: finding the right experience can be difficult when you’re trying to break into a new role. This is where your networking will come in extremely handy. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who are doing what you want to do. Get to know them, buy them coffee, and learn from them.
Purple Squirrel Requirement 3: Qualifications
Qualifications are the most straight-forward one on here, while – in my opinion – being the least important. In the context of a purple squirrel candidate, qualifications simply talk about a candidate’s ability to check off the boxes listed under ‘Required Qualifications’ and ‘Preferred Qualifications’ of a job listing.
I consider these unimportant, because 9 times out of 10 job postings will have requirements that are unattainable or unrealistic. People who write job postings, I’ve found, also really struggle with this idea of “Required Qualifications”.
For example, take a position that “requires” 7-10 years of experience. If I come in with 6.5 years, are you going to completely reject my application? Similarly if I have 12, will it be placed in the circular file bin?
Quite often the qualifications that HR and hiring managers are looking for tend to be more flexible than they may let on. Don’t let a few misses on this list deter you from pursuing something, even on the “required” list.
Harness Your Purple Squirrel
Harnessing my purple squirrel has allowed me to learn a lot of new skills to market myself well. I’ve increased my income significantly, particularly in the past few years by being a bit disloyal and switching companies. Finding new opportunities and new challenges can be scary, but it’s also exciting and can reap excellent rewards.
The more you can earn – and keep your lifestyle inflation in check – the sooner you can do whatever the hell you want.
Start with a solid education – self-taught, university-taught, or otherwise. Seek out and grow your professional network. And then, become a badass by giving everything you do 100%. Do what you say you’ll do. Learn, stretch, and challenge yourself.
Mix all of those together, and over time you too will become a purple squirrel.
What qualities of a purple squirrel do you think are the most critical?