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Unspoken Rules: Interview with Gorick Ng


ANY Ceo Marianna Tu recently interviewed Gorick Ng, a first-generation college graduate and career advisor at Harvard. His new book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right distills the wisdom he’s gathered from over five hundred interviews with professionals across industries and job types, including several ANY alumni.


Gorick Ng, Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right

Thank you so much for being here. As you know, ANY works exclusively with low-income, first-gen college students, a group of students I know you know well through advising and through your lived experience. So I want to jump right in and ask you first: Why did you write this book?

I would say it came from both the heart and the head; from the heart, I am a first-generation, low-income college student, son of a working-class single mother who left school when she was 12 years old to work in a sewing factory. She was laid off when I was around 14 years old. So my first experience writing my first resume and cover letter really came from her. I was the person in the house who knew how to get onto the internet and speak English proficiently, so I became the person to figure out how to apply to jobs online, how to put together a resume and cover letter. I spent recesses learning to write resumes and cover letters, afternoons at the Public Library browsing through job boards, and evenings coaching my mom over the dinner table. I mention this because we actually weren’t successful in this process; we applied to hundreds of jobs and didn’t get any callbacks. That experience I feel has been forever cemented in my head as this pivotal experience, because forever thereafter, I found myself wondering: how could I, as someone who was resourceful and could get onto the internet, somehow not be able to navigate these spaces?

When I was in high school, I met a student from another school who had applied to some of America’s top colleges, and she had taken me under her wing. It was from this mentorship experience that I realized getting into a good school requires so much more than just following the written instructions. There’s a certain way to put together your resume, there’s a certain way of crafting your story, there’s a certain way of holding your hand or your teachers’ hands through the process, none of which were explained online. It wasn’t until I’d gotten into college that I realized there was actually a parallel track that other students were taking. This parallel track involved paying $50,000 to someone else to hold your hand through the process and to guide you through each of these steps, all of which I ended up going through trial and error, and, with the help of this mentor, was able to navigate successfully.

When I got to Harvard, I realized there were students like me who didn’t know what they didn’t know and got in sort of through the front door. And then there were other students who had had the mentors, had the networks, had the support, had the coaching over the dinner table that I was providing to my mom but that my friends were receiving from their parents. So I found this disparity when I entered the world of work where I was lucky to have had mentors coaching me all throughout. When I left the conveyor belt of school, and I entered into the ambiguity of the real world, I realized there was really little to nothing that existed at the time around: How do you succeed once you show up in the workplace? How do you manage up? How do you build relationships? How do you sign yourself up for high profile assignments? So that’s from the heart.

From the head, I ended up working, luckily, in industries that offered a great deal of training, finance, and consulting. Yet still, I found that so much of my learning was through trial and error. So I started asking myself, well, if this is the case at big companies that have HR departments and onboarding programs, what does it say about the rest of the world? What responsibility do I have as a fellow first gen and as someone who has gone through some of this training to be able to package this all up and democratize it to the world?

That one sentence [in your book], “like surgery without anesthesia,” talking about working through that spreadsheet with your manager – I think many people can relate to that early career experience. You have such a great wealth of knowledge for how students and early career professionals can navigate this space, but you also mentioned something around being at companies with large training and mentorship programs. So I’m curious, what can recruiters and managers of early career hires do to help make these unspoken rules either spoken or otherwise help people early in their careers?

I love this question. I’m so glad you’re asking it because I would love for this to not just be a guide for the individual, but to spark a broader conversation about how managers and HR departments can build more inclusive spaces. I would say it starts off with this mindset that a lot of folks have, which is that you’re either a high performer or you’re not, and it’s a sink or swim type of environment; and furthermore, that high performers are born, not developed. Realize that so much of what makes a high performer a high performer in the workplace is developed, it’s a matter of cultural norms, and it’s also a matter of the type of work experience that someone may have come from. Realizing that these skills really can be taught is the first step.

The second step is realizing that what you may find to be common sense really isn’t common sense. If you think back, as a manager, to when you were first starting out, you’ll quickly realize, hopefully, that a lot of what you find to be common sense today, you learned in one of two ways: one, by having a mentor or parent coaching you through that process; or, to many of us, going through it by trial and error. When I speak to managers, for example, they’ll say to me, “Well, I would love for my interns, new grads, co-ops, or apprentices to be more proactive.” Fantastic, we all want that, that’s a great soft skill to be distilling and to be imparting upon the people you manage. But think for a moment about how we spent the last sixteen plus years of our lives: sitting in the classroom, waiting for the next assignment to come, filling in multiple choice questionnaire bubbles, and succeeding simply by keeping up. Whereas, in the workplace, it’s a completely different set of expectations. It’s not just about keeping up and not procrastinating, it’s about stepping up. So even just having that conversation and realizing that the conditioning so many of us have had over the course of school is in some ways incompatible with how the real world really works and making sure you’re having that conversation with the people you manage.

That’s such an astute point, because we talk with students about already having navigated a whole set of unspoken undergraduate college rules, and now it’s reframing them again. I know you’re advising many students. What are the things students are coming to you most often with these days trying to navigate or has it changed at all the past few years?

Certainly a lot of my conversations these days have been about getting a job here at the university. And I would say that conversations have been around two areas. Certain students – I sort of hesitate to frame it this way – but you know, you have the students who have been on the career track since day one, and there are other students who don’t know what they don’t know. The students who’ve been on that career track who have been going to all the recruiting events are accelerating ahead and leaning upon the relationships that they’ve already built. They are coming at me with questions like, “I’ve got multiple offers, how do I navigate?”

This creates a big disparity, because a lot of the students that I work with are our students who may have had to pick a job not necessarily because they know it’s going to set them up for three jobs down the road, but because it’s a job that pays the bills that they can get and is compatible with their academic schedule. For those students, a lot of my conversations have been about, “How do I translate what I’ve done into this very different job?” A lot of our conversations revolve around how at the entry level, we’re all in this chicken and egg problem of you need a job to get a job and no one’s willing to give a chance to someone who’s unproven. So how do you crack that chicken and egg problem if you’ve worked in retail for the last number of summers or part time and now you want to work in, let’s say, marketing? How do you translate that? How do you break that chicken and egg? That’s been a lot of my conversations.

That’s something ANY Fellows come to us a lot with, especially when we do our first resume workshops: what to put on a resume when you need experience to get experience. What are some of the creative ways you see students talk about how they can build that narrative around translatable skills if their resume looks different from what recruiters have thought of as this one box in a box profile of who they’re trying to hire?

One is to not think so much about what you’ve done or the tasks that you’ve done, but thinking more about: what have you contributed? So thinking about your resume and cover letter and “tell me about yourself” question interviews, not as, “Tell me about how many shelves you stocked or how you showed up on time.” Tell me about what you’ve really contributed to the team. Did you propose any ideas? Did you take over the store one day when a higher up called out sick? Are you the keyholder? Were you the person who’s in charge of opening up the store? These are all things that differentiate you from someone else who just simply showed up. That’s the first thing is giving yourself credit for all the amazing stuff that you’ve done.

The second is thinking about also giving yourself credit for what you’re able to contribute to your next employer. So in terms of so many of these communication skills, teamwork skills, problem solving skills, etc. If I think about what a lot of companies are looking for these days, it’s a fresh perspective from Gen Z. And so if you think about any of these old school companies that are really hard to get into, what are they actually thinking about? They’re thinking about how to tap your audience, which is the audience of Gen Z. So have you been on social media? Are you proficient in the influencer economy? Are these things that you can bring to the table that these employers who are decades older than you are actually scratching their heads about? Thinking not just about what you’ve done but also the potential you can bring to the company can be really helpful.

The third piece is thinking about the process not just as a matter of clicking “Submit” on those job boards, but instead as, How can I build a relationship with someone behind the scenes? Because ultimately, it’s not an algorithm that decides whether you get an interview, it’s a person behind the scenes, and applying online is going to do nothing more than put your resume and cover letter onto a big pile that may or may not ever get looked at because the person behind the scenes is going to be going on to this applicant tracking system. They’ll see hundreds of resumes come in, and they’ll think to themselves, yikes, I don’t have time for this. Meanwhile, they get a Slack or Teams message from a co-worker that says, hey, I have a really great referral, I would love for you to take a closer look at this candidate. Put yourself in the shoes of that recruiter of that hiring manager: who are you going to pick –  are you going to pick the person that someone has hand vetted for you or spend hours going through hundreds of resumes from people that you’re not familiar with? So make sure you overcome the sort of instant gratification that comes with clicking Submit. It feels good, but it doesn’t actually get the results that we want.

Absolutely. It’s so logical that to get a job, you should apply for jobs through the ways that the jobs tell you to apply for them, but that’s not actually the case. I’m also curious, when you’re talking about all the ways Gen Z candidates can talk about their experience, if you feel the value proposition or the way people should be approaching how they can add value has changed now that we’ve been in a world of complete remote work and having to adopt a lot of new technologies really quickly. I imagine when you started writing this book, it was a very different landscape, so I’m curious if any of your advice changes for candidates or hiring managers in this new world of work?

Well, I think it’s definitely changed a lot around expectations for professionalism. We’ve seen enough high-powered people have a cat walk across their Zoom calls or turning into a cat in a courtroom hearing, if you saw that viral video, that I think it’s really let peoples’ guards down. Where does this professionalism thing come from? Why do we need it? And to what extent does it play a role in our workplace? That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot.

The second is around how to build relationships in a remote work environment where in the pre-COVID world we were able on campus to bump into people, go to recruiting fairs in the workplace, bump into coworkers at the watercooler, whether it’s a metaphorical water cooler or a physical water cooler. You don’t get those things anymore. And yet, building relationships is just as, if not even more, important now. So how do you do it in a non-organic way that also doesn’t come across as transactional? When I think about networking in the old world, we often have this kind of squirmy feeling when we think about networking, that it feels transactional, that it feels slimy. It’s easy to have even more of that sense now because you can’t just bump into someone casually, you need to set up a phone call with them, and when you show up for a phone call, you need to have certain questions prepared, you need to have their backgrounds researched. So there is that piece of it,  just getting into the mindset of yes, it’s going to be more transactional, while at the same time, it’s also more important on the individual to reach out to people. This means stalking them on LinkedIn, it means researching their backgrounds, it means figuring out to what extent can this person see me as a younger version of themselves, that we go to the same school, do we have similar extracurricular activities, do we have a same ethnic, racial background, do we go to the same religious community, etc. Really finding those excuses to spark that conversation become much more important, but also much easier because everyone’s doing it. So if it felt slimy before now, know that everyone’s doing it, so you should be doing it too.

So you recommend students reach out and say, “Can we have a 15 minute coffee video chat?” Or would the way they should approach be a more formalized type of career networking internally?

I would say step one is go on LinkedIn, go on your college’s alumni directory, look at maybe Google Docs and spreadsheets of alums of clubs that you’re a part of, research what their backgrounds look like on LinkedIn, and make a list.

Step two is figure out which way you’re going to contact them. If they seem active on LinkedIn, if they’ve been posting regularly and commenting regularly, you could perhaps send them a [LinkedIn message]. If not, it’s unlikely that they’re checking that inbox, in which case, you’ll need to email them, whether it’s through your college’s alumni directory or [a direct email]. Email addresses are so guessable nowadays – it’s first initial last name at company dot com, or first name dot last name at company dot com, or one of those variations.

Step three is to write that message, and the unspoken rule here is read that message through twice and ask yourself: if I had accidentally sent this message to a different person, will it still make sense to them? If the answer is yes, it’s not tailored enough. You need to do more to tailor your outreach and your sentences to them. In terms of what that paragraph looks like, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be, “Hi, Mariana, my name is so-and-so. Like you, I am a college senior graduating from this college. Like you, I was a part of this club and this club. I’m interested in pivoting from retail to marketing. I would love to follow in your footsteps, would you happen to have 30 minutes in the coming days for a quick conversation? My availability is as follows (and then you list out your availability). Looking forward to hearing from you, John.” So if we’re using this litmus test all throughout, you’re starting off making it hyper tailored to the individual. It’s unambiguous as to why you reached out to them and not someone else. You’re introducing yourself and giving a reason as to why you’re reaching out, and you’re giving them a reason to respond to you specifically, because there are probably other people who are reaching out. You’re making it easy on them by providing your availability. So all we need to do is select the time and you’re all set, and you’re keeping it nice and short, so it’s easy to skim. If they don’t respond, often it’s not because they’re ignoring you, it’s because they forgot or they aren’t sure if this was spam. Follow up once, maybe even twice. Don’t follow up ten times, but don’t be worried about not following up, that first email may have even just arrived in their spam bin and you don’t even know.

I know you wrote some tips, these tiny little things like putting time in someone else’s time zone. It seems like having you read twice and having that other set of eyes makes such a difference. I remember we had someone who was trying to do an informational interview but then I think sent their whole schedule to the person they were looking to interview with, like here are all my classes so you can figure it out when I’m free so it’s easier for you and really coming from a place of oh, they’ll be able to see everything. Having that kind of granularity in these tips is so key, and it sounds like you advise people on this and that mentors play a really big role.

I’m curious if you have some tips for all of the ANY students out there or mentors who are looking for career mentors for maybe mid-career changes or pivots. How you would recommend building those [connections]? Can you do it the same way, like you mentioned through LinkedIn, or how should you approach that goal of finding one (or five!) mentors who are going to guide you?

I think about it as three concentric circles of relationships. You have your first-degree relationships; these are people that you already know, have been in touch with previously, or who are in close proximity to you, because you work in the same organization. These are people that you can just contact directly, because you already have the contact information. The second is the second-degree connections. These are people that you don’t yet know but you can get an introduction to. And then the third-degree are people who you don’t yet know and you don’t have a connection to, so you need to reach out cold.

What we just talked about are those third-degree relationships, and those are worth reaching out to because all of our networks are finite. But it’s really the second-degree and the first-degree where we can really make a lot of magic happen. Going onto LinkedIn seeing who is a second degree, who has that 2 beside their name, and asking the person who’s connected to them, “I noticed that you’re connected to so-and-so, would you happen to be close enough to them to make an introduction? I’d love to pick their brain about XYZ. No worries if you aren’t comfortable, just wanted to ask!” You can also even make it easier for them as well, where you can say, “I’m happy to write you a blurb to forward along” and you can even further clarify, “Would you like this blurb in the first person from your perspective describing me, or in the third person where I’m emailing you and then you’re forwarding my note along?” Whatever’s easiest for the other person. I say that’s the big piece.

For the folks who are mid-career or no longer at that first job and are thinking about where to go next, a lot of my conversations these days have also been about, “Wow, COVID is really resetting my mindset around the role of my career and my life.” Actually, there was a Glassdoor study that showed the majority of people in the workforce are sheltering in a job, which is a fancy way of saying they’re excited to leave their job, they’re just hunkering down because they’re waiting for the pandemic to pass and the economy to pick again. So there are a lot of people who are in that position, and this is a great time to start figuring out not just what do I want to do next, but who do I want to become? I think the internet can be really helpful for this. Put yourself in the shoes of yourself five years from now, ten years from now, at the end of your career, and ask yourself, “What do I want to have done and who most closely resembles the person that I want to be?” Look for those people in particular and then reach out in the way that we just described could be powerful right now. You also know that everyone’s at home, so you know that they’re accessible.

We do a life map activity [at ANY workshops], and I feel that exercise to just think about what you want to be able to look back on is very powerful. One of your first unspoken rules is about identifying your internal and external motivators. A lot of the rules and a lot of the conversations we talked about are external motivators – how to make people interested in you, how to present yourself – but I hear a lot from students about those internal motivators, and, if they’re not entirely clear, how hard it is to say, “I want this, I want to convince someone to give me this internship, but I don’t even know if I want to work in this job yet. How do I be honest about it? I don’t want to lie to someone if they say, ‘Where do you see yourself,’ and say, ‘Not here, or maybe here, I have no idea!’” How would you recommend students start uncovering those internal motivators? And how can they balance that need to say, “I want to be really honest and forthcoming, but also I don’t want to cut myself out of the job by sharing things that won’t make me seem like this is the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life.”

It’s such a good question and one that is a common conversation that I’m sure is the case for you as well. In terms of that internal narrative, I think about both the short term and the long term, where long term put yourself in the shoes of yourself in retirement, sipping a martini on a beach, and you’re looking back at your career. And you’re asking yourself, what do I want to have accomplished? Who do I want to help? Who do I want to have met? What do I want to have done? Seeing where you want to end up and then working backwards is one of those other unspoken rules; working backwards to map out, given the destination I want to go, what are the steps that I need to take? Recognize that your first job won’t be your last job, your first job will set you up for your second job, which will set you up for your third job, which will then put you on the path to that destination. That’s the first long term exercise.

The shorter term exercise is to just pay attention to how your body is reacting to your everyday activities. Ask yourself, “What are the things that give me a lot of energy, even if I haven’t had a lot of rest the prior night?” versus the things where it just drains every ounce of energy out of you when you start having to work on this particular piece of work or talk about a certain topic. Another conversation I have a lot is about how work and personal identity are increasingly blurred for a lot of people and students want to make an impact. So ask yourself, “What are the news articles I’ve read that give me a lot of energy? What are the topics I can’t shut up about with my friends? What are the YouTube videos that I follow, the influencers that I follow, the topics that I follow? What are the problems that make me really frustrated?” These can all be helpful self-reflection exercises that can help you uncover that internal narrative, which I think of as the reason you get up in the morning and hustle. That’s the internal narrative piece.

To your point, there’s an external narrative, which is what you tell other people when people say, “Introduce yourself,” or, “Tell me about yourself,” or, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” These are the inevitable questions interviewers will bring up in interviews. Also to your point, your internal narrative may or may not align 100% with what the other person wants to hear. So you have your internal narrative, which I think of as a bookshelf or a refrigerator, where you’re pulling out books from the bookshelf, or pulling out ingredients from the refrigerator and cooking up a dish for the interviewer.

If you are, for example, interested in climate change, and you’re applying for a digital marketing agency, you might think to yourself, “There’s no relationship between the two, should I be saying that I’m just here to get a job, and I need to pay the bills, and I need to pay off my student loans?” That is part of the internal narrative, that’s the reason why you wake up in the morning and go and hustle, but is it really going to resonate if you start talking about how your longer term plans are to work at the UN and go to law school and work on climate change issues? Is there some way for you to still massage this to where a digital marketing agency that works a lot with big brands, and these big brands are increasingly trying to talk about how to do well and do good. Maybe this company has done a number of marketing campaigns focused on ESG or environmentalism and social issues. Is it the case that your mental theory of change is that in order to make a difference in big issues that you care about, it’s really about changing people’s mindsets and behaviors, and marketing is the tool that the world of business, and really, our world more broadly, uses to get the message out? And so could you frame your broader passion for societal good as your broader mission, that Northstar, but marketing being your toolkit with which you want to make that difference? There are a lot of different ways to craft that message. It’s all about finding the intersection between your Venn diagram of what you care about and the Venn diagram of what the other person cares about, and really focusing on that intersection.

You talking about that made me think about how that internal and external motivation is not just something you’re doing as an undergrad getting your first job but really throughout your whole career. I want to end by asking you about your own career pivots. When we talk to you now, it seems so clear this experience you had as an undergrad starting to advise others, everything was leading towards you writing this book and advising first gen and low-income students. I imagine it wasn’t exactly that clean. When you think about you starting out in finance management consulting, what really made you make that pivot? Was it easy? Was it hard? Can you just tell us a little bit about the personal side of it for you?

Sure thing, I’ve changed my mind a lot over time. If I think even further back in time, my first dream job was to be a magician until my mom said, “No, that’s not happening.” The next job that I wanted to get,  this was around maybe middle school or high school, I was just looking around the world and asking myself, “Who do I want to become?” I was sick a lot as a kid, and I was in the hospital a lot, so the people that helped me were doctors and nurses. My next dream job was nursing or medicine. I was at a Math and Science High School where I started really working towards that goal of becoming a doctor many years down the road, but then I started feeling my body react in a certain way, coming back to that conversation. I could do the work in these biology and chemistry classes, but was it giving me energy? No, it really wasn’t. It was a lot of the community service work I was doing that was giving me energy instead. So then I thought to myself, “Wow, it doesn’t seem like doctors really apply all of what they learn in biology and chemistry classes, but is the destination work worth these years of medical school and organic chemistry and all these other classes I would have to take, versus really enjoying both the destination and the journey?” I decided to pivot from there.

When I got to college, I was interested in Economics and Political Science, and it was from there that I started thinking about a different way to think about impact; that it’s not just about the one-on-one impact of being a doctor or a nurse by a patient’s bedside at a time of need, but maybe there’s a broader way of looking at impact, where you can have one-to-many impact through the nonprofit world or through public policy. So I started looking into that space. When I started interning and doing part time jobs and just speaking to folks in the space, I started realizing that folks in the nonprofit world and in the public sector are really bringing together so many different stakeholders, and they’re working on really tough issues that aren’t black and white, and that require this – I’ll throw some jargon at this – contextual understanding of how the world works and how these different pieces fit together. Then I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’m ready for this, I feel like I could be more powerful and make more of a difference if I first learned about the rest of the world.” In college, when you surround yourself with economics majors, the rest of the world is business. At my college, there’s a big vortex towards finance and consulting, so in this black and white world in which I lived, I thought, “Well, if it’s not the nonprofit world, and/or the the public sector, at least for now, maybe it’s the private sector. And if it’s the private sector, all the cool kids seem to be rushing towards these particular industries, so let me follow along as well.”

When I got there, I started realizing there was a lot I was learning, but there was also a lot that I was missing. I’m learning these great business skills, but in terms of the Northstar, in terms of what I hope to accomplish…if I could have a conversation with my 16-year-old self, is this the path that 16-year-old Gorick would have wanted? The answer quickly became no. Then I started doing the self-reflection. What is it really that I wanted? What do I want to make? What in what space do I want to make an impact? Whose life do I want to improve? What do I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to do, not sort of necessarily on paper, but as an individual?

Then came this realization that I’ve gone from the only reason why I’ve gotten to where I am today is because I’ve had people take me under their wings and to be a mentor to me, and over the course of me growing up, I went from mentee status to mentor status without necessarily even realizing that graduation had happened. When I applied to business school, actually, my essay became about how I went from mentee to mentor, and I wanted to scale mentorship to the world. Little did I know that mission would still be such a big part of my life today to the point where the tool I’m using to scale mentorship is through this book, and then through whatever comes next. So that’s a much longer explanation than I think you and I were both imagining, but that’s the honest answer of how those pivot points all led up to where I am today.

I love that we’re ending on scaling mentorship to the world, because if anyone’s behind that, it’s definitely everyone at ANY! I want to thank you so much for your time. Are there any final words that you want to leave our Fellows, Mentor Coaches, and community with? And tell us where they can get the book and how they can stay involved with you as well.

The first thing I want to say is I wish I had known about ANY earlier! I would have participated, I would have told all my friends about it. I say this not just because we’ve built this great relationship, but also because it was actually ANY alums who helped make this book the book that it is. When I messaged you, Mariana, you connected me to a number of your alums, we hopped on multiple phone calls with each of them together, and they all contributed stories that made their way into the book. What a great way to see this project come full circle because these ANY alums went from mentee to now mentor as part of this broader mission. So thank you, thank you, thank you to the ANY community for making this book the book that it is. In terms of where to learn more about this book, folks can visit me on my website, gorick.com, and I’m on all the different social media platforms as well, but you can find all those links on my website.

Thank you so much for your time, and we are so excited to see what happens and how we can keep scaling mentorship.

Amazing. Thank you so much.

Thank you!

Learn more here and order Unspoken Rules here.

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