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by CAL NEWPORT | March 10, 2009


Joshua Newman, a 27-year-old Yale graduate, recently received an e-mail from an old college friend. The friend, an assistant for a Hollywood agent, heard he was involved with Cyan Pictures -- an independent-film company based in Manhattan. She attached a screenplay to the email and asked him if he would pass it along to his boss. "No problem," Mr. Newman says he replied, "but I should probably mention that I don't have a boss here...Cyan is my company."

In every graduating class are a few fast-track achievers, such as Mr. Newman, who outpace their peers in the first years after college. Some talented and hardworking college graduates can't help but ask: "What are they doing that I'm not?"

CollegeJournal set out to answer this question. We spoke to three young self-starters to learn the steps they took that contributed to their advancement. Here are their stories and their tips to recent graduates seeking success.

Joshua Newman, 27, founder and chief executive officer of Cyan Pictures

As a child, Mr. Newman decided to pursue a career in bio-technology. This vision lasted until he landed a biotech internship the summer before college. "I soon discovered that this was a place where people told jokes with the punch line: 'And that's why they call it reverse-transcriptase,'" says Mr. Newman. "I was like: Get me out of here."

A family friend suggested that Mr. Newman try business. Something clicked. During his first three years at Yale, Mr. Newman started and sold two technology start-ups. As a senior, he pulled together a venture-capital fund that backed student-owned technology companies.

Next, he turned his attention to the movie industry. Disregarding his lack of experience, Mr. Newman incorporated Cyan Pictures in 2002 and began drawing on his ability to raise money and pull together talented teams. Cyan has become known for releasing well-received, low-cost films such as the recent Danny DeVito and Parker Posey vehicle, "The Oh in Ohio."

Here are Mr. Newman's tips for turning your ambitions into accomplishments:

1: Start now.

"Starting a company -- or any new big project -- isn't easy," says Mr. Newman. "But it is simple; there are really just two steps: 1. Start; and 2. Keep going." Embrace action -- even if you're not 100% ready. Execution shakes loose opportunities and contacts, he says.

2: Manage the details.

"You can't get new ideas to take off until you clear the runway of the current tasks, projects, and obligations in your life," says Mr. Newman. You must learn to manage details. If you're disorganized, find a system that will organize you. Mr. Newman recommends David Allen's book: "Getting Things Done." Experiment until you find a method that best suits your personality.

3: Draw a big picture.

Make a list of what you want to accomplish, big and small, says Mr. Newman. "Then, for a period of one month, start wedging those things into your life, systematically, one at a time," he says. This exercise can open your eyes to the amount of control you actually have over your schedule.

Jessica Gold, 27, marketing director, Liz Lange Maternity

Jessica Gold graduated Hamilton College, a liberal arts college in Clinton, N.Y., with honors and a passion for fashion. What she didn't have was a job. "I literally began contacting every fashion house in New York," says Ms. Gold. "I was making calls every day asking if there was anything I could do -- answer phones, intern, be an assistant, anything."

Eventually her efforts put her in touch with Liz Lange, the founder of the eponymous maternity fashion line making a name for itself dressing Hollywood's expectant mothers. The firm was small, growing and in need of help. Ms. Gold was willing to take any open position. Liz Lange gave her a job as an assistant.

For the first two years, Ms. Gold answered phones. Her eagerness to take on projects earned her a promotion to marketing associate, where she helped tackle the myriad tasks spawned by Liz Lange's increasing promotional efforts. Ms. Gold cemented a mentor relationship with the marketing director, learning everything she could about the craft. A year and a half later, when the marketing director left the company, Ms. Gold saw her opening. She didn't have years of experience, but she was an expert inside Liz Lange, and she could step into the role. Four years out of college, she was named the head of marketing.

Here are Ms. Gold's tips for leapfrogging up the corporate ladder:

No. 1: Choose a job that excites you, not your banker.

"While a job with impressive earning potential is always attractive, it's not always the best option," says Ms. Gold. For the first couple of years of an entry-level job, you may be assigned tedious and random tasks. Choosing a job that interests you, at a company where you can see a future for yourself, will help propel you through this period with your enthusiasm intact.

No. 2: Prove every day that you want to be there.

"Make it clear to your employers that you want to be a part of the action," says Ms. Gold. Your bosses may have a sixth sense when it comes to your feelings about a job. Show them authentic energy, and earn their trust. Then they may begin offering you the big projects that can help you advance.

No. 3: Seek responsibility strategically.

"When looking to increase your responsibilities, start small, and prove yourself each time. Always let them know that they can ask you for help," says Ms. Gold. Some overeager employees ask for important projects in their first months on the job. You aren't likely to get a green light until you've proven yourself.

Jessica Sobhraj, 18, founder, Project InnerScope, and relationship director, Sir Groovy Music

Ms. Sobhraj moved, in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, from Canada to New York City. "It was a hard time to make what was already a hard transition," says Ms. Sobhraj. Jamaica High School, a public school in Queens where she enrolled, was a change from the schools she had left behind in Vancouver. Ms. Sobhraj was struck, she says, by a lack of inspiration among her classmates. "I was just going through the motions," she recalls.

This changed after she became involved with the Intrepid Youth Foundation, a New York nonprofit that, among other things, brings together inner-city youth and top executives to discuss ideas and passions. The experience remade Ms. Sobhraj's conception of what's possible. She started the Student Development Organization, a school club for bringing motivational speakers to the classroom and connecting students with mentors. She plans to expand the idea to other New York schools through Project InnerScope, a nonprofit she founded.

At the same time, Ms. Sobhraj became a "virtual intern," working at home for Sir Groovy Music, a high-tech music-licensing company started by Vic Sarjoo, one of her Intrepid Youth mentors. Due in part to her gift for forging personal connections by phone, she was soon managing the firm's supplier relationships. She was promoted, at the age of 18, to relationship director, a managerial position at the eight-employee company. She will split her time this winter between this position, Project InnerScope and her studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Here are Ms. Sobhraj's tips for getting an early start on your ambitions:

No. 1: Connect your contacts.

"Being known as a relationship broker will bring opportunities your way," says Ms. Sobhraj. You'll keep your relationships fresh while avoiding superficial email pings and your contacts may be eager to return the favor.

No. 2: Define your own concept of "busy."

"There's no such thing as having my hands full, so long as I'm doing something that I love," says Ms. Sobhraj. Many young people underestimate how much work they can handle, leading them to avoid responsibilities or outside projects. You're likely able to do more than you might think.

No. 3: Ask questions.

"I'm a huge fan of continuous learning," says Ms. Sobhraj. By broadening your knowledge base, she says, you can increase your ability to find opportunities hidden to others.


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