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Everyone has to begin somewhere.
My initial jobs as a skin care professional were in a small town salon and included lots of laundry and towel folding, along with taking the precious pooch of a regular client outside for its occasional curbside constitutional.
The greatest challenge you face when starting out is not so much mastering your skills and technique—that will come with time and a billion practice repetitions. The real challenge is to understand who you are, both in the context of your peers and your potential employers. The more clearly you understand this and make it understood by others, the more rewarding, meaningful and lucrative your career moves will become.
This understanding requires what Buddhists call a beginner’s mind, which is a state of openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level. To possess a beginner’s mind is always a good thing. In fact, classical Taoist scrolls often depict such beginners as what you could call sages, ancient men with walking sticks and flowing beards. They are experienced and wise enough to know that there is always more to discover.
If you have received your undergraduate skin care education in the United States, you will be competing with better-qualified colleagues from Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. In those places, the training is more comprehensive, extensive and considerably longer than it is here, ranging in duration from two to four years of full-time study. So there is an obvious gap when compared to the average 600 hours, or four to nine months whether attending classes full-time or part-time, of undergraduate training required to become eligible for the licensing examination in the majority of the United States. As a result, the freshly minted therapists coming from the British system, for instance, have had longer and more in-depth training than their American counterparts.
While industry professionals work on raising the bar in this country in terms of undergraduate standards, you must take charge of your own destiny by filling in the education gaps. Continue to pursue postgraduate education long after your license has been earned. Choosing to demand more of yourself will give you what every one of us needs in the workplace—an edge. The way to establish and maintain this is twofold: Possess a relentless curiosity and sustain an equally relentless dedication to learning more.
What else do you need when you’re trying to get your foot in the door? In marketing and advertising lingo, there’s something called a Unique Selling Proposition (USP). It’s the something extra that differentiates one brand from another and causes you to develop preferences and loyalties even among parity products. It’s that little spark that just makes a specific product click for you.
The same is true of each of us. The founder and CEO of The International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica, Jane Wurwand, says, “I am a product. I am our brand. And every one of you is a product, too.” In the case of a skin therapist just starting out, you are, in fact, your own brand, your own product. You must distinguish yourself from the millions of other skin therapists out there, just as your favorite breath mint, disposable ballpoint pen or sugar substitute somehow edged out all of the others, which initially seemed identical.
Clarifying and refining your occupational USP will be your life’s work. As you mature professionally, your emphasis will evolve and shift, and you will adjust the perception and presentation of your skills to reflect this maturation. Ideally, you will have far more to offer five years from now and will be able to articulate the qualities that make you who you are with even more precision than is currently possible.
Earning your license is the very first step in developing and identifying your USP. This means that, as a newly licensed therapist, you are at the beginning, not the end, of something very big. Of course, you still deserve to celebrate your achievement, so start out by booking a professional skin treatment for yourself or buying yourself a dozen red roses. Order a big, beautiful cake with the words “Congratulations!” written on it in butter cream icing, and enjoy it with all of your friends and 10 prospective clients for your new practice, combining celebration with initiating your new career. Then, hang on to your hat, because the wildest part of the ride has just begun.
In the February 2007 Good Hands column, titled “Back to the Beginning,” I wrote about the first golden rule of professional success: Find a mentor. Now it’s time for the second golden rule of professional success: Declare yourself a lifelong student. Making education your priority, attracting colleagues who share your love of learning, and encouraging and supporting each other to push the edges of your knowledge are some of the most important aspects of your career growth. Create an annual fund specifically for attending seminars, workshops and classes for yourself, and ideally, work for an employer who also feels this way and who will contribute financially to your ongoing quest for learning.
So how do you go about making sure you follow this second golden rule? Here are some tips for you as you enter the job-market.
Be sure that your potential employer values education. A prospective employer should be as dedicated to your ongoing training as you are. In the interview, ask if there is a training program for new hires. Will you be sent to take manufacturer or postgraduate classes? And will you be paid for the days that you spend in class? Basically, assess the potential employer’s willingness to invest in you in order to ensure a truly professional operation. If these questions make the employer uncomfortable, you’re in the wrong place.
Don’t worry too much about what you don’t know yet. Savvy employers hire primarily on the basis of attitude, especially when interviewing beginners. Of course, you’ve worked hard for your license, and may feel pretty righteous about your skills. But let your passion for the larger skin care experience radiate as you speak, because this is the passion that builds loyal clientele. Technical mastery will come with time, practice and more training, but you have to feel the passion—and make it felt by others—right now.
Follow the buzz. To maximize your learning process, work for a minimum of three years in the busiest, hottest, noisiest, wildest, most demanding beehive of activity. Even if they’re not hiring at the moment, go to the most successful full-service salons, skin treatment centers or spas in your area, and wrangle an interview with the managers. Convince the spa managers you talk with that their business needs a USP—namely, you as an employee. After the interviews, write each one a thank-you note on an actual card, with an actual pen, which you send in an actual envelope with an actual stamp. This is one instance where e-mail is not good enough. Stay in touch with them. Keep yourself fresh in their minds, and they’ll remember you when an opportunity opens up or may be able to refer you for positions elsewhere.
Follow, period. As a beginner, you are simply not ready to open your own business. Work for someone else for at least three years. This is especially important if you consider yourself an entrepreneur at heart. You’ll learn a lot by observing a successful entrepreneur and entrepreneurial company in action. Work every shift offered, volunteer to do any task and do it willingly. Ask a million questions—watch, listen, learn, take risks and make mistakes. Remember that creating relationships is just as important as mastering your techniques. While it’s fine to imagine your name over the door someday; right now it’s all about doing your homework.
Look before you leap when considering job offers, and allow yourself to be led by passion, not desperation. Resist the feeling that you must take the first paying job you’re offered. While you must meet the needs of the real world, try to look at each career move you make strategically as well as practically. You’re really looking to create a love match with your first job and, subsequently, every job after that.
This is your life’s passion. Seek out mentorship as well as a paycheck. The greatest bosses are those who also consider themselves perpetual students and manage to keep themselves in the creative, receptive state of the beginner’s mind in spite of their experience in the business world.
Sustaining the beginner’s mind is far more difficult than becoming a know-it-all. It requires steadfastness and a state of constant engagement. Know-it-alls are not annoying because they know so much, but because they are shut down and stagnant. In your profession, you’ll encounter these people every day—the therapist who hasn’t taken a class in a decade and whose approach to the work has not evolved or deepened with time. Deliberate attention, staying fully present in the moment and long-burning energy are required to keep asking, learning and looking for something better.
Picture yourself as a perennial flowering bulb, such as a tulip or iris, that draws strength and vitality from everything around it. The blooms appear season after season, year after year, always restored and renewed. A lifetime dedication to education will allow your work as a therapist to flourish in the same way.