Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!
Did You Know? You should volunteer for things!
(1) A story from the past
Did you know? Before she was the (former) German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was a physics Ph.D. turned political campaign volunteer. What she did as a volunteer kickstarted the rest of her political career.
The year is 2005. Angela Merkel is elected Germany’s chancellor—the most powerful position in Germany’s government.
Merkel became not only the youngest but also the first woman to become chancellor. So, how did she get started? By becoming a volunteer. Here’s a brief timeline:
- Sometime in 1986: Merkel receives her doctorate in physics and starts working as a researcher.
- November 1989: The Berlin Wall falls. During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall had separated West Germany (which was democratic) from East Germany (which was communist). On her way home from work, Merkel, who lived in communist East Germany, is swept up by a crowd of people rushing into democratic West Germany—and walks away inspired.
- December 1989: A month later, Merkel signs up as a volunteer for Democratic Beginning, a political party in East Germany founded as a result of the Berlin Wall’s fall. “How can I help?” she asks. The party’s answer: Set up office equipment.
- February 1990: Merkel “[keeps] coming back,” increasing her visibility. The Party’s Leader, Wolfgang Schnur, appoints Merkel as press spokeswoman.
- March 1990: Schnur is outed as an informant for the intelligence agency for communist East Germany. Reporters swarm the political party’s office. Merkel is sent to handle the commotion—and does so with grace.
- March 1990: Lothar de Maizière, another party candidate, wins the election. Democratic Beginnings joins Maizière’s alliance. Remembering Merkel’s skillful handling of the press in March, party representatives urged Maizière to pick Merkel as his spokesperson.
Fast forward ten years and Merkel is named the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party’s first female, as well as first non-Catholic, leader. Fast forward once again five years—fifteen years total after her volunteer role—and Merkel is appointed chancellor of Germany.
Throughout her 16-year tenure as chancellor, Merkel became known as “the de facto leader of the European Union” and the “leader of the free world.” Since retiring from politics in 2021, Merkel says she now “[tries] to focus on sleeping and reading.”
So, the next time you find yourself wondering if you should volunteer, remember Merkel, who started out as a volunteer—and ended up leading an entire country (not to mention the European Union).
(2) A strategy for your future
Did you know? Volunteering is an underrated way to prove yourself.
Imagine reviewing resumes for the role of political press secretary—and seeing a resume from a no-name physics Ph.D. with no prior experience in politics. You’d probably laugh and throw out the resume.
Now, imagine if you’re reviewing resumes for the same job, but everyone around you says, “Angela here single-handedly saved our asses last month when we got swarmed by reporters. Just hire her.” You’d probably listen.
That’s exactly what happened to Merkel—and it could happen to you.
Trying to change teams at work, build your resume, or switch career paths… and find yourself feeling discouraged because it seems like no one’s giving you a chance?
Start by volunteering.
Go to someone you’d like to work with and say:
“I’m inspired by your work in _______ and would love to be an extra pair of hands. Might there be any opportunities for me to pitch in somehow? I could, for example, help with _______.”
Not everyone will agree, but one will—and that one toehold might just be your entry point to a whole new world of opportunities.
I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I first started my speaking career, I started by speaking for free. After collecting a few logos and testimonials, I started asking if an organization had a budget for speakers. My rates started going higher and higher as my number of logos and testimonials grew and grew.
We all start somewhere—and, unless you’ve got the connections, most of us mere mortals start by working for free. To be clear, the world would be a better place if more companies offered paid (rather than unpaid) internships, but we’re not there yet—and, in this still-imperfect world, it still “pays” to work for free if you have the means.