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In my household, I am the person who puts things together. If we buy the makings of a bookshelf or a chest of drawers, I am the one who transforms them from a collection of small pieces crammed in a flat-pack box into a fully operational, three-dimensional piece of furniture. When the children were younger, if one of them received a toy that had to be constructed out of a bunch of plastic doodads and metal thingies, I was the one who stayed up into the night to do the construction work. All I needed were two things. First, I needed some quiet time alone without interruptions, for I demanded my right to peaceably assemble. Second, I needed a clear set of instructions.

Fortunately, manufacturers from Ikea to Mattel provide reasonably clear printed directions, explaining step by step how to pull all the pieces together, in the right order and the correct orientation, to create a finished product that looks exactly like the one seen in the showroom or catalogue. Every room of my house has a chair or bookcase or bedframe or some other piece of furniture that I have fairly skillfully put together, following instructions like a magical incantation. The magic, of course, doesn’t come from the instructions; it comes from the fact that all of the pieces have been pre-shaped and pre-fit to make one specific product.

These products usually fit well enough into our space and our decor. But if I wanted to make a bureau just a couple of inches longer, say, then I’d be out of luck. I wouldn’t have the raw materials to do so. Even if I had them, I might not know how to create the end product I wanted from the raw materials. I would need to seek out some advice from someone handier and more experienced than I am. Once I’d learned how they had made similar constructions, I would still probably end up making mistakes the first couple of times I tried their methods. Maybe my first attempt would create a bureau that worked, but looked lopsided. Or maybe it would look fine, but the bottom drawer wouldn’t stay closed. Eventually, though, I am sure I would get it right, and then I’d have, not just a piece of furniture that “fit well enough”, but one that was perfect for the room.

I speak to students sometimes who are at sea in their job search process who say, “I am no slacker; I would work very hard at my job search if someone would just tell me what I need to do.” That is a frustrating place to be, and I always try to give them an outline of steps they can take to move forward. We talk about resumes and cover letters, about networking and mentoring, and they leave my office charged up and ready to get things done, now that they know what things to do. I’ve given them an instruction manual.

But I always try to convey to them that these steps they should start with are not the end. It is easy to put it all together when you have an instruction manual — if all the pieces were pre-designed to connect. But in the working world, there is not a lot of pre-design. There is no guarantee that if you pass resume A along to networking connection G, you will end up with job M. And if there were such a guarantee, it would mean that the finished product was not the student’s own conception, but something that someone else had set up, something that might only “fit well enough”. And maybe not even that.

Following an instruction manual is a great way to learn some basic skills, like using a screwdriver or drafting a cover letter, and to develop some confidence in your own abilities. But at some point, if you want to end up with a result that fits your vision and needs and lifestyle, you need to take the next step. You need to learn how to craft your own creation — how to imagine what you want, gather the materials you need to make it, shape those materials to fit your vision, and then undertake the assembly. You will make mistakes. You will need to ask for guidance from others who have succeeded. Most important of all, you will have to take the time and make the effort to decide what result you truly want.