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There are two times in your life when you should be thinking about your “transferable skills”: when you are looking for a new job, and when you ought to be looking for a new job.

That was the lesson I took from the story of Brian O’Dea, who was an international drug smuggler in the 1980s. Not the swallow-a-few-baggies-of-heroin-before-boarding-a-jet-in-Cartagena kind of international drug smuggler; O’Dea ran an operation that employed more than 100 people and brought in more than $100 million worth of product a year. O’Dea is a glib, personable raconteur, and I found him inappropriately jovial when relating his stories about pulling the wool over the eyes of the DEA while sneaking tons of illicit drugs into the U.S., ha ha ha. Still, his tale is cautionary; he details the misery of his own cocaine addiction and his ten-year prison sentence when the Feds finally catch up with him. He describes himself currently as a businessman who also works with young people struggling with addiction. Of course, he probably would have described himself in exactly the same terms in the 1980s.cash

The interesting part of his story, to me, came after he was released from prison, early in the new century. After he complained hopelessly about being unskilled and unemployable, his wife challenged him. You ran a secret international business with 110 employees, bringing in millions in profits every year, she said. And you don’t know how to do anything? Just figure out which of your old skills are transferable to the real world. So O’Dea did that, and then used what he came up with as the basis for an ad that he placed in a nationwide newspaper. Essentially, his ad read, “I have just completed a prison sentence for smuggling 75 tons of marijuana and am now looking for legitimate work. I am an expert in security and computers, I have great people skills and speak three languages . . .”

Over the following three weeks, O’Dea received more than 600 inquiries from employers all over the world, ranging from customs and police agencies to organ smuggling outfits, who apparently recognized that his practical and management skills were in fact highly transferable. He ended up with a number of opportunities to choose from, and selected the most appealing: television producer. Perhaps as a former drug smuggler he was seen as uniquely qualified to provide unhealthy but addictive narcotizing material to people seeking an escape from reality.

O’Dea’s new boss might not have recognized him as qualified if he had only described himself by his job title, but because he spelled out specific talents that he possessed – and specific outcomes that demonstrated those talents – his value was apparent to a wider range of potential employers. All job seekers should take this lesson to heart. Job titles and lists of duties do not explain what you are capable of; learn to speak of your skills and accomplishments, and others will more easily see what you can do for them. If a convicted drug felon can do it, anyone can.

Even if you are not currently looking for a new job, consider this: O’Dea chose to enter the entertainment field because he felt it best suited his interests and the skills he developed on account of those interests. The thrill of taking a calculated risk, backed up by the attention to detail and spontaneous problem-solving that minimized such risk. The satisfaction of leading a team, founded upon his communication and management skills. These elements were both the sources and the perquisites of his success as a drug smuggler. Yet, even at the height of his smuggling success, O’Dea was aware of the downsides: the danger, the illegality, the facilitation of his own drug abuse. He even tried to quit the business – unsuccessfully, I think in part because he had not figured out what else he could do instead.

If, in his unease, O’Dea had learned to think of himself, not as a drug smuggler, but as a personnel manager, a security expert, a problem solver – someone defined by his transferable skills – then perhaps he would have realized the appeal of the entertainment industry sooner, and might have been motivated then to leave the drug business for good. Figuring out our transferable skills is not just a means of convincing others to hire us; it can also be a way for people who are vaguely unsatisfied with their work to develop a clearer vision of their alternatives.