Life: One big interview

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesWe all know that most jobs come through unofficial channels -- introductions from friends or colleagues, poaching from other employers, old boys' and new girls' networks. I'm proof that many interviews take place when you don't even know you're being interviewed.

I got my first job as a lawyer when a classmate asked me if I would meet his father, a solo practitioner who was looking to hire someone. It was 1991, a terrible job market, and I had graduated with no offer in hand. My friend, with whom I'd worked on law review, had hand-picked me to fill his father's position and the job proved to be a perfect launching pad. My next legal job came through a woman I met at a boring conference who convinced me to skip the afternoon sessions to go shoe shopping with her. We had a great day gabbing and window-shopping, and I thought she might become my mentor as she was a bit ahead of me in the same field. About a month later, she called me in for an interview in her legal department. I had no idea that our stroll on Madison Avenue was an "interview."

I have never been hired through an official interview process, except for one job that lasted only 18 months. It was a disaster and is the only job I leave off my resume.

Clearly, I'm a believer in this method of building a career. But it only works if you have the right mindset. If you feel like not enough is happening through unofficial channels, here are three things you need to be thinking and doing:

Get comfortable working with and for your peers. For a few years I've been part of a women writers' salon -- a private group in which novelists, journalists, poets and other women writers congregate to talk about the craft and business of writing. Recently, several women in the group have started ventures of their own and the fascinating thing is that many of them are now in a position to give work to others in the group. I've already gotten consulting work from one and been in discussions with another about a project she's developing. Cultivate a group of peers you respect and with whom you can partner, collaborate, and swap job referrals. In the new project-based economy, having a peer group like this is the best way to ensure you'll be continually employed.

Expect a long courtship. So many job discussions begin after what I call "the long courtship," during which the person doing the hiring has had a chance to watch someone in a variety of situations over time. My New York Times column and blog came through an editor I knew from my regular poker game, which is comprised primarily of journalists. He got to know me over the course of a few years where he could see how I think, what I talked about, how I handled myself in different contexts. By the time we got to a lunch to talk about a regular writing gig, it was a negotiation of details rather than an interview. This is part of the reason that people who already have jobs or at least look like they are working in the right field, have an easier time getting hired.

Find ways to show off your work. The most successful people in their fields tend to also be the most visible. They organize panels for industry trade associations, they write popular blogs or articles, they answer questions on LinkedIn -- all things you can do whether or not you have an actual job. When someone is hiring, they think first about people they already know or have heard of. So you need to make sure that you are one of those people.

Do any of you have any tips for mastering interviews that aren't really interviews?