“Find a technical skill that is a hard skill, and get good at it. Get really good at it.”
Johnny Harris came to BYU intending to study film. He majored in media arts his freshman year and hoped to enter the world of cinematography, until an LDS mission changed his plans. The two years he spent in Mexico had a profound effect on the way Harris viewed the world–in that he more often and more actively looked at the world.
“That [mission] shifted my paradigm about international stuff, and I got more interested in international fields like foreign service and international work, so I came back and gave up my dream of being a filmmaker, I thought.”
Though making a sacrifice to be more “serious” about the future by changing his major to international relations, Harris enjoyed his coursework. He fondly remembers his political science courses like comparative politics and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which pointed him to his current focus area: Iran. But he still felt a draw to cinematography.
“I couldn’t get rid of my interest in visual communication. I had always been interested in having a camera, making art, being a photographer and cinematographer.”
So, unlike most college students strapped for time, Harris took on freelance work outside of school. He built a portfolio of projects he forced himself to do during limited free time, giving himself hard deadlines and rounding out his filmmaking ability. The work was difficult, but he enjoyed it. For students learning and mastering a technical skill, Harris advises, “Make sure that you want to get good at it.”
After graduation, Harris went to Peru to complete research for his second Orca grant, but had no job to return to in Washington, DC. On a whim, and to fulfill a lifelong desire, Harris emailed chefs in DC who ran professional kitchens for the chance to audition and work for them, which he did. After a short time he found an opening at a government agency that wasn’t a dream job, but would help improve his skillset.
Then he got a break. Though, again, he hadn’t found his dream job, after several months at the agency, a position to make short videos opened up at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It was kind of like a boot camp. I just pumped out a ton of work,” Harris said of his time at the think tank. “I truly believe that putting yourself in a position where you are forced to put out a lot of work is essential for getting where you want to be.”
And after about a year, he was ready to take another step toward where he wanted to be. Harris felt his skills and perspective would work well at Vox, and he was confident enough to pitch his portfolio. So he did. He says, “The first time I reached out to Vox they full-on didn’t respond, and denied me essentially.” But he wasn’t deterred. Six months later, he cold-pitched again to Vox, and this time they agreed that he was a good fit.
Harris’ mastery of a difficult communicative skill (videography) outside of his area of study set him apart, preparing him to be an asset to organizations that few others could replicate. But almost more than that, he chose to chase jobs in a unique way–reaching out to people at organizations where he felt his skills would be a good fit, instead of always waiting for formal application processes. Both practices have led him to fulfilling work, and he recommends students looking for jobs to find their good fit and look for the people who can get them to it.
“When I got jobs [I didn’t always have] mutual connections, it just meant I always reached out directly. I would be blunt and bold about it. Every job that I’ve gotten has been a matter of connecting with a person.”
Johnny Harris is a multimedia generalist who specializes in international affairs. He currently is based in Washington, DC where he makes web videos for Vox.com, reporting on interesting trends and stories around the globe. Johnny’s visual style blends motion graphics with cinematic videography to create content that explains complex issues in relatable ways. He holds a BA in international relations from Brigham Young University and an MA in international peace and conflict resolution from American University.