Why every young job-seeker should watch “The Devil Wears Prada”

By Caitlin Kelly

This bejeweled coat is in the window at Prada -- some women really do wear it!
This bejeweled coat was in the window at a Manhattan branch of Prada — some women really do wear it!

By now, I’ve seen this 2006 film so many times I know the dialogue and soundtrack pretty much by heart.

It’s the story of a young, ambitious New York City journalist, Andrea Sachs, who ends up working at a fashion magazine, Runway, (a clear stand-in for Vogue), for a brutally demanding boss, Miranda Priestley.

Initially schlubby in dress and grooming, and resentful at her less-than-intellectual position — fetching coffees and selecting skirts — Andy soon wises up, dresses up and wins the day.

Before she quits.

Want to make it in the big city?
Want to make it in the big city?

Here’s a recent blog post from a disheartened young journalist who bailed on a job at, of all places, The New York Times, after a year:

I felt different. I no longer expected to be rewarded for my long, uninterrupted workdays with respect, let alone cash. I didn’t expect anyone to celebrate my personal triumphs with me; instead, I braced myself for criticism I could neither anticipate nor diffuse. I was tired but sleepless, dogged by anxiety…I drooled at the thought of a schedule that would leave me time to care for myself.

I realized there would always be someone hungrier willing to race to the bottom of the payroll for a shot at a byline on a viral story. Not long after that revelation, I quit.

The day before what should’ve been my last at the newspaper, an editor I once respected and trusted chose to unleash his frustration with the industry and his colleagues on me. He called me lazy and defiant, held the door open, and told me to get out.

It doesn’t matter much if you’re entering the field of journalism or any other. There are things you learn in your first full-time paid job that may sear, scare or freak you out.

The world of work is like landing on another planet after the structured, self-selected and nurturing life of high school and college, the attentive concern of your parents, teachers and some professors.

The work rulebook is invisible but essential.

The rules shift, sometimes daily.

Columbia Journalism School -- there's a lot they still don't teach you in the classroom!
Columbia Journalism School — there’s a lot they still don’t teach you in the classroom!

Your “best friend” at work might turn out to be your worst enemy. Or your next boss.

No one will hold your hand and a few, sadly, will be thrilled to watch you fail.

It’s worth watching the film just to hear some of Miranda’s drawled bon mots:

Just move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.

Details of your incompetence do not interest me.

Please bore someone else with your questions.

And, much as an entry-level worker might think “She’s soooooo mean!”, anyone who’s had to manage someone lazy, inattentive or generally gormless has longed to say them out loud.

Read everything! Be smarter than your competition
Read everything! Be smarter than your competition

Here are five excellent skills you need to win your first job — and those that come after it.

And 10 reasons I still think TDWP is a great primer:

No one really cares about your feelings

Your job is to make your boss happy and make sure her/his needs are met on time, preferably ahead of deadline. It’s tough when no one asks “How’s it going? or “How do you feel about this?”

Well, yes. Your boss only got, and keeps, their job because (ideally) they set a very high bar for themself and for those they work with.

Trying” has little value here

(Or as Yoda said in Star Wars, Do, or do not. There is no try.) Your boss may have zero to no interest in your difficulty attaining the goals s/he has set for you. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will give you a gold star or pat on the back just for trying (and failing.) Effort is expected — and results are now what matter most.

No one is going to say “Good job!”

Some young workers have been raised by parents, teachers and others who constantly and lavishly praised their efforts, even if they lost every soccer game that season or peppered their copy with typos, (like the blog post above in which she manages to confuse the word defuse with diffuse, not impressive for a NYT writer.)  Get used to a world where your paycheck and continued employment are the measure of your value to the team. Expecting more than that marks you as needy and unrealistic.

Dress the part if you want to be taken seriously

You’re broke or have student loan debt or no sense of style? Too bad. Find a decent thrift or consignment shop and invest in the very best quality clothing worn by the senior people in your field. Keep your hair trimmed, clean and tidy. Polish your shoes and keep a fresh manicure. As Andy quickly learns, dressing appropriately for your industry shows respect for those who have attained its highest levels. They played the game and expect you to do likewise. Ignore this at your professional peril.

The diamond-studded watch-bracelets at Bulgari -- what the boss might be wearing
The diamond-studded watch-bracelets at Bulgari — what the boss might be wearing

You have to figure things out really fast

Even if you have no idea, even during a meeting, what people are talking about. Read everything relevant to your industry — blogs, websites, publications, podcasts. Attend every conference possible; (you can often get in cheaper by offering to volunteer there.) Your job is to be smart and helpful, not to clutch desperately at the ankles of others who’ve already mastered the game.

Self-reliance is key

If your boss is older than 40, and some will be, they grew up in a very different world than someone now in their early 20s. They’ve already emotionally and professionally survived three recessions in 20 years and have probably pivoted multiple times along the way. No matter how much help you may consider normal, leave those expectations at the office door each morning.

Coffee helps!
Coffee helps!

You need to manage up, down and sideways

The only way Andy survives her job is by relying on the kindness, wisdom and help of others, from the driver who chauffeurs her to her boss’ home to deliver her dry-cleaning to a freelance writer who helps her obtain a manuscript before publication. Cultivate a wide and powerful network of people who know, like and trust you. Help them as often and much as you can so you’ve got a favor bank to call on in times of need.

Your personal life may have to suffer for a while

As Eisenhart discovered in the blog post above, and Andy finds no time for her fed-up live-in boyfriend, work in a new/first job can sometimes consume your life. It shouldn’t forever, but it might for as long as it takes to prove to your boss and co-workers that you’re 100 percent reliable.

Get organized! Stay organized!
Get organized! Stay organized!

Hyper-organization helps

Andy’s transformation from whiny baby to organizational whiz is a lesson every new employee needs to learn. Whatever will keep you ahead of the game — apps, multiple alarm clocks, spreadsheets — will also keep you calm, helpful and pro-active, not dodging wildly and panicking when things, as they often will, go awry.

Bonus: flexibility is key

Things change, sometimes with no warning. The most valued workers are those who remain cool, calm and on it, adapting quickly. No whining! No “This sucks!”

56 thoughts on “Why every young job-seeker should watch “The Devil Wears Prada”

  1. I started my first job after graduating last year so I am new to the world of work, but I haven’t been seared, scared or freaked out. 🙂

    I’m working in the field of employee engagement, and recognition has been shown to be a key driver of engagement. Even a simple thank you makes a difference. I feel fortunate to work for a business where people genuinely care — I have a great boss and manager.

    By the way, the young journalist in the article didn’t actually work for the NYT. She was dreaming of working there in the future.

    1. Thanks for that correction..It made it sound as if she had been working there in a low-level job..?

      Delighted to hear you’re enjoying your work. That’s a great start. And, yes, a simple thank you is HUGE. Rare, sadly.

      1. I agree. Her article was quite misleading, but in the comments she clarified that her position was for the Schenectady Gazette.

        It’s certainly much better than I expected, having heard horror stories about graduate jobs. I’m lucky! 🙂

  2. as always, you have excellent, first-hand advice. i think it is a huge leap for some who move from the ‘womb’ of school into the real world. some are able to make the leap and others are not. being prepared and realistic can make all the difference. i began in advertising, while i went back in school, single-mothering, and being the oldest intern they’d ever had. i told them that i’d do any job, learn everything they wanted to show me, and try it all. i never left and they hired me after 3 months of paying to work there as a school intern. after a year, i got a promotion and continued on with them for years. i’m living proof that it can happen.

    1. Why does this not surprise me? 🙂

      I know that different generations (as has been written by many others) can bring very different expectations into the workplace. Boomers like me and Jose (and maybe you?) know we have to work our ASSES off — there were so many of us that many knew we’d never get a dream job but needed a job we’d enjoy and be able to keep.

  3. I wish I had read this post (and seen the movie) before starting my first job, 15 years ago. I launched a career in philanthropy and I had to learn these things the hard way. Great article! I’m going to share this with some women I know who had just finished graduate school. -Mara @ entertainingfamily.com

  4. This, this, a thousand times this!

    I’ve had to learn most of these lessons over the past few years of work both in office and freelancing, and I think you’re bang on.

    This year one of my goals is to really level up in my career. From reading more about my industry (great, great tip) to investing more in my appearance (London is an insanely image conscious city), I’m trying to channel what was a tremendous amount of uphill work last year into genuine growth. And to try and resurrect my side-hustles…no pressure!

    1. Thanks…:-)

      I wish there were some sort of “finishing school” for men and women who come into the work world to better prepare us all for this stuff. Interestingly (I wrote this post a month ago), the current issue of Fortune magazine has “Five Work Hacks for Millennials” — one of which completely echoes my point that the boss is NOT your friend!

  5. Great read and helpful advice. It amazes me you write about so many different topics. The moment I finish reading your post a thought comes to my mind on which topic you will be writing next.

  6. I’m sure your advice is dead-on for people wanting to work in high-pressure jobs, but I couldn’t take the rules you prescribe. That’s why I stayed away from those types of jobs. Some people thrive on the pressure; others are destroyed by it. I’m the latter.

      1. Only if I’m being bribed! On the plus side, I’ve just gotten Suspiria from the library, which is a horror film set at a prestigious European ballet school, so something you recommended I am checking out.
        And speaking of that movie, the librarian who checked the movie out for me took one look at it and was like, “That’s a classic.” You know you’re in for a good movie when the librarian approves of your choice.

  7. I have to admit, this post gives me a heavy heart. Not that much of what you say isn’t true, but I hope we eventually humanize our workplaces. It is far different to work in an office in other parts of the world than here in the major cities of the U.S. I do believe balance and decency exist–and when I’ve found them here, I’ve held on for dear life. Thought-provoking post.

    1. I know…my POV is pretty grim. I also suspect strongly it’s colored by still being in a dying/brutally competitive field (journalism) in NYC…the worst of the worst when it comes to elbow-in-the-eye management style. 🙂

      I’ve been really shocked by the bullying here that’s considered normal in too many workplaces and the people who keep rising in spite (because?) of it.

      1. It’s America — the land of bare-knuckled capitalism, record corporate profits and stagnant if not falling wages. If you are not “productive” and”successful” you simply do not exist for many people here.

        I find it shocking, but why?

  8. Great teacher post when sending kids off into the real world. My first job was in a small retail potter shop. The boss frequently told us only one of us would be kept after Christmas. Everything was a competition between my coworker and I. The other girl gladly quit after Christmas, she couldn’t take it. I kept on until Spring. The clincher was that another employee was harassing me. My boss replied, “Get over it. You are a pretty girl, this will happen all your life.” When she said that, I walked. No one should fear the work place because another low level employee is allowed to sexually harass another employee. But like Andi, I had that moment of bravery thinking…I don’t need this job, I have experience, it is time to move on.

    1. Thanks for sharing that story…I liked that great moment in Paris when she flees it all but I also liked how she did what she needed to do and grew her skills 100000% along the way. Every time I watch it, I find her friends and boyfriend irritating that they don’t understand what it takes in that world to get ahead — every workplace and industry has its own culture, whether or not your pals think it’s OK.

      Good for you for walking out. Setting employees against one another is nasty! As is any form of harassment or bullying.

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  10. AnneV

    Your first point sounded very much like something I tell students… Except instead of “No one really cares about your feelings” it’s “No one cares about your opinions”. I work and teach in the law, a field where students need to learn to give facts, law, reasons, but not “in my opinion…” or “I think…” It’s can be hard to learn, but better grasped in school than in Court with a Judge frowning and saying “Your opinion is not important, counsel, what is the law?”

    I’ll be suggesting that the Prof who does employment strategies tell students to read this!

    1. Thanks!

      Great point…I have several friends who are lawyers, and several of whom changed fields to do so. It’s very interesting to listen to how they think. I learned about “fact patterns” from one of them.

      Journalism, at its classic best, is also a discipline with no room for your opinions or feelings. We’re meant to convey as much truthful fact as we can quickly and accurately gather — and let readers/viewers have their feelings and opinions about it all.

  11. Part of why I have no ambition to leave small publishing, is that I know perfectly well I wouldn’t survive in that kind of space. Anywhere that needs a smart looking person, I’m lost (I’ve never in my life had a manicure). Most of my favourite people to work for are also scruffy, I realise. I like being able to work in supportive environments, where people watch each other’s backs protectively, not to figure out knife placement 🙂 I won’t earn the big bucks, I won’t be at the top end of anything – which is as well, because I’d be like a turtle on a post in that kind of environment. I like not having to be brutal with people who are learning, too. Which is in part about being able to afford the time. It’s fascinating seeing what the cutting edge workplaces look like (from a safe distance) and for me,it’s wholly affirming of the choices I’ve made.

    1. So true.

      I arrived in NYC at 30, thinking my media career here would take OFF. Hah. I quickly saw the long, narrow, slow ladder of working at a Big magazine (looked tedious) and didn’t want to go out to NJ to a regional paper after working for a national one. The whole thing looked like snakes and ladders.

      I recently worked, briefly and freelance, with someone who is VERY successful — and was horrified by his behavior, alternating between bluster, bluff, charm, overselling and bullying. It seems to work very well for him. I fled! 🙂

      I have never seen so much bullying as I have in NYC journalism, even during several job interviews, meant to (?!) determine…something about the candidates applying there. I just found them absurd and rude and never wanted to work with people like that, all of them at major publications.

  12. Roxanna

    Ha that is exactly why I loved that movie besides the fashion and the awesome parties, it showed how real work was and how lucky she was to have that job because Andy had people who helped her and a boss who didn’t coddle her. As mean as the boss was, she gave a lot helpful insight to having a professional career and had a job that helped her to grow as a person.

    Sometimes a new job like this can be scary and scare away newcomers into the job force but I say stick with the challenge and grow from it, it is a good experience and will look great on your resume. What’s the point if your job is too easy? Well I guess we all can’t handle it.

    1. Thanks for weighing in…

      My favorite scene was when she goes to the art department to whine…and he schools her nicely and helps her get her act together.

      Glad this one resonated with you! 🙂

  13. Rebecca Isenhart

    Think you’ve noted this already, but I didn’t work at the New York Times. Reading comprehension is tough, I know!

  14. Yu

    Amen. Reasons why I still quote DWP to this day.
    Thank cheesus it came out before I got my first job.

    Got to spreadsheet-ing my duties since the get go; always on time or early (got in 15 min late three days in a row and got a light dressing down. Boss asked how I planned to remedy that and was visibly surprised that my answer was not an explanation about how road work was making traffic unpredictable, but a simple “get here on time”. That was that.); got the number of projects under my care to triple in the first 4 months and our clients gave us jobs intended just for me. They hired 3 people to do my job and made me their boss by month 7.

    And before anyone thinks that this comes naturally to me… Uhhh, no.
    I’m a Fine Arts BA dropout. I have acute ADHD. One of my biggest challenges in school was writing essays; I’d whine and complain all day long about not being allowed to pass on oral exams alone.
    Surprise, surprise when that first job was a writing job. I was desperate for some hard cash and applied. When I got the news about being hired, I called back home in tears, bawling about not living up to standard, being thrown out on my ass and exposed as a phony.

    So, thanks again, DWP.

      1. Thanks! That job was my Harry Potter. Like Andy, I was giving up on the seemingly impossible errand, before even trying. But we didn’t, and we learned our worth.

        This movie is so understated and mundane and so very average in myriad of ways that I can’t help but love it!
        Besides, who doesn’t love some Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep genius ad-lib?

      2. On a different note, try to never ever waste your time reading the DWP book. It’s everything the movie tells you not to be.

        Book Andy is a brat: entitled, whiny, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, unprofessional, blah, blah, blah, list goes on.

        Maybe the movie was a none-too-subtle jab at Lauren Weisberger’s workplace ethic? One can only hope.

  15. I had my own Miranda. Mine was nicer though and we are now friends. After working for her I went onto two project management posts. Having said that, I recently asked to work for her again. Remotely, of course.

    1. My first editor was, as I wrote, QUITE tough. But without high standards, esp. when we’re just getting started, how else will we learn what excellence requires? I’m always glad of it, even if it’s not much fun.

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