By Caitlin Kelly
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”