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!”

How waving a sword changed my life

English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Ta...
English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Task Force demonstrated the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as well as displayed weaponry in support of Fleet Week 2010. More than 3,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen will be in the area participating in community outreach events and equipment demonstrations. This is the 26th year New York City has hosted the sea services for Fleet Week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I moved to New York in June 1989, I arrived just in time for the worst, (of two since!), recession in my industry, journalism. I knew not a soul, had no job and had not attended university in the U.S., which, I belatedly realized, makes a huge difference in getting ahead here.

I wanted a fresh, fun challenge unrelated to work, and decided to take up fencing, through night classes offered at New York University. They’d supply the equipment. I just needed to bring energy, commitment and a pair of sneakers.

I’d taken ballet for years, and loved its grace, French terminology and history. But I wanted something ferocious and competitive, not endless plies and tendues going nowhere. Classes were taught by the NYU coach, Steve Mormando, a former Navy guy and two-time Olympian.

It was deeply, quickly humbling, as new muscles announced themselves with aches and pains. I was too slow and clumsy for foil and didn’t like epee. So Steve decided to make a small group of 30-something women into saber fencers, an unheard-of ambition in the early 1990s, when women had yet to compete nationally in that weapon.

I and my team-mates would make history by doing so.

The lessons I learned in the salle have stayed with me, helping me in work and private life. (NB: An epee, foil or saber is actually called a weapon, not a sword. But using the word “weapon” in my headline seemed unwise!)

Here is some of what fencing taught me:

Tenacity

Fencing bouts have only five touches. I was once down 4-0 and once would have simply thought “Fuck it” but Steve taught us that every point is a new bout. I won that bout, which changed how I see life’s possibilities. If I assume I’m defeated, I will be.

Fearlessness

In sabre, the weapon’s style is based on cavalry fighting, with only the body above the hips as target, including the head. Getting hit on the head is always a bit of a shock, even wearing a metal helmet, and I always came home with bruises on my arms and legs. No biggie. If you’re scared to get into the game, how can you compete effectively?

Anticipation

Fencing has been called “chess at the speed of boxing.” Like chess, the sport is very much a mental one, a matching of wits and temperament and the ability to look multiple moves ahead in order to win. This skill is essential to any sort of professional success.

Observation

The only way to win in fencing is to observe each opponent carefully, before and during the bout, in order to pinpoint and penetrate their weaknesses. Everyone has one, and likely several; I once had to fence a much larger man but used my smaller size and greater speed to my advantage.

Persistence

Fencing often hurts and, like many athletes competing in a sport they take seriously, pain becomes a mere distraction. The end goal is to stay focused and win. 

Detachment

Of all the lessons fencing taught me, this was by far the most valuable. I learned to stand back, to wait for an opening, to pull distance, to not react. Becoming emotional  — often a default female choice — is self-indulgent and useless, as anger and frustration simply impede the ability to fight (and win) with a clear head.

Here’s a fun story from The Globe and Mail about a Toronto businessman who fences extremely well with all three weapons.

American designer Vera Wang, best known for her wedding dress business, was a former competitive figure skater and ballet student, both of which shaped her drive as well. She told Allure magazine:

It was my life. I think the training and the discipline, the loneliness — you have to develop a core of strength — helped me in my career. And I danced at the American School of Ballet. That is is intense, intense shit. You know, feet bleeding, Black Swan.

Ralph Dopping, a Toronto designer, blogged about how his sport, martial arts, has shaped his perspective as well.

What does it take to get to the black belt level?

Training.

What else?

Those are just words.

But they convey a mindset toward learning. The martial arts are centered in lifelong learning whether you practice consistently or not. The principles that are taught behind the study of the art is what stays with you.

For life.

What sport or physical activity has shaped you?