Those #firstsevenjobs — yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Off on the train, hi-ho…

 

A little late to this party, but those of you on Twitter might have seen this popular hashtag, where people share their first seven jobs.

It’s been really interesting to see all the odd and unlikely things people do to earn money…tank driver, fishmonger, clown, pipeline surveyor, funeral musician.

It was also interesting to see how many of the jobs were fairly low-level/low-wage until people hit a well-paid professional career, and it seemed like a longer, slower trajectory for the Americans who tweeted, maybe because so many go on to graduate school, maybe because some just didn’t need — or couldn’t get — a better position sooner.

 

Here are the first seven ways I tried to make money, (and you’ll quickly see a pattern!):

 

  • Made and sold home-made bead necklaces on a street corner in a chi-chi shopping area of Toronto. I was 12.
  • Made and sold home-made envelopes (magazine pages, with an address label). I was 15.
  • Lifeguard at various Toronto swimming pools, public and private. Ages 15 to 18.
  • Waitress (very briefly!)
  • Busgirl (even worse)
  • Sold my photos on the street. Age 19
  • Sold my articles to national magazines and newspaper. Age 19.

 

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One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

 

I soon learned that:

 

  • I like to sell
  • I like to talking to strangers
  • I’m not scared of selling or of speaking to strangers
  • I like seeing how people respond to my creativity
  • I like it even more when they pay me for it!
  • Lifeguarding is really, really, really, boring — until or unless (which never happened) someone is in serious trouble
  • Waitressing and bussing tables demands huge physical stamina, patience and a shit-ton of emotional labor
  • I prefer being paid to challenge and question authority (journalism) than kow-towing to bosses and customers (service work)

 

The world of work can appear terrifying, impenetrable, overwhelming. No matter how hard you work or whatever degree(s) you earn or your stellar marks/GPA, you can still hit a wall, or many.

There are many people out there insisting you follow your passion, without regard to — you know, money.

Just because you like making cupcakes/walking your dog/playing the banjo doesn’t mean you can earn a decent living from it.

The challenge for everyone, from first job to last, is finding steady work we enjoy, (at least much of the time), and that uses our skills and emotional intelligence.

Working for income is such a potent blend of drive, determination, talent, sheer get-this-shit-done-now, emotional labor, (i.e. sucking up, being nice to people even when — especially when — you’re being badly paid and treated like crap, as in retail and foodservice), management draaaaaaamas, finding smart/kind (if you’re lucky) co-workers, bosses and clients…

A job can look perfect on paper and then you start and….ohhhhh, shit…It’s not.

Or, yay! It really is.

I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist working freelance, i.e. without any paid sick days or paid vacation, without a boss or co-workers or raises or promotions or bonuses or commission. Whatever I earn has to come through my efforts and skills, and, when it works, the generosity of my networks who refer me on to their contacts.

Some years have been terrific, others much less so.

I do enjoy working in/with/on a team, as one does in a newsroom or magazine. I enjoy, and I miss, the camaraderie and the mix of smarts and energy.

But I also treasure autonomy, being able to plan and manage my own time, (and time off — Americans with staff jobs are terrified to ask for or use their skimpy vacation days) –and to pick and choose work that makes sense to me, intellectually if not always financially.

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My second book, published in 2011

I’ve had three well-paid staff jobs at major daily newspapers, in Toronto at the Globe and Mail, (Canada’s best), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

I loved the first, enjoyed aspects of the second and barely survived the third; daily American newspapers, now struggling mightily and shedding staff like autumn leaves, are highly specific cultures, some welcoming, some less so.

I’ve also worked as a senior editor and editor in chief of a few magazines, work I enjoyed less, as it was totally desk-bound.

 

What were some of your first jobs — and what did they teach you?

 

Mentoring 3.0

By Caitlin Kelly

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Which path should I choose?!

 

The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.

You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.

But here’s the thing.

I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.

The economy has changed.

Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.

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Books can offer lots of great advice, too!

Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.

So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.

We all need to adapt.

I’ve mentored many people throughout the years.

Some have become and remained dear friends, like this talented young woman in London. I’m super thrilled to see what a great career and life she has created for herself.

A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!

Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.

I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.

Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.

Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.

Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.

They might not even have a “job” anymore!

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It all feels so mysterious, though. Help!!!

Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!) — pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.

Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.

Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.

We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.

Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.

No one owes you this!

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker — and generous mentor to many in our field

And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.

In the new economy, we all need one another.

What lessons did your first boss teach you?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

As a follow-up to my Devil Wears Prada post, I’ve been thinking about my first editor(s) when I started out in journalism and my first full-time-job boss and the lessons they taught me — some of which might resonate for you.

I began freelancing as a writer for national publications when I was 19, having grown up in Toronto, the center of Canadian publishing.

Eager to join the world of journalism, I immediately signed up as a reporter for the weekly campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, and started writing as much as they would let me. Within a year, I had a good pile of articles, (aka clips), to show to professional magazine and newspaper editors I hoped would pay me for them.

I first started writing for a national Canadian magazine, then called Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

My editor was ferocious!

Her own mother was a legendary writer and so is her younger sister. I had never formally studied journalism or writing, beyond a BA in English literature from the equally-ferocious University of Toronto.

No one in my new worlds, either college or journalism, suffered fools gladly!

My editor would circle every misplaced or misused or lazy word with a red pen — this was in the day of typewriters and paper copies.

My first few stories were an embarrassing sea of red circles.

The New York Times newsroom...since 1990, I've written more than 100 stories for them
The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

She taught me a lesson I never forgot: to use specific verbs in the active tense.

When we spoke on the telephone, (no Internet!), and she told me what was wrong with my work, I would occasionally end up in tears.

Was it always fun? Clearly not.

Was I learning (and getting paid to do so?) Clearly so.

I could give up and walk away — or continue to learn my craft.

She and I are Facebook friends today.

My first book, published in 2004...all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today
My first book, published in 2004…all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first newspaper boss was a man so shy most people thought he was cold and unfriendly but he was really someone who valued guts and intelligence.

He took the crazy risk of hiring me — although I had zero prior staff newspaper experience — to work for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s daily national newspaper.

My first day, staring up at the large overhead clock that still rules every newsroom, I thought: “Wow, they want this story….tonight.

He kept throwing me into huge, terrifying, front-page stories, from covering an election campaign in French in Quebec, (I had never covered politics, anywhere, for anyone, let alone en francais), to a two-week national tour trailing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from New Brunswick all the way to Manitoba.

The lizard part of my brain sent me to cry in the bathtub, scared to death I would fail every time and get fired. That was his agenda!

The rational part of my brain told me to shut up and get on with it. I was being offered tremendous opportunities to shine. The rest was up to me.

I did fine.

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid
Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid in March 2014

I remain forever grateful to both editors for giving me amazing (scary!) chances, knowing I was still young and fairly green, knowing I might have proven a terrible disappointment. They had more confidence and faith in me than I often did.

That’s my definition of a great boss.

What did your first boss or job teach you that was most helpful?

10 ways to rock your first job/internship

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s graduation season, and time — for the fortunate — to step into their first full-time staff jobs, whether a permanent position or a summer internship.

If you’ve snagged a paid spot (or, likely, an unpaid one), congrats! Time to rock it!

As someone who has hired and managed less-experienced researchers and assistants, and has watched some newsroom interns succeed — or fail — a few hints:

 

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Listen carefully

No, really.

Put down your phone, look people in the eye and give them your undivided attention. Old folks — anyone over 30 — expect you to look at them while they’re speaking to you, not IM or text. Especially if you’re working in any sort of customer-facing work like PR, retail, hospitality or food service — where high quality customer service is expected — this is crucial.

Your ability to soak up information quickly and accurately will make or break you. You may also have to convey key information to other people and need to be sure you’ve got everything right. You may well need to remind your boss of meetings, travel appointments or other tasks. They’re offloading onto you and counting on you to be helpful.

Take notes

Use whatever method is easiest and most reliable, whether a pen and paper, Ipad or verbal dictation. Double-check the spelling of even the simplest names and figures: Jon Smythe, for example. Never assume you automatically know the right answer; even if you do, check to be sure.

Ask lots of questions

Don’t be annoying and sleeve-tugging, but learn what is expected of you, whether hourly, daily, or weekly. If you’ve been asked to prepare a conference room for a meeting, go there ahead of time and make sure everything your boss(es) and co-workers will need is in there, and if not, get it!

Get to know all support and administrative staff and be kind and respectful to them. They hold a lot of power.

Also, find out how your boss and coworkers prefer to communicate — whether face to face, texts, email, phone or Skype. Just because you and your friends prefer texting does not mean those paying you do as well.

Memorize the phrase: “No problem!”

And mean it. After you’ve gotten your responsibilities clear, and you know who to ask or call for help in an emergency, it’s up to you to figure stuff out for yourself. It’s called being resourceful. Your value to your organization is not simply doing the job they hired you into, but to notice and anticipate other issues you might be able to help solve.

Are you including pleasure in your daily life?
Are you including pleasure in your daily life?

Take care of yourself: eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, limit alcohol intake

Don’t underestimate the stress — (and excitement!) — of a full-time job pleasing many new and demanding strangers. They’re not your Mom or coach or professors and (sorry!) many just don’t really care if you’re happy or having fun or even if you succeed. So it’s up to you to take the best care of your body and soul as possible, especially in an economy with few great jobs and little to no room for error, sloppiness, oversights or slip-ups.

Being well-rested and properly nourished will help you stay on top of your game; (i.e. do not arrive at work, ever, hungover. Nor share those details if you do.)

And no draaaaaaaama. Ever. No public tears or tantrums. (That includes stairwells, elevators and bathrooms. The walls have ears and you never know who’s listening.)

Check in with your boss(es)

If something they have asked you to do is heading south, let them know as soon as possible so there are no ugly last-minute surprises they can’t fix.

Don’t constantly ask co-workers or bosses for “feedback” or praise

Seriously! No matter how badly you crave approval or are used to being told — “Thanks! Great job!” — don’t hold your breath waiting for this at work. And don’t freak out if you never hear it there, no matter how much extra effort you put in. We’re all running 100,000 miles per hour these days and anyone who even has a job, let alone a senior position of any authority, is already plenty stressed and tired.

They are in no mood to coddle you as well.

Don’t take shit personally — unless it’s aimed at you specifically

If someone rips your head off, don’t take it personally. They might be a bitch to everyone all the time, or their dog just died or their husband is having an affair or they just got a lousy diagnosis. Get a feel for office politics and culture so you know when someone is really just like that, or when you really are screwing up and deserved to get your head sliced off, GOT-style.

It's not personal! Armor up, kids!
It’s not personal! Armor up, kids!

Do everything to 187 percent of your ability. Everything!

That means getting coffee, running to Staples, booking your boss’s flight, whatever your boss needs. People who run their own business, especially, rely on helpful, cheerful team players — no one is “too important” to do the smallest of tasks, no matter how silly or tedious or un-sexy they appear to be. People really value workers who consistently offer them good cheer, high energy and empathy.

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Your primary job is to make everyone else’s job easier

Don’t focus on your job title or description, if you even have one. Never say out loud, or post anywhere on social media: “That’s not my job!” If your boss says it’s your job, guess what…

Your most valuable skill, certainly as someone new to the workforce building your skills and your networks for the future, is being sensitive to others’ needs and making their lives easier, while accomplishing your own tasks on or ahead of schedule. No one, even at the opera, wants to work with a diva.

Good luck!

 

Ten ways to be a kick-ass assistant

When am I gonna make a living?.
It’s gonna take a while before I give in. Yes it is.
I’m sick and tired of scratching a living.
I am hungry but I’m not gonna give in, no

—- Sade, “When Am I Going to Make a Living?”

The job market is still lousy here in the United States, for thousands of smart people — even many with Really Fancy College degrees.

In a tough economy with too many people chasing too few jobs, you need to get your foot on the rung, even the bottom one, of a ladder that might actually lead you to a job you want. That might mean becoming someone’s assistant.

No eye-rolling. No “I didn’t go to college for that!”

No one did.

OK Boss - NARA - 534390
OK Boss – NARA – 534390 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more than a decade, I’ve hired, managed and retained unpaid interns and paid assistants to help me run my writing business and to research and help promote my two books.

I got the idea while teaching a journalism class at a local university with only 13 students. I knew exactly who I hoped would intern for me — a lively, funny, down-to-earth young woman named Jessica. It was like asking her for a date! Luckily, she said yes and stayed on to work for me after her unpaid internship ended; I paid her, more than a decade ago, $12 an hour. She was worth every penny.

In return, with one phone call to someone I knew who needed help, I found her a job straight out of school in a field she wanted. Score!

One of my favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada, from 2006. I used to sympathize with the beleaguered and overworked assistant, Andie, but after the first few viewings, my sympathies switched to Miranda Priestley, her super-demanding boss at Runway magazine.

It’s a fun film — and offers much workplace wisdom.

Cover of "The Devil Wears Prada [Blu-ray]...
Cover of The Devil Wears Prada [Blu-ray]
If you’re looking for work, certainly a first post-grad job, think on these things…

Listen carefully

In an age of CPA — continuous partial attention — it’s rare to find young staffers able to offer you their full, undivided attention and look you in the eye for more than a few minutes. This is essential for creating and maintaining a working relationship with your boss and his or her clients or colleagues. Feels weird? Tough!

Your boss hired you to help them perform better. Listening very carefully to their instructions — and the tone of of voice they’re delivered in — is key. This is tougher by text or email, so try to get some face or phone time with them as well.

Take notes

Can you possibly remember everything they asked you to do? And every deadline? I doubt it. No matter how trivial the conversation appears to be — your boss is running between meetings or it sounds like an afterthought — it’s important to them. Which means it’s important to you!

Ask a lot of questions

Some bosses don’t have much time, or patience, to deal with endless questions, so knowing how much they will reveal and when is also a measure of how perceptive and sensitive to nuance you are; read up on the notion of emotional intelligence.

EQ matters as much as — if not more than —  IQ!

Do not guess. Do not make assumptions! It’s better to feel stupid and ask a question than screw it up by thinking because you graduated college you know what your boss really wants. You might.

But what if you’re wrong?

Email, call or text when necessary for clarification

I prefer assistants comfortable working independently because I have little time to manage or train them; if you see the word “self-starter” in an ad, that’s what they mean. But you will always have something you’re not quite sure of. Check!

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Andrea Sac...
Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway): pre-release still photograph from the film The Devil Wears Prada; this also is the novel’s redesigned cover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Check in!

How’s it going? Really.

If something is heading south, for whatever reason, your boss needs to know about it sooner rather than later so it can get fixed. If you’re used to parents who check in with you, or you with them, this is not that. This is not you looking for approval or a thumbs-up or a “Great job!” from your boss.

Take nothing personally

It’s work, kids. It’s a job. It’s not the rest of your life. It’s not the only thing you do or care about. So if someone snaps at you or yells at you or hands you a task you think is stupid, it’s actually not about you. It’s been deemed important by the people paying for your skills and labor.

When people are nasty or rude or just even unfriendly in a work setting, it often has very little to do with you as a person  — (unless you’re rude, obnoxious, unethical, lazy or entitled. But you’re not, right?) They’re likely carrying a shitload of stress, work or personal and likely both, with few places to express it.

Yes, this task (or job) is boring/tedious/repetitive — do it really well anyway!

We picked you because you seemed like a smart, lively, high-energy person. We hired you to do everything we do not have time, energy, manpower or patience to deal with. We hired you because, in the coldest language possible, our time is now valued more highly in the marketplace than yours, and we have bills to pay. So if your boss can bill $200-1,000 an hour for their skills, that’s where their focus needs to stay.

We’ve all done this shit! And your willingness to tackle tedious stuff well and efficiently sends a powerful and important meta-message to your boss: I get it.

Be cheerful, warm and fun to work with

Huge. This is a deal-maker. I’ve had a few assistants who didn’t always do exactly what I hoped for, but their genuine enthusiasm and sense of humor made it feel like we were a team. Your boss is stressed to the max. S/he really appreciates someone whose mood and attitude can lighten their load — so no whining/pouting/crying/negativity. Learn the names of your boss’s kids/spouse/pets, (and ask how they’re doing from time to time), and his/her birthday, even if all you do is wish them a cheery “Happy birthday!” Bosses are people too. (Some of them.)

Ask if suggestions and ideas are welcome — then show us what you’ve got

It’s great that you have lots of ideas. It shows initiative and gumption. But wait a while. Wait a few weeks, even months, before you start making suggestions. Unless your boss asks you for them.

Be 10000000% reliable

This is obvious. Flaking and bailing are simply not an option. Remember the letters ID — illness or death. In my book, they’re the only reason you can bail or be late. I once hired someone, who came highly recommended, who had lots of great ideas. I was psyched! Then she quit within a week because she had another income source and she suddenly remembered it was more important.

Loyalty matters.

Bonus tip:

Discretion is paramount. Never share anything your boss shares with you on any form of social media. Don’t tell your friends or your room-mates or anyone. Don’t forward it or keep it or re-purpose it for your own ends, like the assistant who casually mentioned she’d used some of my first book’s research material for a class paper. Um, no.

You have no idea who they know — the person your boss is about to hire, fire, promote or give a grant to. I sometimes have my assistants sign an NDA, non disclosure agreement, to make sure they get it. Just because you grew up sharing everything on social media doesn’t mean your boss wants his or her stuff used as if it were yours. It’s not!

What have I left out?

Buck Up, Fresh Grads — The Party's Over: Eight Lessons That Might Help

NEWTON - MAY 22:  Family members take photos o...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

You already knew that, but this essay in The Financial Post, a Canadian newspaper, by Rick Spence, has some words of wisdom:

If I were asked to deliver a convocation speech, here’s what I would say based on my experience chronicling 25 years of entrepreneurship:

Your diploma is a passport to nothing

From now on get by on what you can do, not what they say you know. While you’ve been cutting classes or cribbing for exams, other people were in the trenches getting kicked in the teeth. They’ve learned all about getting their foot in the door, pitching ideas, asking for the sale and rebounding from setbacks. You have a lot of catching up to do.

You are a free agent

You are a small cog emerging from a big bureaucratic machine. Most of you will soon exchange your student number for an employee ID badge. But you don’t have to be a cog. Think of yourself as a free agent, choosing where and how you work. A job is not your life, just a contract. Many new opportunities will present themselves. Some will be dressed as job offers; others disguise themselves as business opportunities, bad bosses, new technologies or career roadblocks. To stick with one job or one employer is to settle for a limited experience when other people are moving from challenge to challenge, building their skills and networks.

The biggest challenge — especially if you carry crippling student debt — is not frantically looking for a job, any job, but trying to figure out who you are, what you’re best at, and finding a fit between your IQ, education and EQ, your emotional intelligence.

And, at some point, ideally finding a place where you can thrive, not just sit in a cube and wait ’til Friday.

I got my first full-time job only two years after I graduated (University of Toronto, English major.)

I didn’t need one, because my freelance business was so strong (Lesson One: You have skills you can sell, on your own, into the marketplace. Once you realize this, you will never feel the same fear of unemployment again. If your skills are too weak to be of value to others in this fashion, strengthen them as quickly as you can. If you’re too scared to approach [possibly critical or rejecting] strangers, get over it. It’s one of the most crucial survival skills.)

But I thought I’d better get serious, aim higher (i.e work in an office for someone else; Lesson Two, not the best choice for some of us.) I was hired by The Canadian Press, the national wire service that’s the equivalent of the Associated Press.

Misery! (Instructive, though.) I worked the late shift so would pass my live-in boyfriend on the stairs to our apartment as he arrived home from work and I left. (Not a good sign.) Then I’d collect news from across the country and re-distribute it.

Sundays nights got so bad I would cry before I went in because that was the night every week I had to write a round-up story called Fatalities — Fats for short — about everyone who had died or been killed in newsworthy fashion over the weekend. The gorier and grislier the death, the better!

I worked with a robot named Judy (as will you, at some point. Maybe not named Judy, but someone whose values, or lack of same, horrify you. Lesson Three; they’re everywhere.) One night I asked if this parade of death bothered her. “No, it’s just numbers,” she chirped.

I passed probation, but my bosses and I gratefully agreed that this sort of work really wasn’t a great fit for me. (Lesson Four: Just because you are competent at something does not mean you enjoy it or will thrive in this niche. Pay bills as long as you must, but get out before you die.)

Thank God I won a fellowship that month and went to France instead. A few years after that I managed to get a Big TV Job writing national nightly news and did that for a summer. At the end, I asked the boss if he’d give me a reference.

“No,” he said. “You were terrible.”(And you thought Canadians were nice and polite.)

Lesson Five: Just because you were all-American or had a stellar GPA or perfect SAT, a star on campus or in grad school or some other job(s) doesn’t mean squat in the “real world.” Whatever your current boss thinks is really important is really important.

I wasn’t past 25 then, but better to learn young when you are dreadfully ill-suited to jobs that, on paper, look really great and may even pay a lot. How can you not want any job? How can you not cling to it, as if it were (even if it is) a life raft?

Lesson Six: You must find faith in yourself. The market isn’t your BFF.

Today’s grads will have to take every ounce of “self-esteem” and shove them somewhere dark and private. Employers, especially in this economy, could not care less if you are happy or want a better title or more responsibilities.

They’re too busy being hounded by people like me, with decades of experience ahead of you.

From a story in Bloomberg Businessweek:

Ten months after graduating from Ohio State University with a civil-engineering degree and three internships, Matt Grant finally has a job — as a banquet waiter at a Clarion Inn near Akron, Ohio.

“It’s discouraging right now,” said the 24-year-old, who sent out more than 100 applications for engineering positions. “It’s getting closer to the Class of 2010, their graduation date. I’m starting to worry more.”

Schools from Grant’s alma mater to Harvard University will soon begin sending a wave of more than 1.6 million men and women with bachelor’s degrees into a labor market with a 9.9 percent jobless rate, according to the Education and Labor departments. While the economy is improving, unemployment is near a 26-year high, rising last month from 9.7 percent in January-March as more Americans entered the workforce.

Lesson Seven: Be savvy, strategic, kind, ethical, flexible, professional — and willing to do anything legal.

Lesson Eight: Never, ever expect the words you may well have grown up hearing as a constant, comforting refrain: “Good job!”  Your boss didn’t.

Ten Gifts For The Would-Be Journo/Non-Fiction Writer; Good Luck, Grads — You'll Need It

Cover of "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions...
Cover via Amazon

I never studied journalism, but have taught it many times since; I was an English major at the University of Toronto. But I knew from the age of 12 this was what I wanted to do — and the only thing I wanted to do.

I also knew it would be, as it is and continues to be, damn hard. This industry is filled with rich, connected kids — of all ages — bringing social capital, huge confidence and parental financing that allows them to work for nothing. They, and thousands of others, are your competition.

Today’s fresh grads — good luck! — are clambering into the leaky, sinking lifeboats of our profession. It’s tempting to beat them off with our shredded oars, so few and so precious are the remaining seats.

From The Times of London, in a very long (but very wisely written) piece on why journalism and why it’s so damn hard:

Indeed, Justin Lewis, head of the school of journalism at Cardiff University, says that part of his role is to temper the high expectations of students.

“Some of them do come here with very idealistic notions of what being a journalist is all about,” says Lewis. “We don’t want to hammer that out of them, but we need to be realistic about what those opportunities are. Research we’ve done within the school has shown that each journalist produces three times as much copy today as they did 20 years ago. So it’s tougher. It’s tougher to get a job, and it’s tougher when they’re in a job, and we need to be clear about that.” Lewis, one expects, also tells his students that journalism is often wonderful. Return to the class of 2008, and you see young reporters enjoying extraordinary experiences. Kate Mansey, for example, was sent to Afghanistan in 2007 for a month, where she wrote a memorable story about a family of heroin addicts on the outskirts of Kabul. The youngest addict was a nine-year-old girl.

Jerome Taylor, meanwhile, has talked through the night with asylum seekers in Calais. Claire Newell went undercover to tease prominent MPs into admitting their role in the cash-for-honours scandal and the cash-for-influence scandal which sank Stephen Byers. Helen Pidd spent a day being rude to people in Perth, after it was voted Britain’s most polite town. The list goes on.

There will be those who could think of nothing worse than meeting poor Afghanis, or hoodwinking politicians, or testing the patience of Scotsmen. Fair enough — sell cars. But there will also be those for whom the idea of such encounters is intoxicating, and the prospect of reporting such experiences more thrilling still. These people, if they are lucky and tenacious enough, become journalists.

Yet several of my favorite young journos are doing just fine: one at a website; one at a small newspaper, one as a business writer at the Los Angeles Times and one as a staff shooter for the Denver Post, his first job. Woohoo! So there are jobs and these bright, talented young ‘uns are getting them.

What gifts might I offer a fresh ambitious grad hoping to enter our insane, lovely, terrifying, brutal industry?

1) A really good, comfortable chair you’ll be happy sitting in for hours and hours and hours. At home, alone, in silence. Not sitting in a cafe with with your laptop being groovy and listening to tunes or chatting with your peeps via webcam. Working. Writing is not easily or well done with a ton of noisy people all around you. It is not meant to be something people watch you do and admire you doing. It’s not the Olympics.

2) A bicycle or a good pair of walking shoes. You need to get outdoors often. Fresh air, exercise and sunshine on your face will remind you there is a world outside your apartment or car. Pay attention. Take notes, always.

3) A fountain pen. Writing is still a sensual activity. And being able to inscribe your beautiful signature will be so useful when you’re signing autographs and books.

4) Thick, lovely stationery, or a gift certificate for personalized cards and envelopes; try Papersource.com. When it’s time — and it often is — to write a thank-you note, or an attaboy, using good stationery offers an elegant, immediate point of difference from your many competitors when your recipient gets a lovely real letter, sent within a day or two of your meeting. Email, schme-mail.

5) Great business cards. Thick stock, letterpress, with your name, website(s) and phone numbers. Not: cheap, shiny, cheesy. You don’t need a job to have a card. You don’t need someone else to decide you’re a writer. Networking will open many, many doors and part of your lasting first impression is having a card and having a memorably stylish one. Just don’t call yourself a “wordsmith.” Ever.

6) A gym membership. You need to stretch, run, sweat and tap into some endorphins un-related to staring into a computer. Some of your best ideas will come when you are least focused on your work.

7) A gift certificate to a terrific bookstore, preferably a great local indie like Posman in Manhattan or Munro’s in Victoria, B.C. or The Tattered Cover in Denver. Make it as big as you can, so the pile will include reference books, a good dictionary, thesaurus and at least a dozen books of inspiration, whether Follow The Story, by James Stewart, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Random Family, by Adrian Nicole Leblanc.

8) The offer, when it seems right, to send your young writer to the conference of his/her choice. That’s where they’ll meet agents, editors, fellow writers of all levels. It might cost $1,000 if they have to fly/stay in a hotel and pay conference fees. Yes, a string of pearls or a handsome watch are more traditional choices, but this is one (costly) thing s/he really needs.

9) A passport and plane ticket to somewhere more than a six-hour flight off the continental United States: Mexico, Central or Latin America, Asia, the midEast, India. Anywhere but Paris/London/Prague/Berlin. They’ll get there on their own. When you’re young and (somewhat) fearless is the best time to try something new and scary. No mortgage, no kids, no spouse. Go!

10) A really good atlas. My favorite reading. Helps to know where you’re going and gives you places to dream of visiting or living in or working in. Reminds you the world is a large, complicated place.

Plus: a Teflon soul, the utter determination to get it right, compassion, a sturdy and unshakable sense of humor, a good set of fall-back skills (carpentry, languages, a teaching certificate, anything!), some money in the bank, the ability to discern a story from corporate BS. Here’s my list of “what it takes”.

What would you give? What, writers, have you gotten that you loved?

I loved this list of 10 gifts for the budding novelist by Margaret Atwood.