I delivered what was probably the best talk of my career this past May in Lancaster, PA—and that’s big coming from someone who is neurotically self-critical. I was invited to do the commencement address at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, a small school in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country area, and accepted without really thinking through the enormity of the task.
I knew that I had to keep my remarks brief and would need visual aids—after all, I was talking to a bunch of excited graduates who were ready to party (just a guess). I stood at the auditorium door and watched excited students file in wearing caps and gowns, their proud families snapping pictures, and wondered if what I was planning to say would be of any real use to them. I had been asked to provide words of wisdom, and instead came armed with glib comments about not texting at work.
Much to my surprise, the address was good. Actually, it was kind of a great morning. Perhaps the group assumed I’d pull out some dusty clichés and they were just relieved that I had a lively Keynote presentation.
My sister and young nephew accompanied me to Lancaster, and were seated in the very first row. My deepest concern was not to flop in front of them. Surprisingly, because I was speaking to parents who were of my generation, my slightly tongue-in-cheek pontifications seemed to hit home. I received more compliments about that speech than for anything else I’ve ever done in my whole life—and I had two witnesses from my own bloodline.
When I returned to NYC, I was heady from my Lancaster experience, and figured I had an article in me—no, a book! After all, I’d lived for almost a half-century and had seen plenty. It was time to pay it forward!
When I came to my senses later on, I jotted down a few notes in the slight event that someone ever asked me first job advice again. Perhaps it’s not book-worthy, but I still stand by my suggestions. (Please note that I am speaking in the royal we — as I said, I was feeling uncharacteristically heady at the time.)
(my advice to young people entering the job market)
You’re probably in the best shape of your lives, but the rest of us may not be anymore. Don’t rub it in our faces by revealing too much flesh. Your rumpled school clothes will make you look the part of the intern, so step it up a notch, even if that just means more frequent laundering. If you’re now making a little money and live in the big city, dropping off your clothes at the Laundromat means they’ll return to you folded and in order; socks knotted together, underwear neatly stacked. This is a luxury that’s worth the investment, since you will seldom have to iron. And laundering shirts brings free hangars, though they’ll be those cheap wire ones. If you live in a house with a washer/dryer, then really, we have little sympathy. A washer/dryer is the dream of every city dweller.
Get to work on time. Take an earlier train, walk faster, or tank up the night before. We love arriving at the office and seeing you already there, working feverishly, or at least not texting.
You’re thinking, ‘DUH!’ but we’ve seen it all—junior people who clock out the minute the day is officially over while their bosses toil away, and young types who blow through work they feel is beneath them. That makes us angry, but really, that makes us sad, too. We want to see you succeed and will gladly give you more responsibility if you’re a hard worker. And this means the occasional task that may seem menial to you, but is important to us. Do a good job on everything you’re asked to do.
Free Your Speech
Rethink your piercings. That silver ball on your tongue is noticeable, disrupts your speech, and makes us think about your sex life way more than we should. And it click-clacks against your teeth, which means crowns are in your future. Make sure you have a good dental plan.
Cell Phones Off
Unless you’re expecting medical results or a call from the plumber, limit your cell time to breaks, and those fleeting moments spent away from your desk. That goes for texting, too. Your friends are supposed to be busy at work, just like YOU, so don’t risk getting them in trouble with your pithy comments.
This should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway. Use the good manners your parents taught you, and say please and thank you. You’ll make mom and dad proud. As we get older, we appreciate small courtesies more. Sadly, we’re a little jaded now, and have grown accustomed to a certain amount of entitlement from you whippersnappers, as well as occasional surliness from clients and coworkers. But we just melt when we come across a good egg like you.
Smile. Look happy to be at your desk, even if you’re sometimes faking it a wee bit. Or at least don’t look like it’s really inconvenient for you to be working today. We wish we were at the beach, too, if that helps.
The Internet is for Porn*
We like checking out sales at Crate and Barrel, too, and it’s just too tempting to click from site to site once you’re online. Resist the temptation. It makes you look like you don’t have anything to do—and if you don’t, then it’s time to ask us if we need help. We do.
Coworkers will ask you do to things that require multiple steps. Why make it harder on yourself trying to remember the details? There are lots of cool notebooks, as well as a few strays in the office supply closet. Keep one handy at all times. One day, you’ll get old like us, and information won’t all stick like it used to. Believe us, that day will come sooner than you think.
Don’t fudge doing something that is clearly over your head. Don’t sell yourself as having skills that you honestly don’t. It’s okay to ask for a little help, though we do expect that you’ll catch on quickly. Ask questions. You won’t look silly; you’ll actually look smarter for having asked. We know that this is all new to you, and we don’t expect you to be an expert. Yet.
We love to eat, and have grown tired of the snacks in the neighborhood and around the office. We will like you even more if you bring in containers of homemade treats, though we will also accept store-bought.
Beware of Office Romance
Yes, some of our coworkers have ended up getting married, but most have ended up the subject of delicious (and sometimes malicious) office gossip. Realize that if you break up, you’re probably still going to end up seeing each other every single day, and will have to make uncomfortable small talk in the hallway while we’re all secretly watching.
Think Before Posting
Liquored-up night out with friends? Skimpy thong vacation shots? Skip those posts, or at least limit them to your intimate circle. While your coworkers are often your friends, the interwebs are not. Stuff gets around, and you can’t take it back.
Be Prepared—for the Worst
At some point, you will lose a job, a project, or a client. Don’t lick your wounds for too long; it’s happened to the best of us, and is often not a reflection of your hard work (unless you were texting too much, or surfing for porn). Companies change focus, departments are downsized, or sometimes it’s just not the right fit for you. Update your resume, leave on a good note, and move on. Most industries are smaller than you think, and you may end up working with some of the same colleagues at your next job. Make sure they remember you as the nice person you are.
You’ll Be Fine
We believe in you, or we wouldn’t have hired you. Try to acclimate yourself to your new environment, and be willing to learn. Forgive us if we’re short-tempered with you; sometimes there’s stuff going on behind the scenes that you’re not privy to, or our own responsibilities are weighing us down. Show up, look enthusiastic, and we’ll welcome you into the fold.
Illustrations by Joe Newton
* I didn’t make up The Internet is for Porn, unfortunately. It’s the title of a song from Avenue Q. And a good one.
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