Show Up

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.)

Show Up
(my advice to young people entering the job market)

Dress Appropriately
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.

Show Up

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.

Work Hard
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.

Be Nice

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.

Be Willing
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.

Take Notes
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.

Be Able
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.

Bake Often
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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22 thoughts on “Show Up

  1. Gail Anderson Post author

    What I’ve written above is a light-hearted take on first job advice. It is not the content of my commencement address at PCAD, but rather an offshoot of it, though it does cover some of what I talked about. It is meant to be a fun reminder about what can often seem obvious; stuff like showing up.

    That said, the points I made are completely valid for designers or accountants. Being creative does not let us off the hook for acting like adults if we’ve made the choice to accept a job at an office with other people. Asking creative people to arrive at work on time is not treating them like robots; it’s treating them like responsible adults who will be depended on by co-workers, clients, and vendors. It doesn’t diminish their gifts; it allows them to defy the stereotypes that are sometimes applied to us “kooky” creative folks.

    And who doesn’t love some home made cookies, though SMS’s peanut-free advice is smarter than anything I’ve said!

  2. Greg S

    While I understand the advice that Gail offered and I think all of us have stories about inappropriate, stupid and immature speech or actions on the part of recent graduates. I think that giving this message to the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design was not in their best interests, maybe to a graduating class at a business school not at an art college.  Do we really want to tell art students, to be successful you will need to change to fit into a mold? If we want to promote creativity and innovation we need to change the way we manage creativity and particularly creative people.  
    As a society, one of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking that creative people should be managed the same way we manage receptionists, file clerks or accountants. (As long as you don’t want any creativity from your receptionists, file clerks or accountants. Which isn’t a good idea.) If your job is to get the most creativity out of your employees then treating them like robots (show up on time, dress for work, don’t surf the net at work, keep your personal life and work life separate) will do nothing more than kill their creativity or make them hate their job and want to leave. Giving creative people freedom and autonomy may infuriate some that have gone to business school but research in creativity will bear this out.
    I highly recommend reading the book Managing Creative People by Gordon Torr. Mr. Torr cites research, from leading creativity researchers, on how we as a society have embraced practices and policies that kill creativity. I realize that Gail was trying to offer advice to young people to be more successful. We need to stop trying to change creative people to be like everyone else. We would be better off training managers to understand and support creative employees.

  3. SMS

    Great advice! Though I’ve heard many arguments against baking for the office. Some go down the “strong women don’t bake” pathway, but more recently I’ve encounted lots of food allergies. The lid of the tupperware now reads “may contain nuts, gluten and ‘good eggs’.”

  4. chris

    Geez, I’m just not that excited about a list of cliches accompanied by some charming grade school work book illustrations. It’s not that the advice isn’t sound, it’s that it contributes nothing new. There’s nothing about keeping your creative spark going when faced with the inevitable tedium of entry level work. Nothing about trying to create a vision for a personally fulfilling future, instead just a set of rules for fitting into an existing culture. Nothing about ways to create and nurture tangents in your life that will inform new directions and new choices. This list could have been handed out in 1890: be on time, sit down, shut up, avoid distractions, listen to your betters.
    I’m sorry to be so negative, but its cute, not inspiring. And in this economy and with the changes these kids are facing, inspiration was what was called for

  5. Rita

    I would add “NEVER assume ‘spellcheck will catch any typos’ because…it won’t always.”  Sound advice delivered with humor AND terrific illustrations?  Great blog!

  6. K-Dubs

    I totally stand by everything Gail says here. I think people are fooled into thinking that there’s some complicated recipe for success, but in fact, when I’ve supervised people, and specifically interns, it’s really the common-sense stuff she lists here that makes the good ones stand out. I might add Be Proactive, or Take Initiative. Sometimes we were at a loss for what to give our interns, in part because we weren’t sure what they could take on. But most of the time when they proposed a project we were glad to let them run with it. 
    Also: these illustrations are fantastic. Not that I’d expect anything less from Joe Newton – his stuff always lights up a story.

  7. Judy

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    It’s nice for an old fogey like me to see that advice like this is considered timeless.  [Though I wouldn’t have thought to mention tongue piercings I am glad to be brought up-to-date.]

  8. Jon Parker

    Great advice. “Be able” really struck a chord. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”, even if you just got a job in a fancy big-city studio with lots of fancy people. “I don’t know” opens the door to learning and opportunity,  faking it just causes you undue stress!

  9. Robert Newman

    Wonderful advice (and drawings, too). Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs started out as an intern at a record label. He was such a good intern, that they couldn’t get rid of him when his term ended. He vowed to be the best intern that they had ever had, and a few years later he was running the company.

  10. Dorie

    great things to keep in mind for any age and stage in life! you never know when you might be back climbing that ladder again. and i laughed all the way through as well. will be sure to share this with lots of folks! 

  11. Joe Newton

    I had a high school design student come to my office once and ask what it would take to get an internship. I said “A simple resume and portfolio would be a good start.”
    “Oh, that sounds like a lot of work” he replied.