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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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