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Whether you're starting out on your first job or you've been at it for twenty years, On the Job is the only book about working you'll ever need.
1-- Be Here Now:
Focus on the Job
What is the difference between a career and a job, anyway? A career is the sum of all the jobs you've ever had. A career is described in retrospect. But "work" is what you live every day. Work is what this book is about. It's a supremely important lesson that everyone needs to learn -- or to be reminded about from time to time: Your career is whatever job you hold today. And, further, the way you deal with your current job is what matters most.
Each step of the way, at every job, you're continually creating your identity, forming habits, and cultivating your values and beliefs. That's why slacking off is so dangerous; not only can it badly damage your reputation, but also, more important, it has a negative impact on your self-esteem. Committing to doing your best and extracting the most value from where you work now is the antidote to boredom and burnout.
Although this advice may sound like common sense, oddly enough, there are very few resources available that show how to stay focused on work, at work. Plenty of books offer advice on how to forge a career, assemble a portfolio of skills and connections, and integrate work with outside life -- all of which is fine. But these guides usually omit the biggest subject: Most of our work life is spent working.
Your Worst job is a special case. Any new worker has basics to learn about work life and organizational mores, and it doesn't matter all that much where you acquire them. (This book can shorten the curve by over 50 percent if you pay close attention!)
And don't worry: Your career is whatever job you hold today does not mean that you'redoomed to remain an executive assistant, that you'll be stuck at a copy shop instead of making it big as a DJ, or that you'll be spending the rest of your life writing ads for kitchen cleansers. What it does mean is that your career is the totality of all your jobs, and each one of them counts. Not equally, to be sure, but you might be surprised by unexpected outcomes of a seemingly lackluster job.
From Niches to Riches
So often, young people become impatient and feel that the job they are doing today is too demeaning to lead to a career. This attitude leads to what I call AADD, or adult attention deficit disorder, the inability to focus on the job at hand. My own work history is a perfect illustration of what can happen if you overcome AADD -- a seemingly menial job turning out to be the seed of a fabulous career. Let me explain.
My family just happened to live in a house that was located next to a furniture store called The Modern Furniture Barn. I was sixteen when the seventy-two-year-old owner and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Euster who ran the store day and night, hired me. Our clients were mostly doctors, lawyers, dentists, and other upscale types from throughout the New York metropolitan area and Fairfield County, Connecticut, who were all hungry for the latest craze of bubble lamps and Eames chairs. I was a file clerk, filing the various furniture catalogs and price lists away during hectic weekends when couples came in to purchase their furniture. I earned $10 an hour, far above the 1979 minimum wage of around $2.75. It was not a typical job for a teenager, but I took it very seriously, distributing catalogs around the store, polishing the various glass tables with Windex, and occasionally going across the street to the local 7 Eleven to pick up Entenmann's and coffee for the staff.
Maybe because my mom had been in retail, I was drawn to selling. So although I wasn't hired to sell, I was always eager to ask or answer a customer's question. Despite the fact that the other salespeople resented my enthusiasm, I found learning about the business both fun and fascinating. I was amazed, for example, at the price of furniture. Could an Eames lounge chair and ottoman for the living room really cost $2,000?
After a year with the company, I received my first promotion: to salesperson for a new discount center in the basement of the store where they sold all the damaged or returned furniture. But I wasn't stuck in the basement for long. Every time someone bought an item from the discount area, they inevitably also wanted to buy a new, good piece of furniture upstairs, so I got to work throughout the store. My wages were raised to about $14 per hour, and within another year, I was selling $5,000 worth of furniture every weekend.
Of course, I hadn't yet absorbed the lessons of this book -- I was a normal teenager after all! -- and so I was a bit embarrassed by this job. The fact that the store was removed from the town and that local people did not often stop in was a big relief. It meant I didn't have to see my peers every weekend while working.
Meanwhile, I began to develop an affinity for furniture and design and continued to work weekends at the store as I went through college. Just as I was graduating, the company owner asked if I would help him create an office furniture division. It seemed like an exciting offer, the chance to open up almost my own business with someone else's money and have autonomy. Most significant of all at the time was to gain an important-sounding title. My friends were all going to work for IBM, Con Edison, General Electric, and AT&T, and I was going to remain behind at the furniture store -- at least now, I could say I was a manager.
Two years out of college a recruiter with whom I had been working, trying to hire employees for the furniture store, suggested that I start to go on interviews with Fortune 500 companies in Manhattan. I jumped at the chance and went on my first interview in New York City on Madison Avenue between Sixtieth and Sixty-first streets, the glamour capital of New York City's corporate world. I was more in awe of the real estate than the job, which was not managerial, less money, and in some ways a step backward. My parents were devastated and frightened for me -- they both had held the same job forever and were shocked that I would consider such a radical move. But the whole idea of being a salesperson with a car and expense account and a glamorous office overlooking Madison Avenue seemed captivating. Between the headhunter's strong-arming and my own intuition, I accepted the position and never looked back.
I thrived in that corporate culture. My exposure to the Fortune 500 environment gave me the tools necessary to open my own head-hunting business in a big-league, big-corporation way.
Joanne is currently chief resident in neurology at a West Coast teaching hospital. Ten years ago she was working her way through college by delivering pizza. Unlikely as it sounds, that job as a cheese whizzer (as her friends termed it) provided her with a lot: spending money to sustain her hard-studying existence, as well as several friends she otherwise wouldn't have made, one of whom introduced her to a favorite sport -- snowboarding -- and another to her fiance. Joanne treated her pizza gig with respect, and as a result she reaped rewards she otherwise would have missed.
Here's the lesson: This one, narrow niche area -- furniture -- that I stumbled into while in high school led to a much broader, successful career, including a multimillion-dollar head-hunting business that allowed me to do what I loved to do as a radio and television broadcaster specializing in the workplace. Was it glamorous? No. Was it sometimes embarrassing? Yes. But was it profitable? Was it a real business where I could make real money? Yes, yes, yes!
The Pride Ride
Joanne did not think that as a pre-med she was above that kind of work -- delivering pizza -- because she's not wired to look at things that way. But pride is a very common trap at the workplace, where some employees believe that certain types of tasks are beneath their dignity. Well, that is total nonsense, and you'll be doing yourself a great favor by giving the boot to any such thoughts or feelings if they ever come knocking. By avoiding the Pride Ride, you gain in a number of ways:
* You seem like a secure person. Only people who question their own dignity worry about losing it.
* You show you're a team player.
* You're aware. When someone ignores one thing -- such as the need to pack up all the crates for the upcoming trade show -- that person ends up tuning out a lot more -- such as the reps at other trade show booths who have market insight to share.
* You're open to opportunity. You don't turn down assignments that might appear beneath you. This doesn't mean that you allow a pattern in which people are consistently handing you mindless work. But don't be too quick to jump to that conclusion. And if you think such a situation is developing, you don't have to refuse to do the task; maybe mention that you hope your temporarily helping out is making a difference.
Way to go!
Peter was appalled that his buddy Dave was willing to proofread a quarterly report at the accounting firm where they were both trainees. He told Dave it would set a precedent that would encourage other CPAs to dump their grunt work on him. But Dave didn't mind. He actually enjoyed proofreading, plus he knew Peter was prone to overemphasize what the others will think. As he was proofreading, Dave noticed an arithmetical error that would have been deeply embarrassing for the company had it been printed. The upshot: Dave vaulted into notice for being a will-do kind of guy, detail-oriented, and the young hero who saved the firm some face.
We all need our share of ego to survive and to thrive. But when we let that part of our personality run the show, it's always bad news for our work lives. A too-insistent ego is always reminding us that wherever we go, its needs come first. I'll go into more detail later in the book, but the following story illustrates the pitfalls of the overactive ego -- and one manager's creative, tactical solution.
There is no such thing as a worthless job, and the idea that you will eventually rise to the occasion down the road, when it counts, implies that there are some occasions not worth rising to -- and that's bunk. (Plus, you might not even recognize such a big occasion unless you've prepared for it by treating the small and medium occasions with respect.) Every job offers unexpected possibilities, opportunities to learn and to enjoy your time, but it's improbable that you'll see these unless you're focused on being where you are. It all comes down to paying attention.
Todd ran the Fast Friends delicatessen in Chicago. It was situated close to two acting schools, so a majority of the staff were aspiring actors. After a few years, Todd hit upon a plan to indoctrinate new employees in the realities of restaurant work. In something akin to a college fraternity rush period, Todd gave the newly hired waiters a special T-shirt to wear for their first two weeks on the floor. On the shirts was printed backward: I Am NOT an Actor. I AM a Waiter. Whenever the fledgling waiter behaved unprofessionally -- as virtually everyone did at times during their first shifts, usually by copping an attitude with a client or a kitchen worker or by starting to yak away with a customer -- Todd would gently but firmly lead the offender to a big mirror on the kitchen wall. He'd explain, This T-shirt is telling you more than you may realize. The main thing is that this is where you work and that it's not about you, it's about the work. The shirt is also explaining everything you need to know to make really good tips.
The art and science of workplace dynamics are remarkably similar across the spectrum of job sites. Every job offers a chance to hone your interpersonal perceptions and techniques and to reinforce your better habits while striving to eliminate your weaker ones.
An Equal Opportunity Mantra
Despite its association with Eastern philosophy, there's really nothing alternative or hippie-ish about the phrase be here now. It's one of the best and wisest pieces of advice going. After all, here is the only place you can be at this moment. The only way to appreciate an experience, make the most of it, and learn from it is by being present and accounted for (to yourself).
The best thing about being here now is that it frees you. You're liberated from having to worry about all the coulda-woulda-shouldas of your career up till now, or about what might happen later. You can turn your workday into an experiment, a game, or an adventure. Nothing is preordained. By accepting that your current job is your starting point, you essentially assume responsibility for where you are now and how you handle your day. There's no more need to blame misfortune or bad grades. You now permit yourself to make your work situation as worthwhile as possible.
Freedom is one thing, but without a few ground rules you might end up with nothing left to lose, as the old song goes. Here are some specific freedoms, responsibilities, and suggested coping skills that are part of the package when you really inhabit your current job:
You're free to realize that you can also choose not to be there. You're not trapped and you're not there for someone else's sake. Employees who are unhappy in their jobs nearly always find that once they start actively looking for another position, the day-to-day work becomes infinitely more bearable, all because they know it's finite. (Sometimes an employee even discovers that it's not such a bad fit for him after all, now that he's adjusted his attitude.) Well, you're free to think of it as finite from the get-go, without having to start looking elsewhere.
You're free to keep your sense of humor close at hand -- where it belongs! Every workplace is imbued with some absurdity and wackiness. You might as well enjoy it. Sometimes even negative developments can be funny if you don't take them too seriously. When a coworker is trying to jump your place in line for a promotion, it's galling; but once you've neutralized the threat, it's easy to see how petty a spectacle it is -- like a Chihuahua chasing after and barking at a vacuum cleaner. As long as you don't go overboard and portray yourself as a goofball, people love having you around, and it makes your own life easier and more fun.
You're free to be smart, do a great job, and feel good about your work. Once you no longer resent being where you are, or strain at the bit to be elsewhere, you owe it to yourself to learn the game as well as possible, and practice it until it becomes second nature. Okay, perhaps you're not yet following your bliss; or maybe you were and your bliss shook you in a crowded train station. Still, successfully grappling with challenges, growing more accomplished, and getting strokes from other professionals are rewarding in themselves.
You're free to make lasting professional connections. Since this job counts, so do the people you meet -- and so do you, to them.
You're free not to bolt prematurely. This is an especially interesting angle. Once you feel some buy-in to your current job, you're likely to weigh company and career jumps more carefully -- and wisely. Maybe you would have gotten swept away by the dot.com lure like so many professionals have in the past several years -- and many of them go crawling back to the companies they'd hastily abandoned. Or perhaps you'd have realized that such easy money was going to prove a mirage before long, and that jumping from a computer chip company to work for a pet food Web site wasn't such a hot idea anyhow.
You're free to learn and acquire skills. The more knowledge and ability you acquire, the higher you'll rise at your current company, and the more marketable you'll become.
You're free to live well. The whole idea, after all, is to enjoy this existence. If you can think of your work in a positive light, as something that you've actively chosen and that you gain from in a multitude of ways, it becomes a lot easier to leave it behind at the end of the workday. And it sends the strong but subtle message that you're entitled to be comfortable in your professional persona, which means you have the same rights in your private life too. So you can go to the gym, learn to cook, take yoga classes, check out flicks and live music, see your friends often, and salt away some funds so you can take exciting vacations, like white-water rafting or a four-day jazz festival. Finally, you're free to give yourself as much sleep as you need!
In addition to accepting responsibility and embracing freedom, a "be here now" attitude breaks down into the following four ways of approaching your job, which I encourage you to try.
As the entire recruiting business is centered around who you know -- names, contacts -- I am a huge believer in networking. It's one of the few Worlds where you can actually cash in through friends and people you know. The person recruiting doesn't pay anything -- the party hiring does. Those you meet at an interim job, however, are just as likely to be valuable contacts and collaborators as those you get to know at longer-term positions.
This point was really brought home to me when I had to find a celebrity to interview for my first major, nationally syndicated show. I racked my brain to come up with someone I knew who would fit the famous and controversial requirement. Eventually, I remembered when I was the head of student activities at Manhattan College that, for one program, I had hired Dr. Shere Hite, the author of The Hite Report on Female Sexuality.
So I wrote a very humble letter reminding Dr. Hite that not only had she spoken at the college but that I had picked her up in my friend's broken down Dasher on Central Park West. We had gotten a flat tire and the incensed author had stayed outside the car cursing at me for not sending a limo (which we students could not afford). I even sent her a picture I had kept of myself introducing Shere Hite back in 1979. To my amazement I got a call within a week from her publicist who said that she vaguely remembered me and would be delighted to speak with me. If I met with her approval she'd give me an exclusive radio interview. I spoke with her by telephone, and chatted about meeting her twenty years before. By coincidence, one of her favorite skirts ever was the skirt she wore in the picture I'd sent. She seemed to think I would be a gentle interviewer, and agreed to show up at ABC Studios as my very first guest.
Dr. Shere Hite was certainly the first famous-person interviewee of my career. The interview lasted almost an hour and a half. It put my show on the map very quickly, all because I remembered to network and pull that name from way back in college. I'm not 100 percent convinced she really remembered me, but it hardly matters now. Shere Hite has since become a mentor in guiding me through this book and the publishing process. The contact continues!
Posted May 14, 2003
Unlike most books on how to act on the job, this one is not full of recycled ideas, but has concrete suggestions on every page, on how to dress, act, what to say, what not to say, and why, on the job. It is excellent. I wish I would have read it earlier.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 24, 2001
I'd recommend that everyone with a graduation to go to run and buy this book. Great read, captivating side bars. Everyone who's ever worked can relate, and anyone soon facing the job market can learn how to make it happen for them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.